SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Travis Etienne, the running back who scored three touchdowns, is a sophomore. Trevor Lawrence, the 19-year-old quarterback, has two more seasons in college — at least. Justyn Ross, who broke both Alabama ankles and the game wide open, is a true freshman wide receiver who spurned his home-state school.
What Clemson did to a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team Monday night at Levi’s Stadium was absolutely unprecedented, and it’s worth savoring if you were among the delirious folks in orange who found their way west from the Piedmont for their team’s first game of 2019.
But on the flight back to South Carolina, while reliving every little tidbit that will make so many memories for the Tigers, get giddy over this, Clemson: Who’s to say this won’t happen again?
The national title game was, in fact, a blowout, because the final was Clemson 44, Alabama 16. Blowouts are supposed to be boring. But blowouts don’t happen to Alabama.
So this wasn’t boring. This, the fourth straight College Football Playoff meeting between these programs, was revelatory. And it was staggering. Staggering because of the talent Clemson rolled out to execute it. Staggering because of who it came against.
And staggering because so many of these characters could come back to this same stage and do this all again.
Before getting to Lawrence and his 347 yards and three touchdown passes, and dealing with Ross’s six catches — several of them ridiculous — for 153 yards, and considering whether Coach Dabo Swinney has pulled his program even with that of his alma mater — which stood on the opposite sideline — start with the Alabama element.
Clemson dominating any other program in the country would scarcely amount to news. The Tigers now have two national titles in three years. They have four straight playoff appearances. Their record in those four seasons: 55-4. They have only one peer, and they face it every year on this stage.
But anybody, anybody at all, dominating Alabama — that’s a boldfaced, slap-the-forehead headline. And it shows where Clemson is: on par with the sport’s pre-eminent program, a co-headliner.
This was Saban’s 167th game at Alabama. Only once in the previous 166 had an opponent scored 31 points in a half — precisely the total Clemson hung in the first 30 minutes Monday. Only 20 of those previous 166 games had been losses. None came by more than 14 points.
Think about that for a bit. Then consider what Clemson managed. There were moments, of course, that were enough to make Saban throw his headset in disgust. His team did, for instance, run a fake field goal in which the kicker served as the lead blocker on an interior run. Result: a loss of two.
But whatever frustration Saban felt had to be replaced with some measure of admiration, even begrudgingly, for how the Clemson players, who are excellent, executed Clemson’s game plan, which was superbly. The two previous national championship games between these teams were head-spinning, down-to-the-final-possession affairs, five points in favor of Alabama in 2016, four points in favor of Clemson in 2017. What amounted to a beatdown was the Crimson Tide’s 24-6 victory in last year’s semifinals, and that game felt closer.
The way the Tigers managed the matter of Monday night was completely different.
Tired of Alabama-Clemson, then, are you? In the run-up, with all the clips of Saban chucking his headset and Swinney jawing at the refs, that might be understandable, because we have been over it all. How Swinney was a walk-on wide receiver at Alabama and played on Gene Stallings’s national title team. How Saban resurrected the program at Swinney’s alma mater. How Swinney rebuilt a former power at Clemson to become nearly Alabama’s equal. We know the stories.
But when the game starts, this is unforgettable, dizzying stuff, and it can’t get old because so much of it is so new, so fresh.
Like the game’s first score. Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa spent the season amassing an otherworldly touchdown-to-interception ratio of 41-to-4. What are the possibilities, then, that Tagovailoa’s third pass of the national championship game would be so ill-advised as to be unimaginable — a pass to the flat, where only Clemson defensive back A.J. Terrell loomed. Forty-four yards later, Terrell gave Clemson a 7-0 lead.
And so we were off. A trip to the fridge for a sandwich or a beverage meant missing one score — at least. This is modern college football, where even the supposedly hardheaded traditionalists — and the 67-year-old Saban would have to qualify as a hardheaded traditionalist — have morphed their style. The discipline in their programs, what they demand from their players, their desire to win haven’t changed. What has: the style in which they do it.
Drink in, then, the time elapsed in the first-half scoring drives: 1:15, 1:30, 4:12, an interminable 6:07, 2:40, 3:27 and 1:19. Huddling seemed like some sort of ancient ritual. A quarterback sticking his hands underneath the rear of the center is all but unfathomable.
But Tagovailoa’s second terrible throw — with Clemson holding a 21-16 lead midway through the second quarter — resulted in his second interception and led to Etienne’s score on a shovel pass from Lawrence.
And from there, it was no longer a game. A team facing Alabama was somehow making a mockery of Alabama. That was never more true than on the Tigers’ first drive of the third quarter. Then, Lawrence faced third and eight from his team’s 26. Then, he found Ross on the right side. There, Alabama cornerback Saivion Smith missed Ross, fell and hurt himself, and Crimson Tide safety Deionte Thompson slipped as well.
So there went Ross, off and gone. Right there, Clemson showed it’s not impossible to put distance between itself and Alabama. Right then, the Tigers sealed a championship that made them every bit the equal of the Crimson Tide.
And given who pulled it off, they left the chilling notion that they could absolutely do it again.