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Tigers, Tide and oh my: Clemson routs Alabama to secure 2019 National Championship

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Clemson players said all week in the lead up to the 2019 National Championship Game that in order for the them to be the best, they would have to beat the best.

Top ranked and undefeated Alabama, as the defending champion, certainly qualified as that.

The Tigers not only beat the Tide, they beat them down and then some on Monday night, dominating from the opening snap of a 44-16 rout at Levi’s Stadium to secure the program’s third national title and second in three seasons.

Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence started off a little anxious but eventually looked right at home as the game wore on — and very much like somebody who will be playing in more NFL stadiums in just a few years. He tossed a 62-yard bomb to Tee Higgins to get the team in the red zone in the first quarter and wound up with an impressive 347 yards and a trio of touchdown passes.

While Lawrence looked nothing like a true freshman under center, tailback Travis Etienne also proved to be a great compliment in the backfield. The sophomore had a touchdown reception off a shuffle pass and scored twice on the ground with some terrific bursts of speed while recording 86 yards rushing.

Oh, and wide receiver Justyn Ross was basically a man among boys as a pass catcher with a handful of one-handers on his way to 153 yards and a touchdown. Just down the road from where Jerry Rice made his name, the young wideout (he’s a freshman too…) from Alabama certainly haunted the home state team he nearly signed with coming out of high school.

It was safe to say that last year’s title game hero was nowhere near the same kind of quarterback on the same stage in 2019. Tua Tagovailoa was actually one of the early front-runners for MVP in the contest… for both sides.

After his defense forced a three-and-out to open the game, Clemson corner A.J. Terrell jumped a short pass in the flat and had nobody anywhere close to him as he ran it back 44 yards to delight the orange and purple fans for a pick-six on the seventh play of the game.

The Hawaiian signal-caller bounced back on the next series to toss a beautiful 62-yard bomb right into the waiting hands of Jerry Jeudy but never could get the offense into the end zone enough to make things interesting as things wore on. Tagovailoa finished the up-and-down outing with a respectable 295 yards and a pair of touchdowns (to the Tide) but did throw another interception and was eventually replaced in the fourth quarter by SEC Championship Game star Jalen Hurts.

It’s been rare to see the Crimson Tide get run off the field by anybody since Nick Saban took over and it’s downright galling to see it be done on this stage. It’s not just the worst loss — by several multiples — in the Saban era but also the first time since he arrived in Tuscaloosa that the team has been beaten by more than three scores.

While one can sometimes say it’s just not your night in big games like this, that would be doing a big disservice to the dominance that Clemson displayed form their early pick-six all the way through to the final minutes. Dabo Swinney has not only built an equal to one of college football’s great dynasties but he’s proven that he’s got one too.

The Tigers became the first modern college football team at the FBS level to go 15-0 in the process to cap off the 2018 season. They not only won the national title, they left no doubt about who is atop the mountain now too.

Clemson WR Justyn Ross is putting on a show against Alabama

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As Clemson continues to put on a clinic against Alabama in a blowout in the national championship game, we are watching freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross become a household name. As Clemson was in the process of taking a commanding 44-16 lead on Alabama late in the third quarter after a massive fourth-down stop at the other end of the field, Clemson’s dynamic freshmen got to work.

Trevor Lawrence has continued to impress with what he’s been doing in the game, and having confidence Ross is going to make a catch is a big reason why. Ross made two highlight catches on the Clemson touchdown drive that will show why he should absolutely be on the Biletnikoff Award watch list for the 2019 season. First was the easy toss to Ross from Lawrence on 3rd and 13 for a 37-yard gain. Ross catches the ball after bobbling it with one hand down the right sideline.

Not to be content with just one incredible effort, Ross one-upped himself moments later with an amaiing one-handed stab for a catch to move the ball into the red zone.

Lawrence even took a hit as he released that second pass to Ross as he continues to look unrattled against the Crimson Tide, who are grasping for answers at this point. Lawrence finished off the drive with a touchdown pass to Tee Higgins on a third-and-goal in the final minute of the third quarter.

Barring an incredible comeback, Clemson is on its way to a second national championship under Dabo Swinney, and the freshman quarterback and freshman wide receiver are big reasons why.

Alabama opens second half by getting stuffed on fake field goal and giving up long Clemson TD

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Down 31-16, Alabama head coach Nick Saban was not afraid to try doing something unorthodox to catch Clemson off guard on the opening drive of the second half. But Clemson was not fooled by Alabama’s attempt of a fake field goal.

