It's been building towards this finish all season
One only had to watch a half of this year’s semifinals to figure out which two programs would meet in Santa Clara for the national championship. Fittingly enough, it was the two programs that have operated at another level the past few years in college football and the ones that separated themselves from the pack as the two truly elite teams in 2018.
Alabama. Clemson. Part IV.
You can start with the Cotton Bowl, where the Tigers took a quarter to ease into their semifinal against Notre Dame and then — as they have time after time this year — turned on the jets. They didn’t just beat the Irish, they made the previously undefeated independent from South Bend look slow, unimaginative and overwhelmed. The gap between the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the country wasn’t a single spot but a chasm of, well, biblical proportions.
The final score may have read 30-3 but even that didn't indicate how lopsided things were at A&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. About the only thing that went right for the Irish in the game was the pregame bald eagle landing on a fan in blue and gold.
Perhaps the scariest thought for anybody in the building or on Clemson’s future schedule was the fact that the Tigers were led by a pair of true freshman. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence looked fearless in throwing darts all over the field and did nothing but flash his trademark grin on the sideline while waiting to go out and score again. Justyn Ross had a career-high 148 yards and two touchdowns, which isn’t bad for somebody who is typically the third option behind guys like Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers.
Running back Travis Etienne had a somewhat quiet game despite topping the century mark and breaking off a 62-yarder up the sidelines with his trademark speed. And the defense that everybody thought might not be quite as impenetrable without Dexter Lawrence? They wound up only allowing a field goal as CU cruised to their ninth win in a row by at least 20 points.
“We achieved our goal. I'm really proud of our team and our staff,” said Dabo Swinney. “Just an amazing performance. A dominant performance. Obviously, had some adversity. But these guys stepped up and did an awesome job.”
While the national title Swinney won with that indelible drive from Deshaun Watson remains the program’s high point, it speaks to the juggernaut he’s built at Clemson that his team continues to fix flaws and show improvement week-by-week and year-by-year. Beating Notre Dame was their fourth CFP win, one more than the entire Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 have combined.
“How we practice. What we practice against. Our structure. Our daily structure prepares us for this moment,” Swinney added. “I always tell them, we're built for this. I mean, we're built for this by how we train, how we run our program from January to this point. It doesn't start in August.”
As has been the case from the preseason to the midway mark and on through their semifinal game, Clemson has been a program operating at an elite level. It’s rarified air they are joined in by only one other program: their opponent next week.
Nick Saban is unlikely to be thrilled when he re-watches Alabama’s 45-34 win over Oklahoma but the details-oriented head coach only experiences joy after a football game in the 12 hours after a national title game victory. Though the final score at the Orange Bowl was closer than some expected, this was once again the same old story for the Crimson Tide this season: score early, score often and then coast to a comfortable win.
“I think it was really important in that game that we got off to a great start, got ahead in the game, got off the field on third down on defense in the first half, and that allowed us to get ahead in the game,” said Saban afterward. “I think that was the biggest issue for us in the second half is we've struggled to get off the field on third down with the quarterback scrambling and our inability to cover him when we kept him from scrambling.
“But it's a great win for us, and these guys have done an incredible job all year long, and really, really proud of the way they've competed and the way they've played.”
Tua Tagovailoa, the Heisman runner-up, outplayed his counterpart throwing the football and indeed looked close to 100 percent despite that balky ankle. It’s not often you can make 318 yards and four touchdowns look effortless in a playoff game but he did. Particularly impressive were his guys in the backfield, with Josh Jacobs rushing for 98 yards and catching four passes for 60 and one bone-crushing touchdown. Damien Harris chipped in with another 48 yards on the ground and two scores. It’s difficult enough to worry about four or five speedy pass catchers but the versatility shown by Alabama’s tailbacks makes this offense even more impressive.
Add it all up and the game never felt in doubt after that 21-0 first quarter.
That’s not to downplay the efforts of Sooners QB Kyler Murray, who didn’t have his best performance on the gridiron but was still dazzling in perhaps his final football game ever. He became just the third player ever to throw for 300-plus yards and run for 50-plus against Saban at Alabama, joining two others named Johnny Manziel and Deshaun Watson. Lincoln Riley will regret things getting out of hand early and take solace in not folding (and outscoring the Tide 34-24 in the final three quarters) but the game only reinforced that this year’s title chase was simply a two-team race.
Heading west one more time, Alabama owns the edge over Clemson 2-1 — including last year’s Sugar Bowl victory that seemed to be the genesis for the Tigers returning just about everyone on the two-deep for another shot at the Tide. This year’s battle feels different because both sides have been blowing out teams with the same regularity and are being combed by NFL scouts for draft picks in similar fashion. They aren’t quite mirror images of each other given the diverse approaches of the head coaches but it should surprise nobody that they will meet again.
“I'm always looking ahead, and I'm kind of looking ahead for this one, and I'm looking that way because I think we owe it to our team,” remarked Saban. “I really don't think too much about what's happened in the past, just the challenges of be where your feet are and what's happening right now, and I'm sure Clemson will be a tremendous challenge for our team.”
The Tigers have the playmakers, the running game and the offensive and defensive lines to go toe-to-toe with the five-stars on the other side. Obviously, Tagovailoa has the edge in experience and overall play at quarterback but Lawrence has proven to be more than ready for this moment after putting together a remarkable freshman campaign himself.
There will be plenty of gripes made by fans around the country of these two knocking heads again but it’s the matchup this season deserved. We’ll wrap things up on Jan. 7 with the two best teams and little argument about it. That’s not always the case in the final game of the year but it’s a fitting end that everybody saw coming back in August.
Stat of the Week
Notre Dame gave up 7 TD passes in first 49 quarters of this season then gave up three to Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers in second quarter today.— Tim Bourret (@TimBourret) December 29, 2018
Tweet of the Week
The winner and still undefeated in the College Football Playoff:— Rachel Bachman (@Bachscore) December 30, 2018
Superlatives of the Week
Semifinals best player: Tua Tagovailoa
Best coaching decision: Clemson going for a touchdown before halftime
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the week: Brian Kelly, Notre Dame
Quote of the week:
After the game I asked #Alabama's great DT Quinnen Williams what he was thinking the other day when he stopped in mid-sentence about Kyler Murray. "I wasn't about to make a fool of myself." https://t.co/JUsJp5YG96— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) December 30, 2018
Play of the Week
I’m a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll and will be releasing my ballot here every week. Here’s my ballot after the semifinals
Best of the rest: Everybody else.
College Football Playoff National Championship – No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 1 Alabama
Alabama opened as less than a touchdown favorite over Clemson and that feels about right even if the Tide might be a tick or two better coming in. The Tigers certainly have a vastly superior defense than Oklahoma and their offense isn’t all that far behind. They pose different matchup issues with their receivers and have a pretty good offensive line to boot.
Both sides’ health will be interesting to track, not just Tua Tagovailoa’s ankle but a few of their defenders too— particularly Christian Miller. While it will be hard to duplicate the ease of how the Crimson Tide moved the ball in the semifinal, they’ll have plenty of options to spread things around as much as they’ll be able to pound it between the tackles.
I wouldn’t be shocked to see both sides feel each other out early and maybe only take a few shots deep in the first half as a result. We should see both coaches get a bit more aggressive after halftime and it seems like a good bet that a trick play or turnover for a score winds up flipping momentum firmly in the direction of the eventual winner. Alabama has had an edge over Clemson all year in my book and something says that will ring true in the title game as the Tide win by 13 in the Bay Area.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Top photo courtesy of @CFBPlayoff)