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Clemson Won the National Title by Handing Nick Saban His Most Humiliating Loss

Alabama has suffered tough defeats under its head coach before. But no one has ever made Saban’s Crimson Tide look like this.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’d be forgivable if your instinct watching Alabama head into halftime of Monday night’s national title game trailing Clemson 31-16 was to give the Crimson Tide the benefit of the doubt. After all, just last season coach Nick Saban’s squad rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to topple Georgia on this very stage. Outside of two ugly interceptions, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa had mostly looked like the star he’s been since replacing Jalen Hurts during that showdown with the Bulldogs. So it would’ve made sense, then, if you assumed he’d be able to lead the Tide out of a double-digit hole again when he took the snap to begin the second half.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Trevor Lawrence
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

But you would’ve been wrong. That 15-point gap was the closest Alabama came to Clemson for the remainder of the contest. The Tigers built upon their explosive first half by stuffing an ill-advised Alabama fake field goal attempt deep inside their own territory before quarterback Trevor Lawrence unleashed a 74-yard strike to Justyn Ross to extend the lead to 37-16. After the defense stifled another Bama fourth-down attempt on the next drive, Lawrence picked apart the Tide’s vaunted defense once more, moving 89 yards in 12 plays en route to another touchdown pass, this time to wide receiver Tee Higgins. By game’s end, the margin of victory was stunning: Clemson 44, Alabama 16.

Never before under Saban has Alabama been so thoroughly embarrassed. Coming into Monday, only two teams—Arkansas and Oklahoma—managed to break 30 points against Bama this season, both reaching that threshold by virtue of garbage-time scores. Clemson closed out the first half with 31. It ended the game two points shy of hanging more points on a Saban-led Tide team than anyone since he took the reins in Tuscaloosa in 2007.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Tua Tagovailoa
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

More often than not, when Alabama loses under Saban, it seems as if the slightest flap of a butterfly’s wings could have altered the outcome. The Tide’s lone loss last season came by 12 points at Auburn. Their most recent loss before that came on a last-second Deshaun Watson touchdown to clinch Alabama-Clemson II in January 2017 (we were all so young then). Saban’s team has lost games that included the Kick-Six, Johnny Football doing Johnny Football things, and whatever the hell this Ole Miss catch was. If you had to recall an Alabama loss most emblematic of the Saban era, it would probably be the program’s 9-6 failure against LSU in 2011 that was ultimately avenged in that season’s national championship game. Entering this week, Saban’s stint had featured five of the past nine titles. That stretch counted 127 wins to merely 12 losses, and no defeats by more than 14 points. In fact, Saban’s Tide had fallen by that margin only twice: to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl after the 2013 season, and to South Carolina in October 2010. Their wins, on the other hand, were frequently knockouts, not altogether different from the kind that Clemson delivered in Santa Clara.

What made Monday’s game all the more shocking was that this Alabama team seemed to be the most dominant of Saban’s dynastic tenure. In the regular season, Tagovailoa threw just three passes in the fourth quarter because Bama was frequently ahead by so much. He put together the most efficient passing season in college football history. On Monday, he again threw just three fourth-quarter passes … only he was pulled for a different reason. Bama was left for dead. He was benched in favor of Hurts with the Tide down by 28 after another drive stalled deep in Clemson’s half.

Meanwhile, for the second consecutive season, the national championship was defined by a true-freshman gunslinger. Only this time, instead of the wunderkid from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, the hero was the 19-year-old golden boy from Cartersville, Georgia, with the mane of a lion. Lawrence took the starting job from incumbent Kelly Bryant after a 49-21 win over Georgia Tech in Week 4. He never looked back, throwing for 3,280 yards with 30 touchdowns and only four interceptions, and claiming a national title to cap his freshman campaign. Lawrence went 20-of-32 for 347 yards with three scores and no picks on Monday; Tagovailoa went 22-of-34 for 295 yards with two touchdowns and two costly turnovers. Lawrence had the better hair and the better line.

Clemson’s win evened the four-year series between these squads, with the winner of each contest claiming the national championship at season’s end. And it wouldn’t be outlandish to predict a fifth meeting between the two next January. Tagovailoa and Lawrence will both return to campus, and Saban and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney will both bring in top recruiting classes, ranked first and sixth by 247Sports, respectively. Clemson’s loaded defensive line is projected to send at least three players to the first round of April’s NFL draft (Dexter Lawrence, Clelin Ferrell, and Christian Wilkins), but the Tigers should bring back enough talent to run through the ACC yet again. Likewise, nearly all of Alabama’s key contributors on offense will return to Tuscaloosa next fall.

Bama-Clemson IV wasn’t the classic that I and II were. But its legacy stands alone. Clemson did more than just beat Bama; it humiliated Bama. And in doing so, it earned the right to be called champions and became the first team in the AP poll era to finish a season at 15-0.