Santa Clara, Calif—There are times—in football and in life—where no matter how much success you have had, no matter how much you have dominated your chosen profession, no matter how invincible you have seemed for so long, you get beat or eclipsed by superior talent.
The other guy, on that night, is just better than you.
For the University of Alabama—the most dominant program of the past decade led by the greatest college football coach of all time—Monday night was such a night.
The defending national champions, ranked No. 1 for the entire 2018 season, were out to make history in the College Football Playoff national championship game at Levi’s Stadium. Instead, the Crimson Tide might—and I emphasize might—have watched the torch being passed to college football’s next great dynasty.
With what was statistically the best offense in Alabama history, the Crimson Tide were dominated by No. 2 Clemson from beginning to end as the Tigers won 44-16 in a game that was simply not that close. It marked the second time in three years that Clemson has beaten Alabama with the national championship on the line. That’s significant.
Clemson, coached by Alabama native son Dabo Swinney, became the first FBS teamto finish a season 15-0.
Now when people talk about this game—and they will—the conversation will inevitably go to a fateful third-quarter decision by Alabama coach Nick Saban, who was going for a record-setting seventh national championship. A win would have moved him past the sainted Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most national championships as a coach.
Clemson jumped on top early with a 44-yard pick six by A.J. Terrell on Alabama’s first possession of the game. It was a harbinger of bad things to come for Alabama.
By halftime Clemson led 31-16 and it became obvious to 74,814 who bore witness to this game that Alabama’s first possession of the third quarter would be critical. Because the brutal truth was that Alabama, which had won five national championships in nine seasons with unrelenting defense, simply had no answer for Clemson’s record-setting offense. But more on that later.
Alabama took the second half kickoff and drove to the Clemson 22-yard line. Facing a fourth down and six yards to go, Saban chose to fake a 39-yard field goal and it fooled no one. Some will say it was an act of desperation. And it probably was because there was no way that Alabama would ever stop Clemson enough to catch up.
“It was a poor decision on my part not to kick the field goal,” said Saban. “But we thought we had a good fake on but somebody missed a block. That is usually what happens.”
Mathematically, the game was not over. Alabama could have still come back because there was 9:47 left in the third quarter and the Crimson Tide was down by only 15 points. But psychologically, the game was completely over at that point. Alabama didn’t have the weapons—or the will—to overcome the waves of talent that Clemson threw at the Crimson Tide.
Consider this: Clemson’s true freshman quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, was sharing the biggest stage in college football with Tua Tagovailoa, the sophomore who last year in this very game came off the bench to lead Alabama to an overtime win over Georgia for the national title.
In the CFP semifinals against Oklahoma, Tagovailoa had been brilliant, completing 24 of 27 passes for over 300 yards and four touchdowns.
But it was Lawrence, a native of Cartersville, Ga., who put the whole world on notice: He is the next big thing in college football, completing 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He was easily the game’s most outstanding offensive player.
Lawrence made great throw after great throw and made it look easy. And among his targets was true freshman Justyn Ross, who caught six passes for 153 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown pass with 8:26 remaining.
“Trevor Lawrence is a special talent. I saw him as a sophomore in high school and he was special then,” said Saban. “It doesn’t surprise me.”
Ross is a native of Phenix City, Alabama, and chose to play for Clemson over the University of Alabama.
Tagovailoa completed 24 of 35 passes 295 yards. But his two interceptions were both turned into Clemson’s touchdowns.
“Those two interceptions were totally bad decisions on my part,” said Tagovailoa, who finished second to Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray for the Heisman Trophy. “We had a great season but good is not good enough.”
Ultimately, Saban said, it was Alabama’s inability to get off the field on third down that led to the one-sided nature of the game.
“I just feel like I didn’t do a very good job of giving them a chance to be successful,” said Saban. “I never got comfortable with what we needed to do to win the game, especially on defense. Some of the matchups that bothered me turned out to be big in the game.
“Obviously we’re all disappointed but we’re proud of what our team was able to accomplish. We won 14 games, won the SEC and won the Orange Bowl. I don’t think one game defines who you are. We certainly didn’t play well tonight.”