Alabama was in the mood for a throwback to the days when it sucked all the drama out of a place and replaced it with that good ol’ fashioned Crimson Tide inevitability.
There was no room for the magic brought by Volumes I and II of this Clemson/Alabama series. This latest edition, in the Sugar Bowl on Monday night at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, was a 60-minute hype video of Alabama imposing its will. The Tide inundated top-ranked Clemson 24-6 to secure its spot in the national title game for the third consecutive season and sixth time under coach Nick Saban.
"It was a little bit personal, I think, for us after what happened to us in this game last year," Saban said.
Making things feel truly nostalgic was the way the Tide won with a brutally stifling defensive performance. The first two College Football Playoff meetings between these teams saw Clemson score 40 and 35 points. Monday, Clemson (12-2) was outscored by Alabama (12-1) defensive players.
“It was personal,” said Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis. “We all wanted it bad.”
Alabama will face Georgia in an all-Southeastern Conference national championship game next Monday in Atlanta. As the final seconds ticked off the game clock, the jubilant Alabama fans rained the familiar chorus down on their victors.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts was named the game’s most outstanding offensive player. He threw for two scores and 160 yards passing and rushing. Da’Ron Payne was named the most outstanding defensive player for a game-altering play he made in the third quarter.
That was when the game took a hard turn in Alabama’s favor, and oddly enough it started with one of those rare occurrences when the Tide is caught looking mortal: Alabama’s first offensive play of the third quarter was a Hurts fumble that Clemson recovered deep in Alabama territory.
The Tigers, trailing 10-3, had their opening. The Alabama defense cinched it up in a hurry. Three Clemson plays resulted in a net loss of 5 yards and a field goal that cut the lead to 10-6 but felt like a letdown.
The Alabama defense kept tightening the screws from there.
A somewhat promising Clemson drive ended in disaster when Anfernee Jennings whipped around the edge and hammered Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant just as he was releasing a pass.
Payne, a 308-pound nose guard, intercepted it and returned it 21 yards. Seven plays later, he entered the game on offense and leaked out of the backfield for a 1-yard touchdown catch.
“He is a bag of surprises,” said Alabama defensive lineman Da’Shawn Hand of his teammate.
Clemson’s next offensive play ended up with a similar result. An errant Bryant pass found Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson, and he returned it 18 yards for a touchdown, providing what would ultimately be the final score.
Clemson finished with just 188 total offensive yards, its lowest total output since November 2011. Alabama dropped Bryant for five sacks and landed several more vicious hits just after he’d release the ball.
"The guys played about as hard as any of our defensive teams that I can ever remember in this particular game," Saban said.
"We didn't protect our quarterback well at all and could not run the football effectively," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "So that's really the story of the game."
While Georgia and Oklahoma were playing overtime of their barnburner of a Rose Bowl in Monday’s other College Football Playoff semifinal, Alabama defensive back Trevon Diggs was making it clear what type of game it was going to be in New Orleans when he leveled Clemson return man Travis Etienne on the opening kickoff.
Clemson vs. Alabama was distilled violence, and it was largely Alabama’s fierce and roughneck defensive unit that was delivering punishment in heaping servings.
An injury-thinned Crimson Tide front seven mauled Clemson’s offensive line from the opening snap: The Tigers’ first three drives netted zero yards.
“They gave us too much time to prepare,” Lewis said. “We knew them like the back of our hand tonight. Everybody wanted it bad.”
The last play of the first quarter saw Alabama defensive lineman Raekwon Davis storm through the line and drop Bryant for a 7-yard loss, giving Clemson negative-7 yards of offense in the first 15 minutes.
With the offense sinking in the face of unrelenting pressure, the Clemson defense was trying to keep the team afloat in adverse field position. Alabama’s first three drives started from its own 46, its own 47 and the Clemson 46.
The Tigers defense was on the field for nearly 11 minutes in the first quarter but had to feel as if it weathered the storm by limiting Alabama to a chip shot field goal and a Calvin Ridley touchdown.
Bryant breathed life into Clemson’s offense in the second quarter when he weaved a zigzag pattern through the heart of the Alabama defense to convert a third-and-12 with a 20-yard gain.
That run keyed a 13-play, 54-yard drive that resulted in Clemson scratching its way onto the scoreboard with a 44-yard field goal by Alex Spence.
But Alabama quickly snuffed the spark. Clemson followed up that 54-yard drive by gaining 54 yards on its next eight possessions combined.
It was a vintage defensive performance. The critics have been few for a program that has made more national title games than it has missed in the last decade, but those voices gained some footing when Alabama required some help from the committee to even make the four-team playoff.
“A lot of people were saying we lost our edge,” Hand said. “This was a statement game. We wanted to gain our respect back.”
Mission accomplished. Monday was a stark reminder what the Alabama machine is still capable of.