Apparently, the Crimson Tide cared not one little bit for splitting the last two championship games with Clemson. Where those games were decided by five and four points, this one was a relatively mundane, hammer-meets-nail kind of 24-6 victory for the establishment in the Sugar Bowl.
“I think what we wanted to do was re-establish our identity,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Alabama had not won a game in 43 days, but clearly, it had not forgotten how.
And no matter that it had been invited to the big four-team tournament despite not advancing to the SEC Championship Game and the fact that its record against Auburn this season is not nearly as good as, say, Central Florida’s. That’s OK. It gets a gig at Mercedes-Benz Stadium next Monday that is more important, against the Bulldogs, the last college team to win any kind of championship there.
In dispatching the Tigers, Alabama required none of the histrionics of that other game earlier in the day. No big comeback. No riding the unpredictable thermals of an ever-changing lead.
Simple dominance would do, a bit surprising even for a team of the Tide’s breeding, given that it was matched against the top-ranked school in the field.
“We came here to win,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, in the manner of the defending national champion. The Tigers leave the season with a 12-2 record. “I’m just incredibly disappointed in our performance. The credit goes to Alabama. They were the better team today, no question about it.”
What wasn’t surprising in the least was that the top two scoring defenses did not get involved in anything resembling a Big 12 shoot-out. Let Georgia and Oklahoma score a combined 102 points (90 in regulation). Alabama and Clemson were ardent anti-inflationists.
Where it may have been necessary to use Fitbit technology to track the yardage and scoring during Georgia-Oklahoma, an abacus would do for the Sugar Bowl.
For the only touchdown it really required, Alabama drove a modest 46 yards on eight plays at the end of the first quarter. It culminated unspectacularly enough as Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts scrambled right, lofted a pass that just about any sober undergrad could throw and hit the single Alabamian who should never be that uncovered, Calvin Ridley.
But the real story of Alabama positioning itself to play for a fifth title in nine seasons was, as it ever is, the Tide defense.
That, and the sub-plot revelation that Kelly Bryant is no Deshaun Watson, not yet. But then, who is?
As like most of Alabama’s best days, what it wrought Monday was a reflection of its defense. Two interceptions off Bryant, the junior who succeeded Watson following Clemson’s 2016 title, were decisive. They fell within a four-minute span in the third quarter, and drained the Tigers of all hope.
The first was a result of Alabama’s unrelenting pressure, linebacker Anfernee Jennings hitting Bryant as he released the ball. It floated into the grasp of 308-pound lineman Da’Ron Payne, who looked quite comfortable toting the thing because those are the kind of uncommon athletes Alabama tends to recruit. It was Payne, in fact, who scored moments later, after oh-so-coyly lining up in the backfield and somehow sneaking free for a 1-yard touchdown reception.
The second pick, off a deflected pass, was immediately redeemed for a touchdown when linebacker Mack Wilson returned it the needed 18 yards.
This was another mark of the Alabama defense: On the first play second half, Hurts fumbled a read-option hand-off, giving Clemson the ball at the Tide 20. Just the kind of event that could turn a game. But the Tigers lost a net five yards on the possession and kicked a field goal before they could lose any more. Their best chance to visit the endzone went unused.
And once ‘Bama got such a sizeable lead, its defense just gnawed on Bryant the rest of the night, running up five sacks.
So, what do you say we get together in a week for a little SEC-only shindig in the city where such meetings are as much a part of the civic calendar as a Fourth of July road race or a Christmas parade.
We’ll match the master Nick Saban against one of his leading acolytes, Kirby Smart.
And see what drama we can wring out of those circumstances.