Nick Saban has met his match in Dabo Swinney as Clemson sets course toward an Alabama-like dynasty

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Suddenly, those 67 years hang hard and heavy on Nick Saban. A coach 18 years younger was better -- much better -- Monday night.

Suddenly, the greatest coach of a generation looks vulnerable. His rival, Dabo Swinney, has nothing but time … and Trevor Lawrence

Questions must be asked after the confetti fell on No. 2 Clemson's 44-16 bludgeoning of No. 1 Alabama. The central one: Has Saban finally met his match?

At least on this night, one dynasty was dominated while another looks to have been born.

Swinney won his second national championship in three years. He did it with Lawrence, who became the first true freshman quarterback in 33 years to start and finish a game that resulted in a national championship.

And that's just for starters. Swinney had the more complete team Monday night. While Lawrence was rarely rattled in his 347-yard, three-touchdown performance, he had plenty of help. Fellow freshman Justyn Ross (six catches, 153 yards) made enough circus catches to make a Wallenda blush.

Meanwhile, Clemson's defense made its statement against what was being called the best Alabama offense ever.

Alabama sophomore QB Tua Tagovailoa threw two crippling interceptions -- both resulted in Clemson touchdowns -- that may have been the difference in the game.

So while the Tide and the Tigers spent most of the 2018 season separating themselves from the rest of college football, Swinney separated himself from Saban.

At least for one magical Monday night.  

We may have to rethink the whole Alabama-Clemson nouveau rivalry. Suddenly, it's Clemson becoming the first major-college team to finish 15-0 in 121 years. Suddenly, it's the Tigers who have won two of the last three national championships. Suddenly, it's Clemson with the best overall team on the planet.

Suddenly, it's Alabama looking for answers … the biggest one being how to stop Lawrence.

The signature play of the game came 6½ minutes into the third quarter. With a defender bearing down on him, Lawrence floated a pass to Ross. Cornerback Saivion Smith collapsed, holding his leg, allowing Ross to sprint 74 yards for the score that put Alabama down by 21 points. (Smith was later carted off.)

That marked Alabama's biggest second-half deficit since the 2005 Iron Bowl. That was after Bama surrendered its most points in a half (31) of the Saban era. Saban himself suffered his worst loss since 2004 when he was at LSU.

A memory: Alabama being the first team since 1888 to win its first 12 games by at least 20 points.

Swinney became the third active coach to have beaten Saban twice. Your guess is as good as mine as to who the last coach was to hang 30 consecutive points on Saban. It may well have been Alabama itself, which beat a Saban-coached LSU 31-0 in 2002.

Swinney and his Tigers did just that between the second and fourth quarters.

swinney-getty-clemson-dabo-cfp.jpg
Dabo Swinney Getty Images

All those records broken by Alabama's offense paled in comparison to Lawrence, whose precision strikes were like a broken record.

By Alabama standards, it was a complete and total breakdown. Goodness, was that really third-string quarterback Mac Jones running a fake field goal when three future NFL receivers and a Heisman Trophy runner-up were on the bench on fourth down?

The fake failed. For only the second time in Saban's tenure, so did Alabama in a national title game.

The programs are now tied 2-2 after four consecutive CFP meetings. More importantly, Swinney now leads Saban 2-1 in championship meetings.

Changing of the guard?

Saban still has those six championships -- five at Alabama. Swinney, 49, has two and plenty of time left to make a run.

Lawrence tossed three touchdowns in his 11th career start. He was the most valuable player of the entire CFP, throwing for a combined six total touchdowns and more than 700 yards against Notre Dame and Bama. After starting 2 for 7, he got settled and carved up a secondary that had been third nationally in passes defended. That secondary seemed a step too slow (at least) all night.

Tagovailoa was rattled by a defense with three current or former All-Americans on its defensive line. Both interceptions came as the result of staggeringly bad decisions.

Less than three minutes into the game, Tagovailoa had thrown for two scores. One, of course, went to Clemson's A.J. Terrell on a pick-six. With a defender in his face, Tagovailoa tried a perimeter pass that ended up in the arms of Terrell, who took it 62 yards to the house.

But three snaps later, Tua hit Jerry Jeudy with a 62-yard bomb.

Four-and-a-half minutes into the game, the teams had run nine combined plays for 185 yards and three touchdowns.

This was going to be good, until it became out of hand.

Clemson saw that taking out Tagovailoa was the key to the game. They were burned some but got the ultimate reward -- those two picks and another couple fumbles (both recovered) by the Heisman runner-up.

Tagovailoa badly overthrew Jeudy in the second quarter. Clemson's Trayvon Mullen returned it to midfield setting up Clemson's fourth touchdown.

Once again, backup Jalen Hurts was in during garbage time in the fourth quarter. For the first time this season, the opponent was doing the mopping up.

The Tigers jumped on a team that had trailed for only 35 minutes coming into the game. Halfway through the second quarter, Clemson had run 24 plays, three of them went for touchdowns all scored by tailback Travis Etienne.

You have the feeling this series isn't over by a long shot. The teams have now played four straight years. The point differential is nine -- in Clemson's favor.

Alabama will be back, but this time it will be in a rare position … chasing down Clemson to get to another championship. At least that's the way it seems.

Lawrence was among 20 true freshmen who played for Clemson this season. That's the most at the school since 1982. The seniors set a college football record-winning their 55th game. Clemson will likely end as the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25 for the second time in three years despite never being No. 1 at any point during the season.

For the Tide, Sweet Home Alabama is a 2,300-mile flight into an offseason of uncertainty. The uncertainty: How the hell are we going to beat Clemson? 

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories