Wildly entertaining. Impossibly unpredictable. Perfectly gut-wrenching.
Nobody saw this coming. Not like this. Never like this.
For the second time in the Playoff era, Clemson ended Alabama’s bid for perfection in the National Championship Game, convincingly knocking out the Tide 44-16 Monday night in Round 4 of their epic and growing rivalry. They did it by making Tua Tagovailoa look mortal and exposing a Tide secondary like few have since Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa.
This was more than a victory. It was a full-fledged changing of the guard, as convincing as any of Alabama’s 14 victories that preceded it. The Tigers became the first 15-0 champion since the 19th century and have now won 2 national championships in 3 years, beating an undefeated Tide team each time.
And with the confetti goes the title: Clemson is officially the undisputed heavyweight champion of college football.
This time, they did it with a stifling defense and a Boy Wonder at a quarterback, freshman Trevor Lawrence, who not out handed Tagovailoa his first loss as a collegian but arguably supplanted him as the best in the game.
Others deserve credit for how Monday night unfolded — Brent Venables drew up the defensive game plan of his life — but now, suddenly and dramatically, it’s Lawrence, not Tagovailoa, who will field questions about whether college football’s newest dynasty can be sustained and how many more titles he can add.
Lawrence finished with 347 yards and 3 TD passes. He became the 13th quarterback to top 300 yards and 3 TDs in the same game against Saban. He made it look easy, consistently finding Alabama native Justyn Ross for game-breaking plays.
The Tigers jumped to a 7-0 lead in a most unthinkable way: A.J. Terrell intercepted Tagovailoa and returned it 42 yards for a pick-6.
The two heavyweights traded blows for the remainder of the half, Clemson answering every Alabama shot with one of its own.
After Alabama took a 16-14 lead, Clemson closed the first half with 17 unanswered points. Etienne scored two more touchdowns, one rushing and the second on a short shovel pass from Lawrence. Greg Huegel’s 36-yard field goal made it 31-16 with 45 seconds left in the half.
It was shocking. Not only Tagovailoa throwing 2 interceptions, but the damage Clemson did once it had the ball.
By the time Lawrence hit a streaking Ross for a 74-yard touchdown to make it 37-16, the outcome became a mere formality. All that was left was the margin. That grew, too, on Lawrence’s third touchdown pass.
Ross, the Alabama recruit who spurned the Tide in favor of the Tigers, dominated all night. He upstaged his Alabama counterparts, catching 6 passes for 153 yards and a score, sometimes using just one hand.
Alabama looked out of sorts most of the game. Fake field goals, missed extra points and strange calls near the goal line. The 16 points represented a season-low. And the defense wasn’t any better. That momentum-changing play never came.
Alabama ran out of second-half miracles Monday night.
Clemson’s run, fueled by underclassmen stars, might only be just beginning.