There are times when you look at a blowout score and think, “That wasn’t really indicative of the way the game went.” Other times you may think, “This game was exactly as one-sided as the scoreboard showed.”
Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game was both. Let me explain.
In terms of on-field talent, Clemson and Alabama are close to identical. They are currently head and shoulders above the rest of the country, which was borne out with their being the two top-ranked teams before, during and at the end of the season. It was the easiest national championship matchup to have predicted, but the fact that it actually occurred yet again shows how great the talent pool is within each program.
The Clemson Tigers won, 44-16, essentially holding Alabama scoreless for the final full three quarters of action and scoring 30 unanswered points over that stretch. There was a sense through much of the game that the Crimson Tide would still make a run, but every opportunity to do so was smothered by a Clemson team that seemed much more ready to play.
There are some easy conclusions that can be drawn when just looking at the final score. Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence out-dueled Tua Tagovailoa. The Clemson defense clamped down on Alabama’s vaunted passing game. Alabama’s defense is overrated and finally faced a true test that it couldn’t handle.
But those explanations don’t really tell the story. The biggest difference between the two teams on Monday night was on each team’s respective sideline. While he’s arguably the greatest college football coach of all time, Nick Saban was badly out-coached by Dabo Swinney.
Over the course of the evening, Alabama had plenty of opportunities to keep itself in the game and maybe even find a way to win it. The stat sheet is not all that different in its final numbers.
Clemson outgained Alabama, 482 to 443. The Tigers threw for 347 yards to the Tide’s 295, but Alabama rushed for 148 to Clemson’s 135. In the aggregate, this was an evenly played game.
However, every big play or big decision was made correctly by Clemson and Alabama had no answers in those clutch situations.
At halftime, Saban said his defense needed to do a better job getting off the field on third downs. But Clemson dominated that category all night, finishing 10-15 (67 percent) while Alabama was just 4-13 (31 percent). The Tide drove the ball deep into Tiger territory multiple times, only to come away with no points on failed fourth-down attempts.
Tagovailoa’s second interception of the opening half was thanks to a bit of disguise by the Clemson defense, which appeared to be set up in a Cover 2. But the cornerback dropped back on the snap instead of pinching up and Tagovailoa’s deep ball ended up going into double coverage and easily picked off. It was a defensive look he never expected on that play.
Then there was that disastrous Alabama fake field goal attempt. Down 31-16 in the third quarter, the entire stadium knew that a fake was at least a reasonable expectation on 4th and 6 from the 22 yard line. The Clemson defense was set up in a shell formation, not even pretending to go for a block. Yet the Tide still went ahead with the obvious and tried to run it with their third-string quarterback, who got smothered for a two-yard loss.
Early in the fourth quarter, facing a 4th and goal at the two-yard line with any hope of an improbable comeback riding on its outcome, Alabama ran a puzzling jet sweep with Tagovailoa to the short side of the field, resulting in a seven-yard loss.
Clemson seemed to know everything Alabama was going to do and took away all opportunities. It was as if the Tide assumed their pedigree would carry them to the title no matter how straight forward they played this game.
There have been past opponents against whom Alabama could essentially tell them what they were about to do and the opposition would still have little chance. Clemson is not one of these opponents.
The Tigers earned this victory by being both more prepared and more capable of applying what it had learned off the field. Clemson isn’t necessarily 28 points better than Alabama, but its game plan was certainly at least that.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.