SANTA CLARA, Calif. — All the alumni and the wackos and the thrill-seekers and the malcontents who watch and follow college football got themselves a sight so unfamiliar Monday night that they might have found it freakish. At Levi’s Stadium and on television, they saw a team wearing Alabama colors yet appearing leaky, then flummoxed, then ruffled, then disfigured.
None of this reflected so terribly upon the Crimson Tide, a 14-1 team excellent enough to be otherworldly on occasion through a golden fall and early winter. Instead, the 44-16 upset romp in the College Football Playoff national championship game flattered its winner, an unmistakable second giant that took Alabama and ransacked it unforeseeably.
Clemson, the program from northwest South Carolina that waited 35 years between very occasional national championships in 1981 and 2016, waited just two for its next and looked like it aims to make it habitual. By the time it opposed Alabama for the third time in the past four title games, and beat it for the second time in three, it had built itself into a harbor of gasp-wreaking football talent and airtight self-assurance.
“We’re just little old Clemson, and I’m not supposed to be here,” said Coach Dabo Swinney, architect of a stunning rise. “But here we are and I am. How ’bout them Tigers?”
When it became the first 15-0 team in college football since Penn in 1897, it did so by mangling the look of Nick Saban’s Alabama, which had lost 14 times in its previous 154 games across 11 seasons, but usually via last-minute drives or inconceivable plays or Ezekiel Elliott or Johnny Manziel.
Yet once thrown onto the rug with this newfangled dynasty in front of 74,814 spectators in good, 61-degree football weather, Alabama — Alabama — came to look as it had made so many others look: overrun.
It left Saban saying, “I just have a feeling that I didn’t do a very good job for our team,” and, “I don’t think that one game necessarily defines who you are, and that’s certainly what I’d like our players to know,” and, of Clemson, “And they’re pretty good.”
Against an Alabama defense ranked 13th nationally but first in championship experience, Clemson helped itself to a heap of big plays and a bounty of third-down conversions (10 for 15). Its populous receiving group alone, from Justyn Ross to Tee Higgins to Amari Rodgers to Hunter Renfrow to Trevion Thompson to Diondre Overton, kept making the whoa skill plays that mark the era, the Alabamian Ross making six catches for 153 yards. The receivers took their symphony of passes from Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback who roamed high school fields in Georgia only 15 months prior, as thoughts of the 6-foot-6 Lawrence’s two remaining college seasons chilled the spines of defensive coordinators everywhere.
“I feel like we had a good plan and we knew what we were doing,” said Lawrence, who went 20 for 32 for 347 yards and three touchdowns while never being intercepted or sacked.
Against an Alabama offense ranked No. 2 nationally and perhaps No. 1 in NFL futures, with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa the fantastic Heisman Trophy runner-up, Clemson’s top-ranked defense (in yards per play) did enough to matter, plucking two interceptions, wrecking a fake field goal and throwing in a goal-line stand early in the fourth quarter just to provide itself further amusement.
“Just five words: Good is not good enough,” Tagovailoa said of a 14-1 season.
The game had gone 100 seconds when it got its first unforeseen jolt. Tagovailoa, who brought west his touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 41 to 4, with a bum ankle against Georgia plausibly responsible for half those interceptions, threw quickly and almost laterally to his left on Alabama’s third play from scrimmage. By the time Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell had stepped in front of Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy and had streamed 44 yards to the end zone, Clemson had a lead and Saban had a grimace.
Alabama and its staggering offense got miffed enough about that that it scored three plays and 75 yards later, when Tagovailoa loosed a gorgeous thing 62 yards toward Jeudy. Clemson thought so little of that that it scored again four plays and 75 yards later, largely because Lawrence had thrown a third-down beauty to Higgins for a 62-yard gain that set up Travis Etienne’s 17-yard scoring sweep.