After a 12-play drive stalled at the Clemson 22-yard line, Alabama tried a fake field goal with holder Mac Jones attempting to pick up the needed six yards to pick up a first down. But Clemson must have seen something, as did ESPN announcer Chris Fowler because the Tigers snuffed it out and made sure Jones lost two yards on the play.

Alabama kicker Joseph Bulovas missed an extra point in the first quarter, preventing Alabama from tying the game at 14-14 at the time and instead of keeping Alabama down by one point. Bulovas later added a field goal for the last points scored so far tonight by Alabama, but even that try wasn’t the most confident-looking kick. Down by 15 points at the time, Saban must have felt his team really needed more than a field goal to open the half. Instead, the worst-case scenario played out as Alabama came up empty on the drive and three plays later Trevor Lawrence dumped off a pass to a wide-open Justyn Ross. Ross took off for a 74-yard touchdown and gave Clemson a 38-16 lead midway through the third quarter.

As if that were not bad enough, Alabama cornerback Saivion Smith was injured on the play. He fell on the field while initially covering Ross on the play, and he was carted off the field with an injury.

Alabama is in some serious trouble right now, with Clemson leading 37-16.

Teams may be the same for Alabama-Clemson IV but the names — and preparation — are a lot different in 2019

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — There have been variations over the years or in different parts of the country but most folks are familiar with the old adage of once is a fluke, twice is a coincidence and three times is a trend. 

If that’s the case though, what exactly might that make Monday’s national title game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson? It’s not just the programs’ third meeting in the final game of the season the past four years but also their fourth consecutive postseason meeting.

In short, the same… yet different.

“I think this sort of has become a little bit like someone you play in your league because we have played several years in a row now,” Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban said Saturday. “I’m sure they know a little more about us, we know a little more about them. I think that players still look at each game as a new challenge, and certainly I think that’s going to be important, because they’re a really good team that you’re playing against, which is what you should expect in a game like this.”

Saban understands each game being a unique challenge more than most involved. It’s not just new faces as players graduate or depart for the NFL, it’s quite a bit of staff turnover as well. This may be Alabama’s fourth meeting with Clemson but the Crimson Tide have done so with a different offensive coordinator/play-caller each time. 

Lane Kiffin in 2016 gave way to a brief turn by Steve Sarkisian in 2017. Brian Daboll was one-and-done in 2018 and turned things over to Mike Locksley this season, who will also be leaving after the game to take over as head coach at Maryland. 

While the turnover isn’t quite as significant on the defensive side, it’s still there. Though this is firmly Saban’s defense, the team will have gone from Kirby Smart to Jeremy Pruitt to the combination of Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding — to say nothing of all the other assistants who have shuffled in and out of Tuscaloosa. 

“We do know what to expect but they have new coaches every year,” said receiver Hunter Renfrow, a hero in the 2017 title game and one 30 Tigers players who will have played in all four editions. “They can prepare for us a little better because we have continuity in our staff. I can go look at notes and it’s new guys but the same elite level.”

No kidding. 

Daron Payne played a huge role in last year’s Sugar Bowl in holding down Clemson’s offense. This year he’s simply been replaced in the lineup by Quinnen Williams, a unanimous All-American who won the Outland Trophy and will likely follow Payne as a top 15 draft pick in the spring. Minkah Fitzpatrick starred in the secondary during the first three meetings and has given way to the stellar play of Deionte Thompson, going from top star recruit to another without missing a step. 

“I would say they just have a bigger stable of running backs. It’s the running backs and it’s the wide receivers, man,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said of the biggest difference on offense he’s noticed in Alabama over the years. “(Damien Harris) and Bo (Scarborough) last year got most of the carries but now they have three running backs that could go anywhere in the country and start and have a great career. The receiving core, it’s ridiculous to see the type of receivers they have and the tight ends, too. I really feel like they are a very complete offense. They can affect you in any level of their offense.”

Calvin Ridley was Bama’s big-play threat in the passing game before going on to become a first-round pick last spring but the team has actually gotten better in the passing game, including developing Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy this season and a host of others. Five Tide wideouts have over 600 yards and at least six touchdowns receiving coming into the title game and six different players have scored rushing. 

Then there’s the difference-maker at quarterback in Tua Tagovailoa, who was in high school during the first two meetings and sat on the bench for Round 3 in the Sugar Bowl. The Heisman Trophy runner-up has helped the Tide’s offense shatter several school records and is No. 2 in a number of statistical categories nationally behind the team, Oklahoma, they just beat in the Orange Bowl. The sophomore already has an incredible track record in the national title game and is looking for that to continue against Clemson.

