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King Clemson: How an Alabama Rout for the Ages Ushered in a New Day in College Football

The Tigers’ 44-16 beatdown of Bama on Monday was the most stunning result in the modern championship era. This was more than just a coronation—it was a tectonic shift atop the sport’s hierarchy.

Clemson players smiling as Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Nick Saban frown Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Is the scoreboard in the picture?” Brent Venables needed to know. It sounded like every word Clemson’s defensive coordinator said brought him pain, as he worked through an acute case of Postgame Coach’s Voice. Yet as Venables posed for a picture with the defensive unit that had just won a championship, he was concerned with only one thing: making sure the scoreboard that read NATIONAL CHAMPIONS in giant purple-and-orange letters was in the shot. Just below those words was the most stunning scoreline in the history of college football’s modern national championship era: Clemson 44, Alabama 16. He wanted to make sure that was in the picture—as if he’ll ever be able to forget the score.

It’s not particularly surprising that Clemson beat Alabama to win the national championship Monday night. The Tigers entered as 5.5-point underdogs against the Crimson Tide, sure, but there were plenty of reasons to believe they could knock off the defending champs. Clemson was 14-0; it won its semifinal matchup against Notre Dame by 27 points; it defeated Bama in the national championship game two years ago; and advanced statistical algorithms S&P+ and FPI both gave Clemson around a 48 percent chance of winning. But the Tigers didn’t just win. They throttled Alabama—Alabama!—by 28 points. Venables was right to demand photographic evidence of that scoreline, for posterity.

“When did you feel that you had broken their will?” ESPN’s Rece Davis asked Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney on the championship podium after the game. Davis later asked starting quarterback Trevor Lawrence, “When did you feel that you guys had complete and total control of the game?” These are the types of questions you would like to ask a boa constrictor about the small mammal it just strangled and ate. For a decade, Alabama has been the boa constrictor; Monday, the most dominant college football program of the century was relegated to the role of the deceased mouse.

Alabama had never lost a game like this under head coach Nick Saban. Its largest margin of defeat since his 2007 arrival in Tuscaloosa was 14. (The last time a Saban team lost by 20 points, he was head coach of the Miami Dolphins.) The Tide had 20 previous losses in 12 years under Saban, and almost all of them had been fluky or extremely tight. Clemson’s 2017 victory over the Tide fell into the latter category, as the Tigers triumphed on a last-second touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow. Monday marked the first in a new category of Alabama loss: a complete rout. “This time wasn’t just a last-second thing,” Tigers defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said on ESPN after the game. “We left no doubt.”

Clemson is now the national champion, and its victory seems bigger than a one-year reign atop the sport. For the first time in years, college football’s pecking order has shifted. Alabama can no longer lay sole claim to being the preeminent program in the nation.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Christian Wilkins
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

To say that Clemson was feeling itself after winning the title would be a massive understatement. “We kicked their tail!” long snapper Patrick Phibbs hollered as the specialists got their turn with the trophy on the podium. That’s right: This performance was so thorough that it led to long-snapper spice.

Defensive end Clelin Ferrell delivered a pitch-perfect rendition of Suge Knight’s Puff Daddy diss at the 1995 Source Awards, with “COME TO DEATH VALLEY” subbed in for “COME TO DEATH ROW.” If you thought that Lawrence played older than his age this season, don’t sleep on Ferrell’s ability to replicate a piece of hip-hop history that originally took place when he was negative-2 years old.

And the Tigers players weren’t shy about putting Monday’s blowout in historical context. “I feel like it’s not really up for debate,” cornerback Trayvon Mullen told ESPN’s Heather Dinich. “I feel like we’re the best team ever.”

There was plenty of talk earlier this season that Alabama might be the greatest team ever. (Ah.) Justifiably! This Crimson Tide group featured an all-time great offense and won their average game by a margin of 31.5 points. Clemson spent much of the past week agreeing with takes about how great Bama was. “It’s like Darth Vader, man,” Venables told me Saturday, two days before the national championship. Swinney one-upped him. “It’s Alabama one, two, three, four, and five, and then it’s everybody else, so we’re sixth,” he said, referring to the college football hierarchy.

And yet Clemson came out and demolished Alabama. The Tigers never seemed to be under duress on offense. They made no mistakes, committing no turnovers. They faced minimal pressure, allowing no sacks. They never struggled to move the chains, going 10-of-15 on third-down conversions. They put up the stats of a team playing on easy mode. “There was not much pressure against the quarterback at all,” Tigers co–offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said afterward. “They were giving us the opportunities in the passing game. They were giving us the opportunities to make explosive plays.” It boggles the mind that the “they” in this quote is Alabama, with potential no. 1 draft pick Quinnen Williams at defensive tackle.

