SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Nick Saban went for it at LSU on fourth down from his own 22-yard line in the 2001 SEC Championship Game against Tennessee. He has always called that decision dumb.

Monday night, Saban went for it on fourth down from his own 34, his Alabama team trailing Clemson only 21-16 early in the second quarter, then faked a field goal early in the third with his team down 31-16. With the kicker as the lead blocker for the holder.

Call those decisions desperate. Panicky even.

Saban saw the way the CFP National Championship Game was going, and it looked like a California landslide triggered by all the rain that has soaked the state in recent days. He knew the Crimson Tide needed points — a lot more points — if it was going to beat Clemson in the race to the gold torch-looking CFP trophy.

The race turned out to be a rout. Bama started in a hole it could never completely climb out of after Tua Tagovailoa’s third pass of the night was tipped and returned for a pick-6 by Clemson’s A.J. Terrell. It was serve and volley for awhile, but in the end it was a shocking, crushing, lopsided 44-16 Clemson win.

“The pick-6 set the tempo,” said Clemson coach and former Alabama walk-on Dabo Swinney. “The whole night we attacked.”

After three quarters, Alabama surrendered. Early in the fourth Tagovailoa was on the bench — Tua never plays the fourth quarter, right? — and most Alabama fans were left with a distasteful choice to make. They could head for the Levi’s Stadium exits and maybe try to snag a seat on a redeye back to Birmingham, or stay and sit with a Bird Box blindfold over their eyes to keep from having to see the horrors confronting them.


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“We couldn’t get off the field on third down and gave up some explosive plays,” Saban said clinically afterward. “We had plenty of opportunities to score. You’ve got congratulate Clemson. They did a very good job. We just couldn’t capitalize on offense.”

This was by far the worst loss of Saban era at Alabama, unless you still have a soft spot in your heart for that billboard-spawning 21-14 ULM upset way back in 2007. The Crimson Tide, which spent virtually the entire season squashing the opposition like ants, does not lose like this. Especially with a title in play, when Saban is supposedly at his best.

Saban blamed himself but Alabama did not look underprepared. Just overwhelmed. It was the second-most points the Crimson Tide has surrendered in the Saban era, behind only that 45-31 loss to Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. That was supposedly a game Alabama didn’t really care about playing.

They cared about this one. But they were helpless to stop the Clemson Tigers, who now lead their personal CFP trophy case chase with Alabama 2-1.

“We’ve got twins!” Swinney shouted during the postgame trophy presentation. “Alabama is Alabama. But I felt we had the better team. Our leadership and will to win, I could sense it.”

A big reason for the win: Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Lawrence ran a hand through his long, blond, California surfer dude locks and took a crowbar to Bama’s proud, physically threatening defense. He unleashed some nervy incompletions early on, but in the end he looked exactly like the kind of quarterback it takes to beat Alabama. Dynamic quarterbacks like former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who beat Crimson Tide two years ago in Tampa. Auburn’s Cam Newton. Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

Somewhere, recently departed and freshly transferred Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant was watching and nodding his head knowingly, saying, “That’s why I left.” Lawrence made the Crimson Tide’s defense run red, throwing for 347 yards and three touchdowns, one of them on a shovel pass to Jennings’ running back Travis Etienne (he also scored twice on the ground).

As the sun sank into the nearby Pacific Ocean so too sank the talk of Alabama perhaps being the best college football team ever, complete with a condolence call from the 2003 Oklahoma team Saban’s LSU squad beat for the BCS championship. Like Tagovailoa’s mortal lock on the Heisman Trophy this season that eventually went to OU’s Kyler Murray, Alabama lost control when it needed it most.

“Five words,” Tagovailoa said. “Good is not good enough. We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish and we didn’t execute. That’s all it is.”

As for the CFP game itself, everything about the game turned out to be a false start. There were splotches of empty seats scattered throughout the stadium, typifying the softest secondary market of the 5-year old CFP era. It was too far and too pricey for a lot of these southern teams’ fans to travel on short notice, and the Bay Area is hardly a college football hotbed.

After three straight good as gold thrillers this one was a tin-plated dud — unless you were a Clemson fan or you are sick of Alabama’s era of dominance.

From the looks of it, Clemson’s era of dominance, with two of the past three national championships in its grasp, may be at hand.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​