For the past four seasons, two teams have stood virtually head and shoulders above the rest of the college football, jockeying for position both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
While the other 128 FBS teams attempt to play catch-up, Alabama and Clemson have not and should not apologize for their dominance, each winning 55 games and losing only seven times combined in that time period coming entering Monday night’s College Football Playoff national championship game. Instead, they have embraced the elite status that comes with sustained success, especially this year when both teams pummeled opponents with an average margin of victory of over 30 points each.
The fourth go-round of these powerhouses in a playoff setting brought up the topic of matchup fatigue. That point is moot now that Clemson delivered a championship beatdown no one could have expected.
The Tigers took home the school’s third national title with a 44–16 thrashing of the top-ranked and defending national champion Tide at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. The No. 1 seed has yet to win any of the previous four CFP national championships.
The fireworks started early and never stopped. On the game’s third play, Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell jumped in front of an out route, picking off Tua Tagovailoa and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown just 1:40 in. It took Alabama just a minute and 15 seconds to answer with the equalizer, scoring on a Tagovailoa 62-yard touchdown pass to All-America wideout Jerry Jeudy.
Clemson took just four plays to respond when Travis Etienne muscled his way to a 17-yard score, one play after the Tigers hit their own 62-yard bomb from Trevor Lawrence to Tee Higgins.
One of the main storylines centered on how Clemson’s true freshman quarterback would fare against Alabama’s aggressive but sometimes vulnerable defense.
The Tide’s problems on that side of the ball started in their semifinal Orange Bowl matchup against Oklahoma, in which the Sooners scored on six of their final seven possessions.
Lawrence, who became the first freshman starting quarterback to lead a team to a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985, finally found his groove in the pivotal second quarter, finding holes in the Tide’s zone defense. The true freshman finished 20 of 32 for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
After Tagovailoa was intercepted for a second time, this time on an overthrow, Clemson promptly marched 47 yards down the field for another score, capped off by a five-yard Lawrence shovel pass to Etienne that extended the Tigers’ lead to 28–16.
Tagovailoa finished with 295 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, before being replaced in the fourth quarter’s garbage time by Jalen Hurts.
Clemson’s 31 first-half points tied for the most ever given up by a Nick Saban defense at Alabama, and the 28-point margin of victory doubled the Crimson Tide’s worst loss in their first 11 years under Saban. The defense simply could not get stops when it needed, letting Clemson convert 10 of 15 third down attempts.
Clemson entered the game ranked No. 2 nationally in total defense, leading the nation in sacks and second in tackles for loss and allowing 2.4 yards a carry. Alabama attempted to attack that strength and had success early, but facing a fourth-and-six at the Clemson 22, Alabama trotted out its field goal unit. The Tigers were ready for the ensuing fake, stuffing a run up the middle by holder and third–string quarterback Mac Jones.
But the spotlight was clearly on Lawrence, who replaced senior Kelly Bryant in September, then guided the Tigers to another ACC title with highlight-reel throws and steady play the few times he was put under pressure.
Lawrence went right back to work after halftime finding Justyn Ross on a 74-yard touchdown catch and run after Saivion Smith fell down at the line of scrimmage trying to impede the route.
Ross wasn’t finished: He made two spectacular one-handed catches the next time Clemson had the ball. The drive ended with a five-yard touchdown catch by Higgins, the Tigers’ fifth straight possession with a score, effectively ending the competitive phase of the game while sending thousands of Crimson Tide fans heading for the exits.
The bad news for the rest of college football is that Alabama and Clemson aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Both will return their starting quarterbacks and the majority of their skill position players. What they do lose, especially on the defensive side of the ball will be another master class in restocking the roster and gearing up for another playoff run. FYI: the 2020 national game will be held in New Orleans, with the semifinals taking place at the Fiesta Bowl and Peach Bowl.