Alabama football: For first time in Nick Saban era, Alabama experienced what it was like to play Alabama
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The question was simple, but Christian Miller needed a full 15 seconds to collect his thoughts and fight back tears.
What happened out there?
“It was just (pauses) a tough game,” Miller said in the postgame locker room. “I don’t think we played our best by any means. When it comes down to it, you can’t afford to have any mistakes. Eventually, they caught up to us.”
Miller’s quote is both understated and the perfect explanation of what transpired on Monday night inside Levi Stadium. No. 1 Alabama, which had been completely dominant for much of the season, was dismantled by a better team. No. 2 Clemson stomped Alabama for 60 minutes en route to a 44-16 thrashing, the worst loss of Nick Saban’s tenure in Tuscaloosa.
Towels over heads. Silence. Dejected looks. No smiles, no words, no answers. Senior Johnny Dwight couldn’t hide the tears. Senior running back Damien Harris had to be consoled by tight end Miller Forristall as they walked back to the locker room. There were blank stares on nearly every player and staff member’s faces.
This was a completely new feeling for every single Alabama player. Sure, they’ve lost games — including the 2016 national championship to Clemson. But they’ve never lost like this.
For the first time in the Saban era, Alabama found out what it’s like when teams face Alabama. That sense of hopelessness before halftime, knowing there’s a slim chance you have any shot of winning.
Alabama took a 16-14 lead with 6:07 left in the second quarter, and didn’t score again.
Clemson ripped off 30 consecutive points, and held the most prolific offense in Crimson Tide history scoreless for the second half.
Hindsight always makes all of us look smarter, but this Alabama team had clear holes even as it ran through the regular season. They made uncharacteristic mistakes. The defense never gelled, and looked confused a lot throughout the season. The offense was greedy at times, instead of taking what the defense gave.
“I think everybody bought in to the process and did everything we could,” Miller said. “I just think tonight wasn’t our best night, but you only get one shot at it.”
The flaws manifested themselves in the turnovers and penalties.
On Monday, Tua Tagovailoa threw two bad interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown and another on a horrendous throw into triple coverage.
“We always preach ‘next play’ mentality,” Miller said. “Even with some of the things early on, we had plenty of chances. But it’s a game of inches. Little things really matter in a game like this. We had opportunities like this that we let slip. It’s hard to have that happen in a game like this against a team that’s just as good as you are.”
For as much as Alabama fans beat their chests over how Tagovailoa should have won the Heisman Trophy when the Tide beat Oklahoma, they should be equally as vocal about Tagovailoa being outplayed by Clemson freshman Trevor Lawrence.
Lawrence missed some throws early, but that was about it. He looked as advertised, throwing dart after dart to carve up Alabama’s overmatched secondary. Lawrence racked up 347 yards and 3 touchdowns. Clemson’s offensive line stoned Alabama’s front, giving Lawrence a clean pocket for the majority of the night.
Against 98 percent of the teams in the country, Alabama can make mistakes and still dominate its opponent. Clemson is in that two percent. Any time Alabama made even the smallest mistake, Clemson took advantage. Sometimes, it didn’t matter what Alabama did. Clemson’s receivers looked like 10-year NFL All-Pros while Alabama’s defensive backs did not.
Clemson receiver Justyn Ross, a true freshman who Alabama coveted during the recruiting process, caught 6 passes for 153 yards and a score. Alabama couldn’t cover him. Alabama will have to deal with him and Lawrence for at least two more years.
I’m not one to make any proclamations about the dynasty being dead. Alabama (likely) will be back again next year. They’re better than 98 percent of the country.
But if there was one thing you could fall back on as an Alabama fan during this run, it’s that Saban’s teams never got blown out. Before tonight, a Saban-coached Alabama team had never lost by more than 14 points.
This four-score shellacking erases that. Make no mistake, Clemson is neck-and-neck with Alabama and the Tigers return a ton of talent on offense next season, so they’ll be back as well.
Alabama has felt this pain before. Two years ago in Tampa, Fla. The next year’s team bounced back to reclaim the national championship after a crushing defeat the year before.
The players who return next year must do some serious soul-searching to figure out what they’re going to be next season.
What they were Monday night wasn’t nearly good enough.