This Clemson squad was an all-time team that delivered an all-time beatdown of Alabama
I had a feeling before Monday night’s game.
No, not that feeling. A different feeling.
It was that the winner of Monday night’s game was going to be in the conversation for the “greatest team of all-time.”
Why wouldn’t they be? The winner was going to be the first 15-0 team in major college football since Penn in 1897. Clemson entered having won 9 straight games by an average of 37 points; Alabama won each of its first 12 games by at least 22 points. Call it a “prisoner of the moment” take if you wish, but the dominance would’ve ranked right up there with 1995 Nebraska, 2001 Miami (Fla.), 2004 USC and 2009 Alabama.
That would’ve been true with a 1-point win for either Alabama or Clemson. The G.O.A.T. conversation would’ve still been worth having if the winner pulled off the 2016 Deshaun Watson-to-Hunter Renfrow play in the final seconds.
Instead, we got the unthinkable.
What Clemson did on Monday night will be remembered as the ultimate exclamation point on one of the great seasons we’ve ever seen. The Alabama team that looked unbeatable with the best coach in college football history was, for lack of a better word, overwhelmed. For once.
For once, Alabama watched some other team impose its will. And sure, the total yards stats were close, which some will use as a reason to say that the score was more lopsided than how tight that game was played. But Tigers coach Dabo Swinney was a step ahead of Crimson Tide counterpart Nick Saban all night.
It was the stuff of legend.
Remember when the Crimson Tide dominated Notre Dame in 2012 and poured all that cold water on the belief that the Irish belonged on the same field as mighty Alabama? Clemson beat Alabama by the exact same margin on Monday night.
You know, just in case you were wondering.
The strange thing about Monday night was that Alabama got a dose of its own medicine. It was the complete win — the type of win that makes you question just how far behind your program is from a coaching/athletic/recruiting standpoint. Clemson just did that to Alabama, a.k.a. the team with national titles in 5 of the last 9 seasons. A team that hadn’t lost by more than 14 points since Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.
This wasn’t a “they only won because they ran a pick play” game. It wasn’t a “they only won because they had the once-in-a-generation quarterback in Deshaun Watson” game, either (but holy cow Trevor Lawrence).
Clemson was vastly superior in every way. The Tigers outcoached, outmanned and just flat-out beat Alabama.
Many will want to focus on Lawrence outperforming Tua Tagovailoa. The true freshman did just that. He didn’t make the mistakes that Tagovailoa did. And perhaps more important, he made the game-changing plays thanks to his connection with receiver Justyn Ross.
No freshman starting quarterback had won a national title since 1985. That was after Lawrence became the first quarterback to ever go from No. 1 overall recruit to starting the national championship game as a true freshman. He made history once he took a snap, and he only added to his legacy with everything he did after that.
Lawrence took advantage of an Alabama defense that was on its heels seemingly all night after that first three-and-out. Yes, there were instances like Saivion Smith getting injured on that long Ross touchdown catch, and Alabama missed a healthy Christian Miller. Still, Saban and Alabama didn’t have an answer for Clemson.
It was bizarre. It was one of those feelings that you get when you’re experiencing something for the first time.
It was the biggest loss in Saban’s Alabama tenure, and it came on a night in which the Crimson Tide entered as 4.5-point favorites. Maybe part of that was because how down the ACC was, and it was natural to assume that given how battle-tested Alabama was — especially in the latter half of the season — Clemson was just another Georgia-like team.
The storyline entering Monday night was that “it was Alabama and Clemson’s world, and we’re all just living in it.” It was a fair narrative in Part 4 of the rivalry.
But clearly, we’ll remember 2018 as Clemson’s world that everyone was living in. At least we should. The Tigers earned that right.
They were the unstoppable force that Alabama couldn’t get past. No fake field-goal attempts, shovel passes or short-side quarterback draws on fourth down were going to fool Clemson. All-time teams are considered just that because they’re physically and mentally prepared for anything.
Swinney said that after the game that he felt that he had the better team. Uhhhh, ya think?
Go figure that Clemson didn’t spend a single day at No. 1 in the polls all year. That spot belonged to Alabama, and there wasn’t really that much of a debate. There still isn’t any debate about that top spot for the final poll, though Clemson will likely be the unanimous No. 1 for everyone with a vote, assuming they have 2 eyes and a pulse.
Time will tell if we consider the 2018 Clemson squad the No. 1 team of the modern era. Considering what they did to an unblemished Alabama team in the title game, it should be considered among the most impressive things we’ve ever seen in the sport.
Swinney now has something that no other coach has — a pair of national championship victories against Saban. No other coach has ever beat Saban in a title game, and Swinney just did so for the second time. Emphatically.
During the postgame interview with ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi, Swinney was asked about how Alabama had been the motivating factor for Clemson to get where it is. The Crimson Tide “drove the bus” for the Tigers. It was a reference Swinney used as a rallying cry for his team. On Monday night, he offered up a rallying cry for the teams sitting at home who witnessed Clemson’s dominance.
“If we can do it, anybody can do it.”
No, Dabo. Not anyone could’ve done that.