With stunning ease — and a freshman quarterback — Clemson Tigers toppled the Alabama Crimson Tide again to become the first perfect playoff champion.
Trevor Lawrence passed for 347 yards and three touchdowns and the second-ranked Tigers beat No. 1 Alabama 44-16 on Monday night in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
In the fourth consecutive playoff meeting between the Tigers and Tide, Clemson evened the series and beat ’Bama for the national championship for the second time in three seasons. Clemson is the first team in the AP poll era, dating back to 1936, to finish 15-0.
Coach Nick Saban and the Tide (14-1) were looking for a sixth national championship in 10 years, trying to add to an already unprecedented run in the sport. Instead, Clemson crushed Alabama, becoming the first opponent to beat the Tide by more than 14 points since Saban became coach in 2007.
Coach Dabo Swinney’s Tigers sealed their status as a superpower, no longer just 1A to Alabama’s 1.
Two seasons ago it was Deshaun Watson dethroning the Tide with a last-second touchdown pass. Clemson’s new star quarterback didn’t need the late-game heroics. The long-haired Lawrence cut though Alabama’s defense with the help of another fabulous freshman. Justyn Ross made a juggling grab, a one-handed snare and broke a 74-yard touchdown about midway through the third quarter that made it 37-16 and had Swinney high-stepping down the sidelines.
Ross, who scored two touchdowns in the semifinal rout of Notre Dame, had six catches for 153 yards against his home-state team.
Swinney takes a different approach than Saban, running a more fun-loving program than Alabama’s all-business organization. But the results have been every bit as good. And on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium, in a championship game played more than 2,000 miles away from Clemson’s South Carolina campus, the Tigers were way too much for an Alabama team that had spent the season mauling its opposition by an average of 31 points per game.
Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa threw two crucial interceptions in the first half, the first returned 44 yards for a touchdown by A.J. Terrell to put Clemson up 7-0. The Tide came in scoring 48 points per game, but was shut out over the final 44 minutes by an opportunistic Clemson defense that stiffened in key spots.
Tagovailoa, the sophomore who came off the bench to win the championship game last year for the Tide, went 22 for 34 for 295 yards and two touchdowns.
The Heisman runner-up was also the second-best quarterback on the field in the championship game. Lawrence finished 20 for 32, but went 18 for 25 for 277 yards over the final three quarters.
He looked to be on the way to another big game even after the early interception when he threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy on Alabama’s second drive, followed by a 1-yarder to Hale Hentges on the next possession.
But after Alabama drove inside the Clemson 10 late in the first quarter, everything changed for the Tide. A false start by Jedrick Willis Jr. at the 1-yard line helped stall a drive that led to a field goal that gave Alabama a 16-14 lead in the opening minute of the second quarter.
The Tide didn’t score again with Tagovailoa in the game.
He threw his second interception on the next drive when he launched a deep pass into coverage and took a third-down sack the following drive when he didn’t see a cornerback blitz coming. Things then fell apart in the second half with Alabama getting stopped on a fake field goal on the opening drive when holder Mac Jones was stopped for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-6.
Tagovailoa then was stopped short on two fourth-down runs before spending the rest of a rough night on the sideline.
He finished 22 for 34 for 295 yards.