SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The greatest dynasty of all-time didn’t die, but it probably wanted to.
In its bid for a second straight national championship — and an unprecedented sixth title in 10 years — top-ranked Alabama suffered its greatest embarrassment ever against a second-ranked Clemson juggernaut presenting an unshakable case as the country’s preeminent program, following a 44-16 beatdown at Levi’s Stadium, giving the Tigers their second national title in the past three years.
Clemson (15-0) achieved the greatest record of any national champion since 1897, becoming the first undefeated champion of the playoff era.
While Nick Saban was prevented from winning a record seventh national championship, Dabo Swinney claimed his second with a program which, until he arrived, hadn’t won previously since 1981, and joined Saban as the only active head coach with multiple titles.
While Heisman runner-up Tua Tagovailoa stumbled on the stage which made him a legend, Trevor Lawrence became the first true freshman starting quarterback to lead his team to a title since 1985 (Jamelle Holieway, Oklahoma), throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
After being annihilated by the Crimson Tide (14-1) in last year’s semifinal, the Tigers threw Saban’s squad from its throne for the second time. Two years ago, Hunter Renfrow made the title-winning catch in the final second of the title game. This time, the celebration began before the fourth quarter.
Strangely, the first quarter made it feel like another classic was coming.
Less than two minutes after kickoff, Tagovailoa telegraphed one of the worst thrown balls of his nearly flawless young career, and was intercepted by A.J. Terrell, who returned it 44 yards for a touchdown. Three plays later, the sophomore southpaw unleashed an inimitable deep ball, and evened the score with a 62-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jerry Jeudy.
Clemson came back with a 62-yard catch by Tee Higgins, and 17-yard touchdown run by Travis Etienne. Alabama marched back down, and resumed celebrating, following Hale Hentges’ 1-yard touchdown catch.
Less than nine minutes had elapsed and 27 points had been scored. Neither juggernaut had been stopped all season — or any of the past four seasons — and each seemed capable of sprinting back and forth until the sun came up, continually torching a pair of defenses filled with future pros.
Alabama led 16-14 early in the second quarter, but dominated play more than the margin suggested. After that, the scoreboard stopped lying.
Just over three minutes into the second quarter, Clemson reclaimed the lead, via Etienne’s 1-yard touchdown run, and never let it go, as its long-haired teenager continued dismantling a dynasty defined by defense.
After throwing four interceptions all season, Tagovailoa — entering with the most efficient season in the sport’s history — killed a promising drive by getting picked off by Trayvon Mullen. Lawrence, who opened 2-of-7, soon showcased the poise Tagovailoa exhibited last year, making one NFL-caliber throw after another.
Lawrence’s 5-yard shovel pass to Etienne put Clemson up by 12. By halftime, the Tigers led 31-16, tying the most first-half points ever allowed by Alabama in Saban’s 12-year tenure.
After recovering from a 13-point halftime deficit against Georgia last year, the Crimson Tide curled into a ball, and Clemson kept kicking.
The unthinkable was everywhere, starting on the sideline, where Saban, 67, looked past retirement age for the first time.
The Tigers were too tough, and too well-prepared, and too damn confident, understanding by Chapter IV that it was the power without a peer.
Alabama’s 48-point per game offense was shut out for nearly two entire quarters. Clemson’s future No. 1-overall NFL pick threw a pair of third-quarter touchdowns — one following a failed Alabama fake field goal —and spent the rest of the night smiling, two years before he can turn pro.
A dynasty may not have died, but another may have just been born.