On defense, Clemson flustered Alabama endlessly. Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who went eight games this season before throwing his first interception, threw two picks, one of which was returned 44 yards by A.J. Terrell for a touchdown. Alabama went a dismal 4-of-13 on third downs and was stopped on fourth down three times inside the Tigers’ 25-yard line.

Alabama was so out of sorts that Nick Saban made a mistake. Needing 6 yards on a key fourth down early in the third quarter, Saban called for this fake field goal:

Against a team that was playing in its regular defensive alignment and clearly expecting a fake, Saban dialed up what is essentially a power run play with kicker Joseph Bulovas serving as lead blocker for third-string quarterback Mac Jones. Bulovas, a freshman kicker, tried to block Wilkins, a senior defensive tackle bound for the NFL. The play lost 2 yards.

I’ve never seen Alabama look like this. Nobody has. Of the 167 games Saban has coached at Alabama, this was tied for the second-worst defensive performance and the 10th-worst offensive performance in terms of scoring. Bama appeared shook. Bama never appears shook.

The scary thing is there’s probably more where this came from. Some of the biggest plays Monday night were made by true freshmen, on passes from Lawrence to wide receiver Justyn Ross. Ross made this catch:

And this one:

And scored this touchdown:

Lawrence came into the season graded as one of the highest-rated QB quarterback prospects ever and showed why. He leaves the season as one of the best pro quarterback prospects ever—the problem being that the NFL will have to wait two years for him, because he won’t be draft eligible until 2021. I’ve previously said that Tagovailoa is the best college quarterback I’ve ever seen. I stand by that. But Lawrence outplayed Tua on Monday. Ross, who finished with six catches for 153 yards, is an Alabama native who was once expected to sign with the Crimson Tide, but surprised the recruiting world (and Alabama) by picking Clemson instead. Now, his highlights will haunt his home-state program all offseason.

Last January, Alabama won the national championship after Saban inserted a reserve squad of blue-chip freshmen into the offense at halftime: Tagovailoa at quarterback, Najee Harris at running back, Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, and Henry Ruggs III at receiver, Alex Leatherwood at left tackle. We wrote about how this was distinctly Bama; only the Tide were talented enough to have pulled this off. Well, Clemson didn’t quite match that feat, if only because Lawrence and Ross were starters heading into the championship. But what they did was certainly Bama-adjacent.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Dabo Swinney and Clemson
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Clemson isn’t Alabama 2.0. It’s built differently. Alabama swaps out a large swath of its coaching staff every offseason, as Saban’s top assistants (Kirby Smart, Lane Kiffin, Jeremy Pruitt, and Mike Locksley among them) are routinely poached by other programs. Clemson hasn’t made a significant staff change in years. Swinney urges his coaches and players to “enjoy the moment,” even on the sport’s biggest stage; Saban would not encourage anyone to enjoy anything at any time. Still, there is a similarity: Clemson has proved it can achieve the sorts of ludicrous accomplishments we recently thought only Alabama was capable of.

Saban has now coached in eight national championship games and won six. The only two losses have come against Clemson. And these losses haven’t seemed like LSU 9, Alabama 6 or Ole Miss 43, Alabama 37 or the fabled Kick-Six. The Tigers are beating Alabama because they are every bit as good as Alabama, week after week, year after year.

I have been writing about college football professionally since 2012. A freshman playing his first college game that year would’ve played his last game in 2015; a freshman playing his first college game in 2015 would have played his last game this season. Throughout this period, spanning two generations of players, there has never been any question as to who the superior team in the sport was. Alabama has won 91 percent of its games and half of the national championships over that stretch. This can be a turnoff: It is hard to sell people on a sport ruled by a joyless juggernaut.

But over the past few years, Clemson has emerged as a real challenger to Bama. The two teams have now met in the College Football Playoff four times in four years, with the Tigers proving a worthy adversary to the Tide during the 2016 and 2017 championship games. Now, Clemson isn’t even playing second fiddle. Alabama’s reign is not over—it just landed the top-ranked recruiting class in the United States and returns all those freshmen who won last season’s title and developed into excellent starters—but we can no longer act like it’s in a class of its own. If Clemson can beat Alabama in multiple title games, if Clemson can go 15-0 with 13 20-point wins, if Clemson can legitimately whup Alabama’s ass in a hugely important matchup at a neutral site, we can’t pretend as if it’s a tier below anyone. The Tigers are Alabama’s equal, and sometimes more.

For the first time in a long time, the balance of power at the top of college football has shifted. We now live under a legitimate duopoly, featuring two perennially powerful kings. Monday night was just one game in what could be a decades-long war between these programs. But even if it’s just one data point, the way it played out changed the very way we look at this sport.

With its crushing championship win, Clemson told Alabama that college football’s throne is big enough for two. It was a mission statement, the dawn of a new day. It was a scoreboard you just had to get in the picture.