“We’re very familiar with Alabama, same bat channel, different bat day, I guess,” remarked Dabo Swinney. “You just turn the page, whatever year. They’re great on defense. You can pick little things here or there. They’re built in the trenches. The biggest difference for them this year is just the explosiveness on offense. This is by far the best version of them we’ve seen offensively. I mean, it’s unbelievable.

“And we’re a lot alike, dynamic quarterbacks, explosive skill, explosive run game, built through the run game in the play action and those type of things.”

The head coach is spot on with that assessment. 

Tailback Travis Etienne has been phenomenal in helping take the Tigers ground game to the next level and is playing behind a veteran offensive line that has done a great job opening holes you could drive a truck through. While Renfrow is a mainstay at receiver, the Deon Cain’s and Ray-Ray McCloud’s of recent years have been replaced (and then some) by explosive playmakers like Amari Rodgers, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. 

It’s also the deepest group Clemson has taken to the championship game, adding a top recruiting class full of several five-stars to a roster that returned 61 players with experience coming into 2018. 

“I don’t think we were intimated by them (in the first meeting), we were more intimated by the moment,” added Renfrow. “It was new to everyone and we were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, kinda nervous. Now, we know what to expect, what it takes.”

They also have their own difference maker under center in Trevor Lawrence, a freshman who is no longer a freshman and inserted into the starting lineup in September specifically to make the big throws on this stage. He sliced up a stout Notre Dame secondary in the Cotton Bowl and is just the second player ever to top 300 yards and three touchdowns in a College Football Playoff game (the other being some fella named Deshaun Watson). 

So while some may roll their eyes and claim fatigue in seeing Alabama and Clemson jerseys trot out onto the field for a fourth time, this year’s go-around is very much has a different flavor even if there’s plenty of similarities to past editions. 

Perhaps the lone thing that everybody agrees on coming into the 2019 National Championship Game is that both 14-0 squads are truly the best of the best and a fitting conclusion to a season where two elite teams rose above the rest. 

“Everybody says that they’re tired of watching us play. But year in, year out we proved that we’re the best two teams, and we play tough,” said Alabama’s Harris. “We take care of our business in the regular season. That’s why we keep meeting here.”

And so it will be — again — in Santa Clara with an undefeated season and the national championship on the line.

Trevor Lawrence against Alabama’s secondary could be legitimate advantage for Clemson

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This Alabama team, it’s been said, is the best of all of Nick Saban‘s Alabama teams. Thanks to Tua Tagovailoa and the development of the offense, this Crimson Tide team has truly no weaknesses. It’s an impenetrable fortress, a castle surrounded by 20-foot walls, a super weapon with no weakness.

But not exactly.

This Crimson Tide Death Star does have one weakness, and in Clemson they may find the one opponent to strong enough to exploit it.

While Alabama ranks 13th nationally in total defense (307.9 yards per game) and yards per play (4.70) and fifth in scoring (16.2 points per game), the Tide defense has shown one true vulnerability — in the deep passing game. To wit, opponents have completed 104 passes of 10-or-more yards, 52nd nationally. Furthermore, Alabama has surrendered 43 completions of at least 20 yards — 73rd nationally. That isn’t just bad by Alabama standards, it’s bad by anyone’s standards.

Those who have watched this team all season will recall moments where the Alabama back end has been exploited. Ole Miss opened its game with the Tide with a 75-yard touchdown pass. Tennessee put together a pair of drives that saw its quarterbacks go 6-of-8 for 149 yards and two touchdowns — an efficiency rating of 313.95. Oklahoma connected on a 49-yard touchdown pass and averaged 16.2 yards on its 19 completions.

Problem was, those moments were just that — moments. Ole Miss got outscored 62-0 after that opening punch. Tennessee was down 28-0 when it put those drives together. OU’s long touchdown pass pulled the Sooners to within 31-20.

While those teams may have had matchup advantages against an Alabama secondary that had to replace its entire starting group from last year, the rest of the game was such a mismatch it didn’t matter.

Clemson will be different. The Tigers won’t be blitzed in every other aspect of the game, perhaps allowing Trevor LawrenceTee Higgins, Amari RodgersJustyn RossHunter Renfrow and company — a group that’s completed 32 passes of 30 yards or more, sixth nationally — the chance to strike down field.

The best parallel to Clemson is Georgia, and Jake Fromm didn’t exactly struggle through the air. The Bulldogs quarterback hit 25-of-39 passes for 301 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

If Clemson manages to play Alabama to a draw elsewhere — no easy task, obviously — the Tigers may be able to exploit the rarest of things in college football: a matchup advantage against Alabama.