Only 4:25 of playing time had passed, and the game had three touchdowns already. Only four more minutes after that, it had four, when Tagovailoa took Alabama 75 yards downfield the slow way — 10 plays — and flipped a one-yard touchdown to a happily lonely tight end, Hale Hentges.
Alabama’s Joseph Bulovas plunked the extra point after that into the right upright, but the Tide looked fairly fine thereafter, going 45 yards to set up Bulovas’s 25-yard field goal for a 16-14 lead. Along the way, however, it sprang a leak in a game with a level of football intolerant of leaks. It committed the kind of sin that burned beneath its 45-34 win over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl national semifinal when it reached second and goal from the Clemson 1-yard line and committed a false start.
Next, it sprang more leaks, as if operating under unfamiliar pressure. Its ensuing kickoff drifted out of bounds uglily, with Clemson soon proving what a bad idea it tends to be to give it field position. Once Lawrence spotted a budding pass interference and hurried a ball there to coax the call, Clemson was on its way, a 26-yard screen pass to Tavien Feaster a highlight. Etienne covered the last five yards in two runs and stood up the whole time going in from the 1, returning Clemson to the lead.
Because it’s football in 2019, Alabama got moving again, but this time Tagovailoa, by then a sparkling 13 for 15, contributed a second rare gaffe. His deep throw up the left hash soared over the intended Jeudy and made for a fine over-the-shoulder catch by Trayvon Mullen, who plays for Clemson.
Once Mullen finished his 46-yard return, and Lawrence finished some highbrow throws including a 26-yard gem across the middle to Rodgers, Alabama had sunk into some 28-16 trouble. One more jolt, Mullen’s stinging blitz-sack of Tagovailoa, and one more Clemson move, 61 yards of fine plays toward a field goal, halftime had come, and it had brought a 31-16 score and a sight: Alabama, straining.
That oddball sight persisted when halftime ended. Alabama moved some, stalled ultimately and lined up for a 40-yard field goal, then desperately faked it, Clemson’s Nyles Pinckney stuffing the hopeless run of Alabama holder Mac Jones. Three plays after that, 76 yards from the end zone, Lawrence was backed up on third down with little promise. Yet when he threw, Ross already had freed himself from cornerback Saivion Smith, injured on the play, with safety Deionte Thompson not yet nearby. When Ross caught the ball at the 38 and headed for the middle of the field, he blew past Thompson, ran the last 62 yards for a 37-16 lead and sent the Clemson sideline into a frenzy.
Even giants sometimes exult.
Heeeeeere’s Jalen!: It may be that Tua Tagovailoa was injured on his ill-fated fourth-down run moments before, or perhaps Nick Saban just wanted to get his former starting quarterback into a game that was essentially decided, but Jalen Hurts was on the field at quarterback for Alabama’s latest drive.
Unfortunately for the Tide, Hurts was unable to get anything going right away. Alabama went three-and-out in its first series with the 20-year-old junior, who started the past two CFP title games and came on in relief of Tagovailoa in last month’s SEC championship, helping his squad stage a comeback against Georgia.
Defensive stand: For the third time in a row, Alabama failed to convert on a fourth-down play, and as with a fake field goal attempt in the third quarter, there will be plenty of second-guessing of Tua Tagovailoa’s sweep that lost seven yards. Just two yards away from the end zone, the Tide had Tagovailoa head laterally toward the short side of the field, where he was corralled on an ugly-looking play.
Clobberin' time for Clemson: Okay, so this is now a full-fledged blowout. Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence is carving up the mighty Alabama defense, with a lot of help from his wide receivers.
Lawrence — a true freshman, just as a reminder — hit Tee Higgins on a five-yard pass to make the score, following the extra point, 44-17. Another reminder that the other team is Alabama, coached by Nick Saban, who was looking for his sixth national title with the school since 2009 and seventh in his personal head-coaching career.
