The Clemson Tigers are the kings of college football for the 2018 season.
Clemson put the finishing touch on its perfect 15-0 season Monday with a 44-16 victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship in Santa Clara, Calif. It was the second national title in the last three years for the Tigers, who defeated Alabama 35-31 in the championship game following the 2016 season.
Travis Etienne had rushed for two touchdowns and had a TD catch in the first half as Clemson opened a 31-16 halftime lead. Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the 2017 Georgia high school player of the year from Cartersville High School, passed for 347 yards and three touchdowns, including two in the third quarter as the Tigers opened a 44-16 lead entering the final 15 minutes.
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The victory gave Clemson’s Dabo Swinney his second national title. Clemson is the first team in the AP poll era, dating back to 1936, to finish 15-0.
“We’re gonna enjoy this one. We’ve got a nice spot to put it in our facility, right next to that other one,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve got twins!”
Alabama coach Nick Saban and the Tide (14-1) were looking for a sixth national championship in 10 years, trying to add to an already unprecedented run in the sport. Instead, Clemson crushed Alabama, becoming the first opponent to beat the Tide by more than 14 points since Saban became coach in 2007.
Swinney’s Tigers sealed their status as a superpower, no longer just 1A to Alabama’s 1.
“We’re 15-0, we beat the best team ever, nobody’s taking that away from us,” Clemson All-America defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said.
Two seasons ago it was Deshaun Watson dethroning the Tide with a last-second touchdown pass. Clemson’s new star quarterback didn’t need the late-game heroics. The long-haired Lawrence cut though Alabama’s defense with the help of another fabulous freshman. Justyn Ross made a juggling grab, a one-handed snare and broke a 74-yard touchdown about midway through the third quarter that made it 37-16 and had Swinney high-stepping down the sidelines.
Ross, who scored two touchdowns in the semifinal rout of Notre Dame, had six catches for 153 yards against his home-state team.
Swinney takes a different approach than Saban, running a more fun-loving program than Alabama’s all-business organization. But the results have been every bit as good. And on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium, in a championship game played more than 2,000 miles away from Clemson’s South Carolina campus, the Tigers were way too much for an Alabama team that had spent the season mauling its opposition by an average of 31 points per game.
Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa threw two crucial interceptions in the first half, the first returned 44 yards for a touchdown by A.J. Terrell — a sophomore who attended Atlanta’s Westlake High School — to put Clemson up 7-0. The Tide came in scoring 48 points per game, but were shut out over the final 44 minutes by an opportunistic Clemson defense that stiffened in key spots.
Tagovailoa, the sophomore who came off the bench to win the championship game last year for the Tide, went 22 for 34 for 295 yards and two touchdowns.
“Good is not good enough,” Tagovailoa said.
The Heisman runner-up was also the second-best quarterback on the field in the championship game. Lawrence finished 20 for 32, but went 18 for 25 for 277 yards over the final three quarters.
The teenager who took over as the starter four games into the season raised the Tigers’ play, giving them an explosive offense to match a suffocating defense that was led by a star-studded line with All-Americans Clelin Ferrell and Wilkins.
“It’s been an awesome journey,” Lawrence said. “It’s really unbelievable.”
Alabama and Clemson have played in the college football playoff championship game three times in the last four years. Here are the results:
2019 - Clemson 44, Alabama 16
2017 - Clemson 35, Alabama 31
2016 - Alabama 45, Clemson 40
- The Associated Press contributed to this report.