Tigers clearly Tide’s equal

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - COLLEGE FOOTBALL - Dan Wolken Colum­nist

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The mo­ment you knew that Nick Sa­ban knew what was hap­pen­ing to his team ar­rived with the sub­tlety of a crys­tal foot­ball be­ing smashed by a sledge­ham­mer. It stunned with the force of an elec­tri­cal storm, and it shook a sport that he has owned for a decade to its core.

The great­est col­lege foot­ball coach of all time, the man leads a pro­gram that has never given up on a big game and pulled out so many that once seemed to be slip­ping away, finally pan­icked. He ran out of an­swers. He ad­mit­ted that Dabo Swin­ney and the Clem­son Tigers were not only go­ing to rout Alabama for the na­tional cham­pi­onship but that they had es­sen­tially hacked the ma­chine.

Alabama’s hope­less fake field goal to end its open­ing drive of the third quar­ter wasn’t the big­gest play in Clem­son’s sur­gi­cal 44-16 vic­tory Jan. 7 at Levi’s Sta­dium, but it was the most telling. For once, Sa­ban knew he didn’t have the bet­ter foot­ball team. He didn’t have the bet­ter coach­ing staff. And un­like any game he had ever coached since bring­ing Alabama back to su­per­power sta­tus, he didn’t have a prayer with­out a few tricks.

But Clem­son wasn’t fooled. And now col­lege foot­ball officially has a dou­ble dy­nasty.

The Col­lege Foot­ball Play­off has turned 5 years old. The na­tional cham­pi­onship count in this new era is now Alabama 2, Clem­son 2. It doesn’t erase what Sa­ban did be­fore the play­off and the five over­all ti­tles he has won with the Crim­son Tide. But it does il­lus­trate that the torch, if not passed, is now shared.

There’s so many great coaches who are so de­serv­ing of a mo­ment like this and never get to ex­pe­ri­ence it,” Swin­ney said. “We beat Notre Dame and Alabama, we left no doubt and we walk off this field as the first 15-0 team in his­tory.”

Clem­son is the pro­gram that de­serves all of the mys­tique and every bit of the benefit of the doubt. It took a bunch of fresh­man play­mak­ers and made Alabama’s de­fense look silly at every turn. It lost its best de­fen­sive line­man be­fore the play­off and still made quar­ter­back Tua Tago­v­ailoa a gaffe ma­chine.

“We’re all lay­ing it on the line for each other,” said Clem­son quar­ter­back Trevor Lawrence. “It’s eas­ier when ev­ery­one is giv­ing 100 per­cent.”

The num­bers are go­ing to be dis­sected for months. From the 31 points Clem­son put up in the first half to the mas­sive lead in the sec­ond half that the Tigers kept build­ing and build­ing, there were all kinds of un­wanted firsts for a Sa­ban team.

But the most im­por­tant point that will carry into the offsea­son is that this per­for­mance wasn’t a fluke, nor is Clem­son a one­off. When Alabama lost to the Tigers in 2016, the na­tional take­away was that De­shaun Wat­son’s one-of-a-kind bril­liance was re­spon­si­ble for clos­ing the gap and couldn’t be repli­cated as long as Sa­ban was still around.

But now, that ar­gu­ment is done for­ever. Clem­son, as of to­day, is the more com­plete pro­gram. And that isn’t just about play­ers like Lawrence, who made elite third-down throws while avoid­ing the mis­takes that Tago­v­ailoa made. It was a ma­ligned Clem­son offen­sive line that sim­ply man­han­dled the vaunted Alabama de­fen­sive front. It was Clem­son’s re­ceivers leav­ing Alabama de­fend­ers in the dust.

Alabama can still win cham­pi­onships as long as Sa­ban coaches, but the earth moved un­der­neath his feet. Swin­ney is the new king of col­lege foot­ball.


Clem­son run­ning back Travis Eti­enne cel­e­brates one of his three touch­downs in the na­tional ti­tle game with de­fen­sive line­man Chris­tian Wilkins.

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