Before the touchdown, another Clemson freshman was putting on a show. Wide receiver Justyn Ross, who happens to be from Alabama, did his best impersonation of former Tigers star DeAndre Hopkins in snaring a pair of Lawrence passes. The quarterback is up to 347 yards passing, with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
More fourth-down failure: Another fourth-and-relatively-long play deep in Clemson territory, another disappointment for Alabama. Failing to spot an open receiver, Tua Tagovailoa tucked the ball and tried to weave through the defense, but he was stopped a yard short and the Tigers took over at their own 14.
Obviously, the Tide is in deep trouble, and Saban’s aggressive play-calling on fourth down has indicated that he was aware early on of the danger Clemson posed and the need to score as many touchdowns as possible.
Lead widens: Clemson didn’t leave its bag of huge plays in the locker room at halftime. Following a failed Alabama attempt at a fake field goal, the Tigers connected on their longest pass play of the season, a 74-yard pass from Trevor Lawrence to Justyn Ross, and they pushed their lead to 37-16.
Under pressure from the Tide, Lawrence was able to find a wide-open Ross near the right sideline, and he a defender while cutting back to his left before heading downfield and outrunning everyone to the end zone. Alabama cornerback Saivion Smith, who had the initial coverage on Ross, was injured on the play, while Clemson kicker Greg Huegel missed the extra point.
Alabama had gone for it on fourth and short three times, including on its preceding drive, and it was successful each time. The drive ended, though, at Clemson’s 22, when a fake field goal failed on a fourth-and-six play.
Ouch: A lot of people thought that Lil Wayne, performing at halftime with Imagine Dragons, looked like “E.T.” Or the Hamburglar.
Stage not too big: Through two quarters, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence is hardly playing like a true freshman who wasn’t even his team’s starter to begin the season. The 6-5 native of Knoxville, Tenn., who turned 19 in October, has completed 12 of 21 passes for 197 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
By comparison, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, this season’s Heisman Trophy runner-up who made his own splash as a true freshman in last year’s title-game win over Georgia, completed 13 of 17 passes for 158 yards, two touchdowns and, notably, two picks. Those turnovers helped negate a the Tide’s 108-27 edge in rushing yards, as did four penalties for 40 yards, compared to Clemson’s one penalty for 12 yards.
Three more before half: This time it was Clemson’s turn to stall in the red zone and settle for a field goal. Greg Huegel did the honors from 36 yards out, increasing the Tigers' lead to 31-16, making for Alabama’s largest deficit of the season. A pair of Crimson Tide penalties aided Clemson on the drive, which was preceded by Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa getting sacked and nearly losing a fumble on his team’s possession, which ended in a punt.
After the field goal, Alabama got the ball back with 45 seconds left, but following a pair of unsuccessful plays, Coach Nick Saban was content to let the clock run out and got to the locker room down 15. In an on-field interview, Saban cited his team’s sub-par third-down defense, as well as the two turnovers and several penalties, saying, “We shot ourselves in the foot.”
“They’re doing copy-cat stuff that other teams have done against us, that we hadn’t practiced against," Saban added.
Before he left the field, Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney expressed wry happiness that his team had “finally stopped the run a little bit,” and he said his Tigers needed to get its own run game going. He also pointed to Alabama’s turnovers as a major factor in Clemson’s lead, and noted, “We’ve got a long way to go."
Hat trick: Travis Etienne is up to three touchdowns now. The Clemson running back decided to mix things up after two rushing scores, this time catching a short pass from Trevor Lawrence and taking it the rest of the way for a five-yard touchdown that, with the extra point, boosted the Tigers' lead to 28-16.
Clemson has turned two Tua Tagovailoa (say that five times quickly) interceptions into 14 points. Only two teams had scored at least 28 points points against Alabama in an entire game this season, and none accomplished that last season.
Picked again: Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa threw his second touchdown of the first half, negating a major gamble that temporarily paid off for Coach Nick Saban. He decided to go for it on fourth and one from his own 34-yard line, and Josh Jacobs was able to run for three yards.
