SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Wow, talk about your typos. We’re a little sheepish here at College Football Experts, Inc. It turns out that our season-long discussion about whether the best team this season belonged among the best teams in history focused on the wrong team. Editors, please replace three months’ worth of “Alabama” with “Clemson.”
“There was a lot of talk about the ‘best ever’ all year long,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We were never in that conversation. Tonight there was no doubt.”
The Tigers dominated the Crimson Tide on Monday night in Levi’s Stadium, with a 44-16 clinic in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Do not adjust your internet: Clemson 44, Alabama 16 is an accurate description. The Tigers excelled in all three phases of the game. They would have excelled in a fourth phase, if one existed. Our experts are analyzing the audio now to confirm that the Tiger Band hit more high notes than the Alabama Million Dollar Band.
“I know we’re not supposed to be here,” Swinney said after the game. “We’re just little old Clemson, and I’m not supposed to be here. But we are, and I am.”
Both teams had been here before, but only the Tigers, the team with the freshman quarterback, played like it Monday night. The Alabama team that won 14 games by double digits finished with the worst loss of Nick Saban’s 12 seasons in Tuscaloosa. Clemson, not Alabama, became the first major college team in 121 seasons to go 15-0.
Trevor Lawrence, the freshman who enrolled at Clemson last January and didn’t start until the fifth game of the season, threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, he never threw a pick, and he never took a sack.
It was complete dominance — and not a fluke. Coaches love to talk about how much more difficult it is to stay on top than to get there. The Tigers climbed to No. 1 two years ago with a thrilling 35-31 victory over the Tide. It took a once-in-a-generation quarterback in Deshaun Watson to lead Clemson to a touchdown with :01 remaining on the clock.
Last year, when Clemson succumbed meekly to Alabama 24-6 in a playoff semifinal, the Tigers’ second loss to the Tide in three seasons, it seemed that a gap still existed between the two programs.
There is no gap, not anymore. Clemson has won two of the past four national championships. Alabama has won the other two. Clemson beat Alabama to win its two. Alabama won a close game and a rout. Clemson won a close game and a rout. It’s safe to say that, from a historical viewpoint, the Tigers have proven that they are every bit the power that Alabama is.
That’s Clemson, long known as the football school in the basketball conference, a program known a generation ago for regular trips to NCAA jail, that sits atop the college football world and routed two blue bloods to do it.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” Swinney said. “But we are. But we are. And beat Notre Dame and Alabama to do it.”
The Tigers took a chance on Swinney a decade ago, handing the keys to the voluble wide receiver coach who had been raised, professionally speaking, in an Alabama program that demanded excellence. Swinney brought that standard to Clemson. He brought his own guts. He brought a veteran, Tide-flavored coaching staff. Imitation is the sincerest form of beating your alma mater by four touchdowns.
“Why not? Why not?” Swinney said. “That’s what it takes. It takes belief. We put limitations on our own self by how we think. I’ve always believed that. Why not? Ten years ago, not many people saw this coming. But we’re here. We’ve done it.”
Swinney ticked off the achievements of his program since he took over. The Tigers hadn’t won the ACC since 1991. Under Swinney, they’ve won five league titles, including the past four. They hadn’t been to a major bowl in 30 years, and now you can pencil them in in August. They had won only one national championship and now …
“Why would you have any doubt, if you just pay attention?” Swinney asked.
If you paid attention Monday night, there was no debate to be had. After an electric first quarter, in which Alabama gained 224 yards and scored 13 points, Clemson outscored the Tide 30-3.
No Saban team at Alabama, in 166 games, had trailed by more than 20 points. Clemson led by 28 late in the third quarter and delivered the ultimate insult of a 10-minute, non-scoring drive to end the game. Good manners stopped the Tigers when the Tide couldn’t.
“One game doesn’t necessarily define who you are,” Saban said. “We certainly didn’t play very well tonight.”
Saban is right. This one game shouldn’t define Alabama in 2018 because the Tide on Monday night scarcely resembled the team that earned the trip here. Tua Tagovailoa threw a pick-six on the third snap of the game. Alabama missed an extra point and botched a fake field goal. The Tide took 17 snaps in four red zone possessions and had only a touchdown and a field goal to show for them.
On the final possession, after Clemson fourth-year junior Clelin Ferrell dumped Tagovailoa for a 4-yard loss, Swinney raced down the sideline and met Ferrell for a midair hip bump. That’s not the typical head coach move, but Swinney has proven that he is not the typical head coach.
He wasn’t supposed to be there. But there he was.