For a moment, Alabama’s vise grip on college football seemed to loosen. When Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson connected with receiver Hunter Renfrow for a 2-yard touchdown to win last season’s national title game, head coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers seemed to put themselves on even footing with the sport’s most fearsome dynasty. They had gone 1-1 against Bama in national title matchups, and they entered this season’s College Football Playoff as the no. 1 overall seed.
In Monday’s Sugar Bowl semifinal, the Tide needed only 13 seconds to tighten their hold to that of a boa constrictor. Within a blink, head coach Nick Saban’s team took a commanding lead, put itself on track to roll 24-6, and disabused any notion that Clemson had snatched the crown as the premier program in the FBS. Alabama easily advanced to the national championship for the sixth time in the last nine seasons, and it did so in a familiar fashion: by seizing on an opponent’s moment of weakness and promptly squeezing the life right out of it.
Shortly after defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne intercepted Clemson’s Kelly Bryant to give Bama possession with a 10-6 lead midway through the third quarter, the 6-foot-2, 308-pound junior lined up in the backfield with the Tide in the red zone. Payne flared out to sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts’s right; Hurts found him; and Payne used ballerina-like balance to tap his feet inside the pylon for a brilliant 1-yard touchdown.
Saban and his assistant coaches could have chosen to hand the ball to star running back Bo Scarbrough or let Hurts run it in on his own. But they didn’t. They targeted a slow-moving lineman with the body control of a tightrope walker. It was a flex the size of Saban’s trophy case, a nod to which team still runs the college football universe.
The final nail in the coffin came 13 seconds later, when Bryant uncorked a pass in the direction of wide receiver Deon Cain on the opening play of Clemson’s ensuing drive. Cain was hit on contact; the ball sailed up like a firework; and Bama linebacker Mack Wilson caught it before running 18 yards for a pick-six. In a span shorter than the time it’ll likely take you to read this sentence, the score ballooned from 10-6 to 24-6. The game might as well have been called on the spot.
Without Watson to lead them, the Tigers struggled to gain inches, let alone first downs. Their offense ran 70 plays for 188 yards, averaging a measly 2.69 yards per play. Meanwhile, Hurts completed two-thirds of his passing attempts with two touchdowns and no picks. One season after suffering their most high-profile loss to this very Clemson program, Saban and Co. exacted revenge in the most Alabama way possible, by suffocating their foe with turnovers, brute force, and a complete sense of domination.
In retrospect, the things that seemed to go against Alabama in 2017 actually worked in its favor. It didn’t play in the SEC championship after losing to Auburn in the Iron Bowl, marking the first time the Tide didn’t win their conference in the past four years. That facilitated an extra bye week as Bama prepared for the playoff. The Tide landed a rematch with top-seeded Clemson in the semifinal, conceivably the most difficult playoff draw; that provided an extra source of motivation for a team always trying to find reasons to feel doubted, even if those should be impossible to come by.
If there was any question that Alabama belonged in the playoff, it was squashed in that 13-second stretch and eliminated completely during the course of an 18-point win. Now, Saban will face his protégé, Kirby Smart, when Bama takes on Georgia in an all-SEC national title game. Monday night’s performance was a snoozefest in comparison to a wild Rose Bowl affair, but it served as a proper reminder that Alabama is still college football’s team to beat. As with most teams from Saban’s tenure, the force is not just with the Tide. It is the Tide.