Clemson Wins Second National Championship in Three Years

With the Tigers holding Alabama scoreless in the second half, Clemson has secured the first 15-0 season of any team in 121 years.


Associated Press

DT Christian Wilkins, DE Clelin Ferrell, and CB Trayvon Mullen, Jr. celebrate with head coach Dabo Swinney.

Joy. Joy was Dabo’s word of the season, and joy was reflected in the pride that the Clemson Tigers took in their journey to Santa Clara on Monday night. With an undefeated regular season, a fourth consecutive ACC championship, and a blistering defeat of Notre Dame in the semifinal behind them, all that remained between the Tigers and the trophy was a familiar opponent: Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Alabama and Heisman runner-up QB Tua Tagovailoa demolished opponents all season, including Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and was being held in serious contention for the greatest college football team of all time. Even though the vast majority of analysts picked the Tide to beat the Tigers, no one doubted that this would be a game for the ages, much like the two previous National Championship meetings. Alabama opened as 6.5-point favorites, and the majority of Vegas money went with the Tide even though some historically smart money was placed on the underdogs from Clemson.

The most interesting narrative in the buildup to the National Championship was not only that these were the best two teams, but they were virtually identical in many aspects. Strong defensive fronts, run games by committee, and exciting, young quarterbacks on both sides provided tons of match-ups to look out for during the game. Tagovailoa had made headlines after a miraculous championship comeback last year, but Clemson freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence had made plenty of headlines in his own right. Hailing from Cartersville, GA, Lawrence broke many high school records formerly owned by the last quarterback to lead Clemson to a national championship: the transcendental, once-in-a-lifetime talent Deshaun Watson. Arriving on campus last January, Lawrence was a quick learner, and eventually won the starting job from Kelly Bryant after a stellar week four performance against Georgia Tech.

First Quarter

Greenville News
Cornerback AJ Terrell takes the early interception to the house, giving the Tigers the 7-0 lead minutes into the first quarter.

Even though Lawrence had played exceptional football all season (only throwing four INTs), the young quarterback appeared rattled on the Tigers’ first drive of the game. With Clemson getting the ball first and going three and out, many fans were dismayed that Alabama kicked off and already had the ball back within the first forty seconds of the game. However, hope was restored when cornerback AJ Terrell made a brilliant read on Tagovailoa and intercepted the Alabama QB, running it back for a 44-yard pick-six. The Clemson sideline erupted as the defense celebrated the early effort, because the Clemson secondary was under immense scrutiny leading into the game. The Tide fought back, however, tying the score at 7 with a three play, 75 yard drive finished off by Tagovailoa’s 62-yard pass to Jerry Jeudy. Clemson was quick to respond when they got the ball back. Trevor Lawrence threw a deep ball to sophomore wideout Tee Higgins on a 3rd-and-14 to also gain 62 yards. Travis Etienne capped off the drive on the next play with a 17-yard run, his second longest of the night, and the Tigers went up 14-13. The Tide scored to close out the first quarter, and with Alabama leading Clemson 16-14 just a few minutes into the second quarter, many could already tell this would become an instant classic like the first two meetings.

Second Quarter

Defensive MVP Trayvon Mullen reels in a momentum-shifting interception that he went on to return to the ALA 47.

Just minutes later in the second, the Tigers had their first methodical drive of the game. With the first score coming off a pick-six and the second being the result of a miraculous third-down conversion, Clemson needed a drive like this to truly settle into the game, and after another Etienne score they retook the lead, 21-16. Alabama’s next drive foreshadowed the second half breakdown that Alabama would experience. After getting the ball into Clemson territory, Tagovailoa made a costly error by throwing into triple coverage, this time intercepted by Trayvon Mullen, who returned it all the way to the Alabama 47. Lawrence finished the drive with a five yard pass, which also went to Travis Etienne. The Tigers forced a punt and kicked a field goal before half, shocking the whole world by leading Alabama 31-16 after thirty minutes of football. Swinney and the Tigers couldn’t let off the gas and give Alabama a chance to fight back in, so the main message in the locker room was to “pretend that the score was 0-0” and dominate for the rest of the game.

Third Quarter

Justyn Ross and DT Christian Wilkins celebrate Ross’ touchdown. Ross had six receptions for 153 yards and a score.

Alabama came out shaken, starting off the second half with a rough turnover on downs. At the end of a drive that lasted five minutes, the Crimson Tide passed up an easy three points and opted for a fake where the holder would pick up the ball and run. The Clemson line blew up the play and the ball was back in the hands of Trevor Lawrence. After a pro-level juke move, freshman WR Justyn Ross caught a short ball and ran 74 yards to the endzone. Even though the announcers considered this to be the final nail in the Tide’s coffin, it wasn’t the final score from the Tigers. Ross made a miraculous one-handed catch for 37 yards, which was followed just minutes later by a touchdown reception by Tee Higgins. With 21 seconds left in the third quarter, this would be the last score of the night.

Fourth Quarter

Harry How (Gettys)
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence gazes up at the fireworks and confetti, soaking in the moment.

After an Alabama turnover on downs and a punt from each team, the Tigers got the ball back on their own one-yard line and managed to run the clock all the way down after a 10:02 possession. Both sides knew that the game was over after three quarters, so timeouts and commercial breaks were kept to a minimum. There were many tears on both sidelines, and as the Tide left the field the confetti began to fall and the Clemson Tigers hoisted the trophy. Both teams will be as dominant next year as they’ve been, but Tiger fans can now rest easily that they are undoubtedly at the top of college football.