NEW ORLEANS—The message was clear. Don’t give Alabama’s hallowed coach Nick Saban 29 days to prepare for marquis opponent in a revenge game on a big stage like the College Football Playoff semi-finals.
Clemson may have been the 2017 national champions, but they were just another burnt offering for the Tide, who rolled to a convincing 24-6 victory last night before a sellout crowd of 72,360 at the Sugar Bowl.
The dominant victory set up an All-SEC championship between Alabama and Georgia, who rallied to defeat Oklahoma, 54-48, in double overtime in an instant classic in the other semi-final at the Rose Bowl. As soon as the game ended, the chants of “SEC, SEC” began to echo through the stadium. Tickets for the game, which will be played next Monday night in Atlanta, are already going for more than $2,400 on Stub Hub.
The Tide’s supposedly banged up defense was an unchained monster, limiting the top-seeded Tigers’ anemic offense to minis seven-yards in the first quarter and 188 yards total offense for the game.
So much for all those questions about whether fourth-seeded Alabama belonged in the playoff after not winning the SEC West. Alabama will always be the team to beat in college football until the 66-year old Saban—who has won five national championships and invokes the same kind of reverence as the late Alabama coach Bear Bryant– retires. In the previous two semi-finals, when Saban has had time to prepare, the Tide defeated Michigan State, 38-0, and Washington, 24-7.
This was a game Clemson’s battered and bruised junior quarterback Kelly Bryant would rather forget. He may have designs on becoming the second coming of DeShaun Watson, the Tigers’ outstanding quarterback who threw for over 400 yards in the previous two national championship games when these two Southern powers split a pair of titles in 2016 and 2017. But the Tide (12-1) showed Bryant how much he must improve before there will be any comparisons.
Bryant finished with 120 yards passing, 19 net yards rushing on 19 carries, was sacked five times and suffered a total meltdown in the third quarter when he threw two disastrous interceptions.
Alabama’s junior nose guard Da’Ron Payne picked off one, rumbling 21 yards to the Clemson 42-yard line. “I was kind of shocked I had the ball,” he said. “I was just trying to get to the end zone.” Seven plays later, Payne re-entered the game as a tight end and caught a one-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts to give the Tide a 17-6 lead with 5:40 left in the quarter. “Was I nervous when they called the play? No,’’ Payne said. “I got gold hands.’’
“When he made the interception, there was no doubt we were going to throw him the ball at the goal line,” Saban said jokingly.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Mack Wilson picked off a deflected pass from Bryant on Clemson’s next possession and returned it 18-yards for a touchdown that expanded the lead to 24-6. “It’s tough sledding when you fall behind like that against a team like Alabama,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You’ve got to make critical plays and we didn’t do that. We earned a butt whipping tonight. There’s a reason why they are the No. 4 defense in the country.
”Everybody talks about the trilogy like someone is getting ready to die. We’re be back and so will they.”
For now, this is how revenge tastes.
“This is about our identity as a team,” Saban said. “These guys played with a relentless, competitive attitude. They were warriors out there. I can’t be prouder of way they competed for 60 minutes. They worked hard to get into position because of what happened to us last season. This was a little personal with us.”
Alabama thought about the possibility of a rematch for a solid year after the Tigers stunned the Tide, 35-31, last year in Tampa when Watson threw a game winning touchdown to Hunter Renfrow on the final play of the game. It is never a good idea to poke an angry elephant.
Hurts, who even recorded a picture of that disappointing moment as a screen saver on his cell phone, was selected the game’s Outstanding Offensive Player after completing 16 of 24 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 50 more. He only made one mistake when he ran his coach over on the sidelines following a sweep. Not surprisingly, Payne was voted the game’s Outstanding Defensive Player but the award could have gone to any starter on the Tide defense.
The Tide dominated the game from the start, demonstrated more physicality, intensity and imagination in play calls. The Tide feasted on the Tigers’ inability to move the ball, controlling time of possession and first downs, 24-6. Their defense held Renfrow, who had 10 catches and two touchdowns against the Tide last year, to a meaningless 5 catches and 31 yards.
The only surprise was that Clemson was still in the game at halftime, trailing just 10-3. But it was only an illusion. It was just a matter of time before the party started on Bourbon St.
“It feels good,” Hurts said. “It is like a rivalry game. It was redemption. We have been here before. We can’t be too happy. We have to go out and finish this thing.”
Sweet home Alabama.