Two plays later, though, Tagovailoa’s deep attempt to Jerry Jeudy was intercepted by the Tigers' Trayvon Mullen, who returned it near the midfield stripe.
That’s more like it: Clemson, clearly insulted by Alabama’s suggestion that a field goal might be an acceptable way to end a drive, wasted little time in scoring its third touchdown, retaking the lead, 21-16. Aided by a 15-yard Alabama penalty and two Trevor Lawrence passes for a combined 40 yards, the Tigers got back in the end zone on Travis Etienne’s second rushing score.
Etienne increased his single-season Clemson record to 24 rushing touchdowns on the play. There’s still plenty of time left in the first half, folks.
Tide take lead: Not too sound greedy, but five touchdowns in the first quarter would have been pretty cool. As it was, we had to settle for Alabama knocking on the door of the end zone as time expired in the first frame, then kicking a field goal two plays into the second.
The Tide started the drive in excellent field position, following a poor punt by Clemson’s Will Spiers. Along the way to pay dirt, Alabama converted on a fourth-and-one play from the Clemson 6, with Josh Jacobs bulling ahead for four yards. However, on another fourth down, this one from the 3, the Tide actually lost four yards when running back Damien Harris was tackled in the backfield. Joseph Bulovas, he of the missed extra point earlier, was bale to connect on a 25-yard field goal to give his squad a 16-14 advantage.
Don’t look away: At some point, there will be an update here that does not have to do with a touchdown — or will there? As it is, this game is barely halfway through the first quarter, and already we have four scores.
What we do not have, though, is a tie game, because Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas just missed an extra point, meaning that Clemson has retained a 14-13 lead. The Crimson Tide got in the end zone on a nine-yard drive that ended with Tua Tagovailoa hitting tight end Hale Hentges on a one-yard scoring pass.
That play came after Alabama running back Najee Harris was, upon review, ruled to have come up just short of a rushing touchdown. Meanwhile, the Tide added to their Football Bowl Subdivision lead in missed extra points, now at nine.
Right back at ya: It’s hard to type with one’s head spinning, but here goes. This game has gotten off to a bonkers start.Clemson came right back at Alabama with two more huge plays, taking a 14-7 lead less than five minutes into the game.
This time, Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who had looked a bit shaky to start off, hit wide receiver Tee Higgins for 62 yards to the Alabama 17. From there, running back Travis Etienne took it in on the next play for the score.
Quite the answer: Well, that didn’t take long. Just three plays after giving up a touchdown on an interception, Alabama scored one of its own to tie the game at 7-7. Tua Tagovailoa shook off his major mistake and hit wide receiver Jerry Jeudy for a 62-yard touchdown. It was the seventh touchdown of at least 50 yards in the four straight title-game tilts between the two schools.
Quick score: It didn’t look like Clemson had gotten off to a good start, given that the Tigers got possession first and proceeded to go three-and-out. However, Alabama’s first possession led to a much more disastrous result, as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s third pass in as many plays was picked off by Clemson’s A.J. Terrell, who returned it 44 yards for a touchdown and a very early, 7-0 lead.
Corso likes Clemson: For his final donning of mascot headgear of the season, Lee Corso went with the tiger. That’s right, the veteran analyst for ESPN’s “College GameDay” likes Clemson over Alabama.
“Alabama has not won back-to-back championships in six years,” Corso said. “I’m going with the underdog, the Clemson Tigers!”
Plenty of empty seats: Reports just before game time indicated that the slow ticket sales for the event have translated into something less than a capacity crowd at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Of course, that likely would have something to do with the fact that Alabama and Clemson are located on the other side of the country, and as some have noted, there appears to a better showing Monday than for November’s notoriously poorly attended Pac-12 title game between Washington and Utah.
“It’s a festive scene, the seats are filled,” ESPN announcer Chris Fowler said after the national anthem was performed. Well, most of them were filled, anyway.