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Bama met its bully

Other teams hope they can beat Alabama. Clemson knows it can.

1. Finally a surprise.

A college football season that gave us almost none of them finished with an unexpected pounding the level of 1992 Alabama-Miami or 2006 Florida-Ohio State. I must say, I don’t appreciate it.

I told anyone who would listen over the last week that while Bama should technically be favored, I was confused by the unanimity — it seemed like everyone was picking the Tide. The numbers saw this as a tossup, too, so this was the perfect I-told-you-so situation if Clemson were to win by a tight margin. Clemson did not win by a tight margin.

2. Here’s what it came down to:

Actually, I know it came down to more than one thing. Bounces, one-handed catches ... a lot of things go into a win of this magnitude. But the thing that radiates off of your television when Alabama and Clemson play is that Clemson isn’t even slightly scared.

Kirby Smart’s Georgia thinks it can beat the Tide. And for three quarters in each of the teams’ last two matchups — Bama’s eventual conquest in both last year’s national title game and this year’s SEC title game — the Dawgs saw affirmation in that regard. But when it came time to actually win the game, Georgia blinked. As soon as something went wrong, there was a palpable “Uh oh.”

So here’s what this game came down to: Clemson knows it can beat Alabama.

Dabo Swinney’s Tigers aren’t even slightly scared. There’s no doubt deep down inside — they beat Bama two years ago, and they knew for a fact that they could do it again. They didn’t wait for the breaks to go the Tide’s way; they created breaks for themselves, almost from the opening kickoff.

  • Instead of overly respecting Tua Tagovailoa’s arm, sophomore A.J. Terrell stepped in front of his third pass of the night and took it back for a touchdown.
  • Instead of overly respecting the Tagovailoa passing acumen, they caught him by surprise repeatedly in the pass rush, forcing him to rush throws he hadn’t had to rush all year.
  • And instead of overly respecting the Alabama defense that has ruled college football for a decade, Trevor Lawrence passed over the top of it.

A month or so ago in Atlanta, it was Georgia attempting a seemingly misguided special teams fake to steal back a possession in a game that was slipping away. On Monday in Santa Clara, it was Bama, attempting a fake field goal that included the kicker as a lead blocker on the first possession of the third quarter.

It had no chance of working, even if defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney hadn’t shed his blocker to bring down holder and backup quarterback Mac Jones for a loss of two. Any of about six other defenders were going to stop Jones before he picked up the requisite six yards.

3. This was a strange damn game.

Let’s define each play as a win or loss based on whether it was successful or not — so if the Team A’s offense gains 50 percent of its necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second, or 100 percent on third, it’s a win for Team A, and if it doesn’t, it’s a win for Team B.

  • First-down wins (offense and defense): Alabama 42, Clemson 18
  • Second-down wins: Alabama 22, Clemson 20
  • Third-down wins: Clemson 19, Alabama 9
  • Fourth-down wins: Alabama 3, Clemson 3

This game swung on third downs, and in a dramatic way. Clemson faced much larger yards to go on third downs — 7.7 to Bama’s 4.5 — but went 10-for-15 to Bama’s 4-for-13. And among those 10 conversions were passes of 26, 37, 62, and 74 yards. Bama won the other downs by a dramatic margin (67-41) and got destroyed. Clemson’s timing was beyond impeccable.

4. Goodness gracious, Trevor Lawrence.

The golden god-turned-college quarterback hadn’t shown hardly any hints of being a true freshman all season, but it was fair to figure that surely he’d flinch at least a few times in the damn national title game.

Nope. While Tagovailoa managed a 65 percent completion rate, 7.8 yards per pass attempt (including sacks), and a 145.2 passer rating — he was one of only three QBs to top a 140 passer rating on the Tigers this year — Lawrence was so, so much better: 63 percent completion rate, 10.8 yards per pass attempt (with zero sacks), no picks, and a 184.5 rating.

Though Tagovailoa also won the national title as a freshman, the Bama QB’s role was pressure-free. He came on in the second half against Georgia last year as the all-or-nothing savior. If he brought Bama back, he would be immortalized; if he didn’t, it was Jalen Hurts’ fault. No worries.

Lawrence faced all the pressure of a starter. He didn’t even slightly flinch.

5. Lawrence’s receivers helped. I mean, my goodness:

Alabama’s defense has driven a seemingly infinite number of Nick Saban wins by blowing up your line, daring your quarterback to make accurate throws downfield, and daring your receivers to catch those throws against some of the best cornerbacks in college football.

In the rare occasion that the Crimson Tide lose, it usually takes a superhuman effort from both quarterback and receiver. Well, Clemson’s receiver trio of Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, and Justyn Ross caught a combined 11 of 17 balls for 264 yards and two touchdowns. If that’s not superhuman, it’s damn close.

6. Ross is a true freshman. Lawrence is a true freshman. None of this is fair to the rest of college football.

Thirteen months or so ago, Ross was wrapping up his final season at Phenix City (Ala.) Central High.

Now, he wraps up a College Football Playoff appearance that included two games, 18 targets, 12 catches, 301 yards, and three scores.

College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T - Alabama v Clemson
Trevor Lawrence is a damn freshman.
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

7. So hey, guess who will be the top two teams in next year’s preseason poll?

At the least, Alabama brings back an angry Tagovailoa, plus running back Najee Harris and maybe the best returning receiving corps in the sport (if it’s not Clemson’s, which finally loses former Bama-beater Hunter Renfrow). Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, and DeVonta Smith are all true sophomores, Jaylen Waddle a true freshman.

Bama’s defense could lose some stars, as always, but linebacker Dylan Moses is a true sophomore, corner Patrick Surtain II is a true freshman, safety Xavier McKinney is a sophomore, etc. Tuscaloosa will face no 2019 drop-off in talent and potential.

Guess who will either be No. 1 or No. 2 to Bama, though: the team that just beat the Tide for the second time in three years. Lawrence, Higgins, and Ross will be joined by running back Travis Etienne.

Clemson’s defensive front will suffer significant attrition (replacing a bunch of potential first rounders with experienced former blue-chippers), but the secondary really won’t. And anyway, Brent Venables is still the coordinator. It’ll be fine.

Georgia ... Ohio State ... maybe Oklahoma if the QB situation is alright ... maybe Michigan if it doesn’t end up felled by the things that always fell Michigan ... there should be an interesting list fleshing out next year’s contenders list. But that list will begin with the teams that have now split the last four titles and have played in four straight College Football Playoffs.

8. Seriously, though, Bama attempted a fake field goal with the kicker as a lead blocker.

And when it didn’t work, it was Clemson immediately going for the throat on a 74-yard Lawrence-to-Ross combination. College football’s bully has met its match.