Clemson stepped to Alabama and delivered a knockout blow that may reverberate for years to come
Did the Tigers just kick-start their own dynasty on the back of ending the Crimson Tide's long reign?
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- It was a national championship tinged with a bit of angry payback. Up until four years ago, Clemson's journey into college football's upper crust was experimental.
The goal earlier this decade was just to play with the best. Clemson then embarked on a run of four straight ACC titles. At some point, it dared to think it could step into the ring with Alabama.
Respect was established with a pair of meetings that decided national championships in 2016 and 2017. The Crimson Tide won the first by five, but the Tigers sneaked away with that one-point win in Tampa the next year.
Now, we interrupt the Alabama dynasty to bring you another … dynasty? That seemed to be a conclusion inside Clemson's raucous locker room after Monday's 44-16 annihilation of Bama.
Entering Monday, Clemson still had in front of its collective mind an 18-point beatdown in last year's semifinals. Clemson didn't just beat Alabama in winning the program's third national championship, it flipped the narrative.
At least that was the deduction at the locker of senior defensive end Austin Bryant.
"I definitely think it was a changing of the guard tonight," he said.
That statement seemed to reflect the torrent of indignation that followed the win. Clemson continues to be locked in a mini-rivalry that has spanned four years and three College Football Playoff National Championships. The Tigers have now won two of those.
Clemson has done what no other team has during this current Alabama run: planted the seed that it may have at least slowed the Tide dynasty.
Along with those six national championships to his name, Nick Saban now also has two title game losses -- both to Clemson.
"They've been the best forever," defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said of Alabama. "I've seen what those boys do. They motivate me."
Wilkins and his teammates were motivated each week, reminded that Bama was on a parallel 14-0 track that had the teams destined to meet again.
That's explains why blaring from a bank of lockers belonging to Clemson's kickers was Alabama fan favorite "Dixieland Delight."
They play it every home game at Bryant-Denny Stadium. They played it in that off-the-hook, sweat-soaked Tigers locker room knowing exactly what they were doing -- stealing a little bit of the Tide's soul …
… after beating them down on the field.
"It's a dynasty," Houston Texans' quarterback Deshaun Watson said of his school. "It's a franchise."
It's at least something more after Monday. Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and his staff almost didn't need an elevator to drop the eight floors down the field as the final seconds ticked away.
They could have flown from the press box level as Elliott screamed, "Best ever, baby! Two out of three."
The first thought may or may not be a sarcastic shot at the way Alabama was perceived. The second had to do with the frequency of Clemson championships the last three years.
The last team besides Alabama to win two titles in a three-year span was Florida in 2006 and 2008. (LSU was sandwiched in the middle in 2007.) That kicked off this age of SEC dominance. The league has won nine of the last 13 national championships.
But the Tigers have now owned Alabama twice since 2016. And if the guard is changing, this is how it happens: not all at once but gradually.
Alabama walked off the field the same way it entered -- with the best talent. But Clemson was more prepared, more aggressive. On Alabama's first possession, Tua Tagovailoa was blitzed and blindly threw out to the flat.
There waiting was cornerback A.J. Ferrell, who sprinted 44 yards for a pick-six.
"I felt like we needed to get something going early," coach Dabo Swinney said. "That was a huge play. We felt like we could [get to] Tua a little bit. That was a play I think we fooled him."
Alabama seemed to be a step slow all night, while Clemson was faster and more efficient. It scored six touchdowns in only 63 snaps.
Who ever thought a Saban-coached team would give up 30 consecutive points? It was only through the graces of good sportsmanship that Swinney didn't drop 50 on the Tide. The Tigers drained off the last 10:02 of the game with a 14-play, 94-yard drive that ended at the Alabama 5-yard line.
If not choked out, at that point, Alabama tapped out.
"We thought we were the best team in the country all year," Bryant. "We carried that sense of belief into the game. For me, I feel like we're the best ever right now until somebody proves otherwise. … That was our goal all season to be the best ever. With this win tonight, we feel like we solidified that."
Swinney became only the fourth active coach to beat Saban twice. The others are Auburn's Gus Malzahn and a couple others attempting to resurrect their careers: Les Miles at Kansas and Hugh Freeze at Liberty.
There is every reason to believe Swinney hasn't reached the peak of his career. Since 2011, he was won 97 games. All eight of those seasons have ended with double-digit wins and only two included more than a pair of losses.
"It says that this year we had the best team," Swinney said. "There's no doubt. We proved that. People can talk about the best ever, ain't never been a 15-0 team."
Well, at least not in the last two centuries. The last major-college program to accomplish that was Penn … in 1897. You know, back when Lee Corso was a teenager.
When the gradual transition finally hit, it felt totally deserved. Texans star receiver DeAndre Hopkins led a cadre of current pros, all former Clemson players, in the post-game celebration.
"Of course, I think we have the upper edge," Hopkins said. "I think it's definitely changing. The recruits we're getting, we're getting five-star receivers from Alabama. Back in 2008, that doesn't happen. Nobody would come to Clemson in 2008 from Alabama."
That was a reference to freshman receiver Justyn Ross. That Alabama native caught 12 passes in two playoff games for 301 yards and three touchdowns.
For the second straight year, a freshman quarterback was the standout performer. Trevor Lawrence has a demeanor as calm as his arm is lethal.
For Saban and the Tide, all of it was a bit serendipitous. The spectacular freshman who helped them beat Georgia last year, Tagovailoa, was upstaged by another spectacular freshman.
"I think the quarterback position is a little easier now because it's not all drop-back oriented," Saban said. "RPOs have made it very simple for the quarterback in a lot of ways."
This is coach who six years ago decried the offense he is now running.
"I just think there's got to be some sense of fairness in terms of asking, 'Is this what we want football to be?'" Saban said back in the day.
College football has answered his question with a resounding, "Yes." Saban's own team finished in the top four in every meaningful passing statistic. Lawrence was a freshman All-American.
Now Bama has to find its soul. Its secondary was worked by a better-than-expected Clemson receiving corps. Lawrence wasn't sacked once. Worse than that, he was infrequently harassed by a defensive line that featured Outland Trophy winner Quinnen Williams.
"One game doesn't define who you are," Saban said.
Tell that to Clemson, which joined the ranks of the elite (if it wasn't there already).
The beat-down was so historic that the last team to beat Alabama by at least 16 points was Saban himself when he was at LSU. Try to imagine any team scoring 30 consecutive points against a Saban-coached team. The last team to do that was actually Alabama itself in 2002.
Monday night was the worst loss of Saban's career at Bama.
"I don't know that I've ever seen it before," Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich told reporters. "But tonight, for tonight, we were the best ever."
That topic -- and debate -- will hang in the air until next season. It will be Clemson now having to defend with Alabama nipping at its cleated heels.
The result capped a season that lacked drama. The teams 1-2 for the majority of the season ended up playing for it all. The three playoff games were all blowouts -- by a combined 76 points.
Alabama and Clemson spent the 2018 season separating themselves from the field. The Tigers spent Monday night separating itself from a dynasty -- until the next time they meet.
"That's what I told Nick after the game," Swinney said. 'See ya next year,' They ain't going nowhere."
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