NEW ORLEANS -- No. 4 Alabama proved it belonged in the College Football Playoff after all with a 24-6 win over No. 1 Clemson in a Sugar Bowl that signaled the supposed demise of Crimson Tide football has been greatly exaggerated. Bama suffocated the high-octane Tigers offense, holding them to just 188 yards on the evening with nine tackles for loss. The Tide also owned both lines of scrimmage against a Clemson team that made a living up front en route to its third straight ACC title.
The highlight of the night was a stunning interception by defensive tackle Da'Ron Payne, which set up a touchdown from Hurts to Payne in a sequence that will go down in Crimson Tide history.
Here's what we learned in this Sugar Bowl.
1. Alabama's defensive line is really good, too. There was so much talk about Clemson's defensive line in the month leading up to this game, and deservedly so, because it's ridiculously talented. It's just, at times, it felt like Alabama's defensive line was overlooked in the process, and it seems they noticed that. While the entire Alabama defense dominated the Sugar Bowl, it was the defensive line that put on a real show.
The Clemson offense never had a chance to get anything going because the Alabama defensive line was a destructive force all night long, constantly getting into the backfield and blowing plays up. Alabama finished with nine tackles for loss on a night Clemson ran the ball only 33 times. The Tide had five sacks from five different players as well. It wasn't just one person dominating and exploiting a matchup. It was coming from every direction on every play, and Clemson was just overwhelmed.
2. Field position is important. You know how coaches will talk about the importance of winning the field position battle, and you normally just brush it off as boring coach speak? Well, this game was a prime example of what coaches are talking about.
You see, Alabama's offense didn't have a great night. Clemson's defense was still Clemson's defense and held Alabama to only 4.0 yards per play. The Alabama rushing attack may have had 141 yards, but it needed 42 carries (3.4 yards per) to get there.
So what was the difference?
Well, the average starting field position for Alabama on its 13 possessions was the Alabama 43-yard line. Clemson's average starting field position was its own 24. In other words, the field Alabama was working with was 20 yards shorter than the one Clemson had to contend with. Those 20 yards mean a lot when you're going against an elite defense.
3. The SEC was down this year, but it was also home to two great teams. There are two truths that can exist at the same time, and we saw the proof of it on New Year's Day. The SEC might just have the two best teams in the country, as both Alabama and Georgia are moving on to face one another for the national title. The SEC was also bad this season compared to previous seasons. While Auburn had a good season and beat both of those teams, it also lost to Clemson earlier in the season and to UCF in the Peach Bowl.
As a conference, teams not named Alabama and Georgia went 2-5 in bowl games this year. It was a down season for the SEC because it was top-heavier than ever before.
And it's also another season in which the SEC is going to claim a national title.
4. Deshaun Watson was really important in the first two meetings. Kelly Bryant had a rough night for Clemson. He finished with 18 completions on 36 pass attempts, throwing for only 124 yards with no touchdowns and two interceptions. He wasn't much of a threat with his legs, either, finishing with 19 rushing yards on 19 carries.
To be clear, it was not all Bryant's fault. As mentioned above, the Alabama defense was a nightmare on Monday night, and Bryant was the person wishing he could wake up from it. It only drove home how special a player that Watson was for Clemson the last couple of years, because time and time again, when Clemson needed him to make a play to keep it in the game against Alabama, Watson came through.
Bryant couldn't do that in New Orleans, and because of it, Clemson won't have a chance to defend its title.
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