All the talk leading up to Monday night’s college football national championship game centered on what was supposed to be the greatest team of all time.
It was supposed to be a coronation, a game for the historians to begin drawing comparisons for the GOAT honor.
Alabama was expected to write the final chapter to a 15-0 season by once again pounding Clemson, just as it did last year.
But something went terribly wrong for the Tide.
The tide didn’t come in. This wrecking ball of destruction, which had been tested only once all season, was wrecked itself by an inspired Tiger team that had Alabama by the tail from the third play of the game when cover boy Tua Tagovailoa threw a pick-6.
It ended up a lopsided 44-16, thrusting the Tigers into the GOAT conversation as they, not the Tide, finished 15-0.
This was an astonishing beatdown, a teardown of a mystique. This was supposed to be Nick Saban’s seventh national championship team, maybe his best ever. He had the glamour quarterback, a stable of sleek running backs that all will be in the NFL someday and linemen who could bench press The Empire State Building on both sides of the ball.
But Clemson was having none of it. With all the acclaim about Tua, it was Clemson’s surfer-dude-looking quarterback Trevor Lawrence who suddenly became the next big thing. The lanky Lawrence, the No. 1 high school recruit last year who joined the Tigers for spring ball, looked like the second coming of Peyton Manning by carving up the Alabama secondary to the tune of 20 of 32 for 347 yards and 3 scores, while throwing no picks. Tua was 22 of 34 for 295 and a couple of scores, but also a couple of key picks as Clemson DC Brent Venables constantly confused him by giving him looks that reportedly never showed up on film, perhaps being saved for just this occasion.
This was simply a case of somebody standing up to the big bully, staring him in the face and forcing him to back down. Nobody manhandles Alabama like this. It’s the team that’s always kicking sand in the face of the little guy, throwing its weight around.
But Dabo Swinney has something special at Clemson, now the champs for the second time in three years. He had a defensive line — which was missing its best player by the way — that threw Alabama’s heralded offensive line back into the backfield. Alabama did run the ball adequately, but probably gave up on it too soon, banking on Tua to win the game, as he often did earlier this season.
Granted, a lot of things went Clemson’s way. The pick-6 to start the game was something that Tua simply hadn’t done in his career. He eventually gave away to Jalen Hurts, last year’s starter that yielded to Tua last year as he came on in relief to propel the Tide to the win.
Tiger receivers made jaw-dropping catches. Their backs ran with relentless fury. Clemson was big, nasty and the ones who did the intimidating.
There’s always talk about Saban and how nobody is better in a big game. But Saban, as he should, took blame after the game. His ill-advised fake field goal call blew up in his face and smacked of desperation. Clemson was in no way fooled and that broke Alabama’s spirit. The Tide wound up being outscored 30-3 over the middle two quarters and then Clemson had a lengthy drive to close out the game when Alabama waved the white flag and said, “no mas.”
College football fans better get used to this. Both teams were loaded with sophomores and freshmen and both have glittering recruiting classes. College football has turned into the Big 2, with everybody else just bit players.