That Clemson won its second national championship in three seasons wasn’t a huge surprise.
How the Tigers did it was a complete shock.
Clemson out-bullied the bullies, handing coach Nick Saban his worst loss at Alabama as the second-ranked Tigers dethroned the top-ranked Crimson Tide 44-16 on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell scored on a 44-yard interception return on the game’s opening possession, running back Travis Etienne scored three first-half touchdowns, true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence passed for 347 yards, and Justyn Ross put on a show with 153 receiving yards.
“This group had the eye of the tiger tonight, man,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose team scored the game’s final 31 points.
“Alabama, this is the most amazing champion ever, with what they’ve done and Coach Saban. And for our guys to come out here and perform like they did ... we had an amazing plan, we had a great week and I felt like we had the better team. And I felt like if we could get a couple of breaks we could pull away.
“Big plays and turnovers, if you win those two things, you win 98 percent of the time. And we won it in a big way tonight.”
Lawrence, who took over as the starter in the fifth game of the season, was unflappable en route to becoming the second true freshman quarterback to lead his team to the national title, joining Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
He humbled Alabama’s all-star defense, completing 20 of 32 passes with three touchdowns, including a precision 5-yard pass into the end zone to Tee Higgins to push the lead to 44-16 late in the third quarter.
“I get all of the credit for stuff when I’m not even like half of it,” Lawrence said.
“My teammates, these coaches, they do an unbelievable job and I just love everyone who has been part of this journey. It’s been an awesome journey.”
Clemson eked out a last-second victory over Alabama in the 2016 title game. This time, the margin of victory was nearly unthinkable as the Tigers became the first 15-0 major college team in the poll era, which began in 1936.
The Crimson Tide had never lost by more than 14 points during the 12-year tenure of Saban, who was going for a record seventh national championship to break a tie with Tide legend Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns but was intercepted twice in the first half after being picked off just four times on 321 passes entering the game.
“I don’t think it was anything that they were doing that stopped us,” Tagovailoa said. “We shot ourselves in the foot by me throwing the interception for a touchdown and not finishing drives the way we wanted.”
Clemson’s domination was such that it turned away Alabama three times on fourth down in the second half, including on a fake field goal and after the Tide had second-and-goal at the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
This was the fourth meeting in the College Football Playoff in four seasons between Alabama and Clemson, with each team winning twice. The Tigers are 2-1 in title matchups, with the Tide also winning a semifinal game last season.
With this game billed as a heavyweight rematch in the tradition of Ali-Frazier, the knockout blows might have been a 1-2 combination: Lawrence connected with Ross on a 74-yard scoring pass for a 37-16 lead in the third quarter three plays after Clemson easily sniffed out Alabama’s fake field goal attempt on fourth-and-6 from the 22.
Etienne ran for 86 yards and two touchdowns on 14 attempts, also catching a 5-yard TD pass.
“If you look at the stats of the game, yards and all that are fairly equal,” Saban said. “But the score, because of turnovers, not finishing drives in the red zone, not getting off the field on third down, giving up explosive plays, the score doesn’t indicate anything like that.”
Alabama gained 224 yards in the first quarter but just 42 in the second as Clemson took control on both sides. The Tigers scored the final 17 points of the half, led 31-16 at the break, then shut out Alabama in the second half.
“We came in with the mindset that we were going to play on the balls of our feet and we were going to attack. And we did,” Swinney said. “The whole night we attacked.”
Lawrence and Clemson junior cornerback Trayvon Mullen, who had an interception, a sack and a forced fumble, were selected the offensive and defensive Most Valuable Players, respectively.
—Field Level Media