But Clemson also has a good quarterback and dangerous skill players, too, plus the best defense in the country on top of that. The Tigers had rolled through much of the regular season before blowing out Notre Dame in a CFP semifinal. And, again, they were the only team that had beaten Alabama when it mattered most.
Clemson did it again. In one night, the Tigers flipped the script that had been written all season for ‘Bama.
“There was a lot of talk about ‘best ever’ all year long,” Swinney said. “We were never in that conversation. But tonight, there's no doubt.”
That’s saying a lot, but he’s got a case. The Tigers are the first undefeated champion in the College Football Playoffs era, which means they are college football’s first 15-0 team.
It’s true that Clemson goes through the ACC rather than the SEC to make it to the CFP. After this, maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. Maybe it’s lucky for the Tide that they don’t need to go through Clemson to get here.
That would have sounded ludicrous before December, when the Tide seemed indestructible. It still would have seemed implausible after Georgia tested Alabama in Atlanta because, after all, Tagovailoa got hurt. Alabama was favored by 5½ points in this game so Clemson as the standard for Alabama still seemed unlikely.
And then the game happened. Alabama couldn’t stop Lawrence, who was magnificent after a shaky start. He passed for 347 yards with three touchdowns and no picks.
The Tide never sacked Lawrence. He picked them apart on third downs. When Lawrence wasn’t precise his receivers, especially Justyn Ross, plucked passes from all angles.
There was always a chance the Tide’s defense would crack in this game. Clemson can score with the best of them and surrendering big plays had been a weakness for Alabama, relatively speaking.
Tagovailoa was to be the equalizer. Clemson’s first score came on an interception return but then Tagovailoa started throwing his usual darts. The Tide trailed just 14-13 after a quarter despite the pick six, with two touchdown passes by Tagovailoa.
But that’s pretty much all Clemson’s defense gave him. Tagovailoa’s ankle wasn’t the problem this time. It also wasn’t about Clemson’s celebrated defensive line overwhelming Alabama’s offensive front. Instead, Clemson’s secondary made Tagovailoa look ordinary by being where he didn’t expect them to be.
Saban looked rattled, too. The first sign was when Alabama went for it on fourth down in its end early in the second quarter. The Tide converted, but that drive ended with another Tagovailoa interception. Clemson responded with another touchdown.
Saban blinked again on Alabama’s first drive after halftime. He tried a fake field goal from Clemson’s 22-yard line with the Tide down two touchdowns. It didn’t work.
Can’t fault Saban for trusting neither his shaky kicker nor his defense, but why not leave his offense out there to get the six yards needed for a first down? Saban said the Tide had something on the fake but someone missed a block.
“Poor decision on my part,” Saban said.
Three plays after the Tide’s failed fake, Lawrence delivered a 74-yard strike to Ross that set up another TD. The Tigers were up 37-16. They led 44-16 after another Lawrence TD pass, which came after Clemson’s defense stopped ‘Bama in the red zone (the Tigers did it again on the Tide’s next drive).
The Tide were demoralized. Tagovailoa had hardly played in fourth quarters this season because ‘Bama usually had the game won. Now he was on the sideline late because the Tide couldn’t win. This time Jalen Hurts came in for mop-up duty, not to save the day like he did against Georgia.
The night belonged to Clemson. The Tigers are 2-2 against Alabama in the CFP. Both victories were for the championship. Saban has lost twice in eight national championship games. Both defeats were to Clemson.
The Tide beat Clemson in the 2017 CFP semifinals, but the Tigers had a different quarterback then. Lawrence is different kind of quarterback than Deshaun Watson, the last Clemson quarterback to knock off Alabama, but he could end up being even better.
“Trevor Lawrence is a special talent,” Saban said. “I saw him when he was a sophomore, and he was a special player as a sophomore in high school.”
Ohio State beat Alabama in the 2014 CFP semifinal. Urban Meyer is off to retirement. Georgia has lost two close games to Alabama with coach Kirby Smart but 0-2 is 0-2.
That leaves Swinney and Clemson as the biggest threats to Alabama. Saban has five championships at Alabama. It’s likely he’ll have to tangle with the Tigers to add more.
The Buckeyes put 42 points on the Tide in that 2014 playoff game. Clemson did them two points better. Only Oklahoma has ever scored more against a Saban Alabama team, but that was after the Tide had lost to Auburn in the SEC championship game.
Clemson did to Alabama what no opponent has ever done to Alabama in a game that means this much.
“An amazing moment,” Swinney said. “So thankful, and can't wait to get back started Friday and see if we can find a way to go do it again.”