With Clemson's destruction of Alabama, Dabo Swinney is the new king of college football

Dan Wolken
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SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The moment you knew that Nick Saban knew what was happening to his team arrived with the subtlety of a crystal football being smashed by a sledgehammer. It stunned with the force of an electrical storm, and it shook a sport he has owned for a decade to its core.

The greatest college football coach of all time, the man whose program has never given up on a big game, the tactician whose genius has rescued so many moments that once seemed to be slipping away, finally panicked. He ran out of answers. He admitted that Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers were not only going to beat Alabama for the national championship Monday night, but that they had essentially hacked the machine. 

Alabama’s hopeless fake field goal to end its opening drive of the third quarter wasn’t the biggest play in Clemson’s surgical 44-16 victory at Levi’s Stadium, but it was the most telling. For once, Saban knew he didn’t have the better football team. He certainly didn’t have the better coaching staff. And unlike any game he had ever coached since bringing Alabama back to superpower status, he didn’t have a prayer without turning a few tricks.

Alabama coach Nick Saban.

But Clemson wasn’t fooled. And now college football officially has a double dynasty. 

The College Football Playoff turned five years old Monday. The national championship count in this new era is now Alabama 2, Clemson 2. It doesn’t erase what Saban did before the playoff and the five overall titles he has won with the Crimson Tide. But it does illustrate that the torch, if not passed, is now shared. 

"We're not supposed to be here," Swinney said as he held the trophy amidst the shower of confetti on a cool California night. "We're just little old Clemson and I'm not supposed to be here. But we are and I am." 

Clemson's underdog swagger is officially dead. It has been replaced by a new mystique as the program that didn't just erase the Alabama gap, but instead vaporized it. And as the first modern college team to ever go 15-0, Clemson's locker room was buzzing with talk that they could go down as the best college football team of all time.

"Coach Swinney has been talking all year about 'Leave no doubt,' and obviously two years ago we were very happy to win, great way to win one, but it comes down to a couple plays," co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said, referring to Clemson's epic 35-31 victory on a last-second touchdown in Tampa. "That was the challenge coach Swinney gave our team. Just play our best four quarters and if we do that we’ll leave no doubt."

Ultimately, where this Clemson team ranks in history is not as relevant as the staggering manner in which it ran Alabama off the field. A bunch of freshmen playmakers humiliated the Crimson Tide's defense at every turn. And even without Dexter Lawrence, Clemson's best defensive lineman, the Tigers still turned quarterback Tua Tagovailoa into a gaffe machine, including a tone-setting pick-6 on Alabama's first drive, another horrible interception and multiple empty trips inside the 10-yard line. 

"I’m sure everybody was shocked nationwide," linebacker Isaiah Simmons said. "They’ve probably never seen the stands clear out like that with Alabama."

The numbers are going to be dissected for months. From the 31 points Clemson put up in the first half to the massive lead in the second half that the Tigers kept building and building, there were all kinds of unwanted firsts for a Saban-coached team. For a decade, Alabama losses always have a dug-in quality that forces opponents to remain on edge until they can get into victory formation. This time, the Crimson Tide finally let go of the rope, watching the fourth quarter clock mercifully bleed out on them. It looked and felt different. 

"Obviously we have a lot of respect for them, talented group, but the way our guys have played offensively, it wasn’t a surprise," Scott said. "I told a lot of my close friends, I felt like if we played well, we could win by 10. That was just the confidence going in, really not a whole lot about Alabama but really a lot about us."

He only under-shot that prediction by 18.

But for all the lopsided scores in the SEC and hosannas being thrown at the feet of the Alabama offense, Clemson finally exposed some things. For one, opposing coaches suspected that Alabama's defense was mediocre on the back end all season. So when the Tide couldn't generate pressure on quarterback Trevor Lawrence with a four-man rush, he had time to find Clemson's big, fast receivers in favorable one-on-one matchups — a credit to both Clemson's skill players and an offensive line that was not expected to hold up against Alabama's front.

"Trevor doesn't do what he does if he doesn't have a solid offensive line," co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "They were challenged. There were a lot of comments that were made. They were called pedestrian and they took that to heart. And they came out and wanted to prove that they’re one of the best units in the country."

The other element that Clemson exploited was that the constant turnover among Saban's assistants has finally caught up to the Crimson Tide. Despite Alabama finishing with 443 yards, it was a bad night for outgoing offensive coordinator Mike Locksley as questionable playcalling in the red zone forced Alabama into some decisions, like the ill-fated fake field goal, which Swinney felt was coming to the point where Clemson spent time Monday cramming on fakes Saban had used back in 2002 at LSU. 

"We showed one front and (transitioned) to another and played cover-2 to it and sniffed it out," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables, whose gameplan and unique coverages Clemson prepared just for this game had a lot to do with Tagovailoa's mistakes. "It was gameplan-specific just assuming there might be a critical time in the game where they’ve got to seize momentum and make that play."

But the most important point that will carry into the offseason is that this performance wasn’t a fluke, nor is Clemson a one-off. When Alabama lost to the Tigers in 2016, the national takeaway was that Deshaun Watson’s one-of-a-kind brilliance to win that game probably couldn't be replicated, especially if Saban stuck around. 

But now, that argument is done forever. Clemson, as of today, is the more complete program. And that isn’t just about players like Lawrence, who made elite third-down throws while avoiding the mistakes that Tagovailoa made. It was a maligned Clemson offensive line that simply manhandled the vaunted Alabama defensive front. It was Clemson’s receivers leaving Alabama defenders in the dust. And it was about an Alabama coaching staff that simply got dominated at every turn.

"I just have a feeling that I didn’t do a very good job for our team, with our team, giving them the best opportunity to be successful," Saban said.

Alabama can still win championships as long as Saban coaches, but the earth moved underneath his feet Monday night. Swinney is the new king of college football. 

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.


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