Clemson’s freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence arrived in Santa Clara, Calif., as a wild card dealt into a familiar championship hand. Alabama, carrying the glow of its array of championship trophies, hoped the 19-year-old Lawrence might be rattled under pressure, from both the Crimson Tide’s pass rushers and the weight of the moment.
But Lawrence, statuesque and uncommonly mature, left as a hero with barely a grass stain on his orange-and-white uniform.
Using big plays, capitalizing on Alabama turnovers and riding the poise of Lawrence, Clemson beat Alabama, 44-16, in the College Football Playoff championship game at Levi’s Stadium.
It was the fourth year in a row that Alabama and Clemson had met in college football’s four-team playoff, and the third time they faced off in the championship game.
Clemson (15-0) has now won two of those three games, adding to the national title it won at the end of the 2016 season. The Tigers, under Coach Dabo Swinney, seem to be the only program able to disrupt Alabama’s dynasty, and have started building their own along the way.
Alabama still has five national championships since 2009, but the last three seasons have included two championship-game losses to Clemson.
With so much talent and experience on both squads — much of it destined for the NFL — the rosters were expected to largely cancel each other out. The outcome, not surprisingly, rested largely on the play of the two quarterbacks.
Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, the Heisman Trophy runner-up and a postseason hero of the past, had just four interceptions in 321 pass attempts this season entering Monday’s game. But by halftime, he had thrown two picks that proved pivotal.
His first, on the game’s third play, was returned for a touchdown by A.J. Terrell. The second started a Clemson touchdown drive that gave the Tigers a double-digit lead that they never relinquished.
Clemson held a 31-16 halftime lead, knowing full well that Alabama had overcome those kinds of deficits in past playoff games. But the Crimson Tide could not convert yards into points or force Lawrence into any game-changing mistakes.
Alabama put its defensive focus on slowing Clemson’s rushing attack, which often hammered opponents into submission this season while averaging 6.8 yards per rush, highest in the nation.
The Alabama defense held Clemson to 27 yards on 10 rushes in the first half. It would have been a winning strategy if Lawrence had not played so well.
Facing a third-and-8 early in the third quarter, Lawrence finally was under pressure when he flung the ball toward receiver Justyn Ross — wide open because cornerback Saivion Smith had fallen to the grass with an injury.
Ross caught the ball and ran untouched for a 74-yard touchdown, capping a run of 23 unanswered Clemson points that lifted the Tigers to a 37-16 lead. Smith was taken away on a cart as the Clemson sideline hummed in anticipation of victory.
Historically, college football is a place of regular-season rivalries, not postseason ones. Teams do not play one another regularly in the postseason — too many schools, too many conferences, too many bowl affiliations. And these times seem an unlikely era for such a dynamic to emerge, now that there are 130 top-level programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
All that makes it the more remarkable that these two teams keep meeting in championship games, as if they are the Warriors and Cavaliers of the NBA.
The first, a 45-40 Alabama victory in January 2016, was exhilarating, the teams combining for 40 fourth-quarter points. An unexpected and successful onside kick and a 95-yard kickoff return were the big plays for Alabama’s comeback victory.
Clemson and quarterback Deshaun Watson avenged the result a year later, with Watson throwing a 2-yard touchdown to Hunter Renfrow with 1 second left to give the Tigers a 35-31 victory.
The teams met in the semifinal game last year, with No. 4 Alabama dominating No. 1 Clemson, 24-6. The Crimson Tide beat Georgia, in overtime, in the championship game. The hero was Tagovailoa, then a freshman backup quarterback. He came into the game after Alabama trailed 13-0 at halftime and threw three touchdowns, including the game-winning 41-yarder in overtime.
Alabama arrived this year as a slight favorite, and few expected any sort of romp. Alabama was the first team since Yale in 1900 to beat every team by at least 20 points during the regular season, but Clemson has built itself into a deep shadow of Alabama’s program, following closely behind in college football’s spotlight.
This might be the moment that Clemson fully emerged from it.
The game opened as if the fast-forward button got stuck. That was a twist from their previous championship meetings, which built slowly and ended with a flurry of points, like the finale of a fireworks display.
This time, they combined for three touchdowns in the first 4 ½ minutes, and four touchdowns in the first 9 minutes. Barely 3 minutes into the second quarter, the teams had combined for 37 points. The entire game felt like a highlight reel.
Clemson jumped out first, in the game’s second minute, when cornerback A.J. Terrell intercepted Tagovailoa’s short pass intended for Jerry Jeudy and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. It was just the fifth interception of the season for Tagovailoa, the Heisman Trophy runner-up. Terrell ran untouched toward a sea of pleasantly surprised orange-clad Clemson fans behind the end zone.
Tagovailoa made up for his mistake in a hurry. His next pass, on the next drive, found Jeudy beyond the Clemson defense, a 62-yard touchdown connection that elevated the crimson-wearing fans in the opposing end zone.
On the next drive, Lawrence threw a perfect arc on a 62-yard gain to Tee Higgins, then Travis Etienne carried around left end for a 17-yard touchdown run. Clemson had a 14-7 lead with 10:35 left in the first quarter. Anyone daring to turn away, or even blinking too lethargically, risked the possibility of missing the next big play.
The pace slowed, even if the scoreboard was just warming up. Alabama needed 10 plays to go 75 yards for the next touchdown. A missed extra point left Clemson ahead, 14-13.
Following a Clemson punt, Alabama moved downfield in 11 plays, with a dizzying array of quick passes and misdirection runs. Clemson’s defense stiffened, suddenly finding its balance, and held the Crimson Tide to a field goal.
It felt like a small victory for Clemson. It was a key to the national championship.
The moment of momentum shifted to Clemson’s offense, which marched downfield, ending with Etienne’s 1-yard touchdown run. The Tigers had a 21-16 lead, and when they converted Tagovailoa’s second interception into a touchdown drive, they had a double-digit cushion.
There is rarely a time to get comfortable against Alabama. But Clemson will have at least a year. The next championship game is scheduled for Jan. 13, 2020, in New Orleans.