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Roll (Over) Damn Tide: Dabo Swinney and Clemson Dethrone King Saban

Clemson 44, Alabama 16 in Monday’s FBS national championship game.

Roll Damn Tide.

Better make that Roll Over Damn Tide.

The outcome was surprising for four reasons:

1. Clemson’s massive margin of victory. It isn’t that the Tigers won; any fool realized that a Clemson win was entirely possible … if not probable. This 28-point whupping was the worst imposed on a Nick Saban-coached ‘Bama team. As the leader of the Crimson Tide, Saban had never lost by more than 14 points. And before Monday’s game, Saban-Alabama had gone 60-0 in games determined by 15+ points. This was the worst defeat by an Alabama squad –pre-Saban — since 1998.

Alabama was outscored 30-3 after the first quarter, was held scoreless in the second half of a game for the first time since 2008, and slogged through the final 44 minutes and 18 seconds of game action without notching a single point. And to think that ‘Bama averaged just under 48 points per game in winning 14 in a row this season — until encountering Clemson.

2. The humiliating meltdown of Alabama’s coaching staff and players. It was shocking to see so mental errors from the Crimson Tide. The blown coverages on defense. The lack of discipline on offense in the form of dumb penalties and careless decisions by ‘Bama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. The silly decisions from the sideline — most of all Nick Saban’s bizarre and misguided attempt to trick Clemson with a fake field goal. Who made that ill-fated call … Mike Shula?

3. I don’t ever recall seeing an Alabama coaching staff get trounced in the coaching matchup to this degree. The Clemson coaches made the ‘Bama coaches look so helpless, so rattled.

4. Perhaps the most bewildering takeaway from this Battle of the South rout: the many strange media takes. The list would include the following observations:

— With this Clemson win, there are now two superpowers in college football.

— Saban, 67, is showing signs of age.

My responses to the two items, in order:

+ Um, Clemson ALREADY was a college football superpower. What, did we forget about Clemson defeating Alabama in the CFB Championship to end the 2016 season? Monday’s blow-out served as a reaffirmation, not a coronation. Clemson and Alabama ventured into Monday’s big one with identical records (53-2) in games played against other teams (but not each other) over the last four seasons. Both Clemson and Alabama were competing in the College Football Playoff for the fourth straight season. Clemson and Alabama have collided in four straight playoff games, coming out of it with a 2-2 split. As of this moment Clemson has a slight edge over Alabama for this reason: the playoff rivals have met for the championship three times since the 2015 season — and Clemson has won two of the three.

+ Um, before Monday’s tilt we were treated to approximately 98,000 tributes and testimonials — per hour —  to the venerated Coach Saban — all of which repeated the “Best Coach in College Football History and In All Mankind” narrative. So let me see if I understand: Over the last 11 seasons Saban’s teams have a .903 winning percentage and have played in  seven  national championship contests, winning five. And just because he takes a wallop of a punch to the chin from Clemson, it’s a sure sign of decline, and we can expect to see him to move into the retirement center any day now, with Miss Terry having to stop by and spoon-feed him Gerber’s each day? Really? This comical.

Now, having said that …

Swinney is the king of college football for now. Does anyone really require an explanation? Just in case … Dabo’s mighty Tigers went 15-0 this season, got there by thrashing Notre Dame and Alabama in the playoff by a combined 74-19 score, and have defeated Saban in two of their three  CFB Playoff title bouts. That puts Dabo at the top of the mountain.

It does not, however, put Saban in the nursing home.

Alabama isn’t going anywhere … except back to one of the top two sports in the 2019 preseason polls … and probably back to a spot in the 2019 CFB Playoff … and probably in line for another sensational recruiting class. As is, Saban has the No. 1 recruiting class on the way for 2019; the talent on this roster will be rich and deep.

Would any smart person be startled by another Alabama-Clemson match a year from now?

I do think it’s fair to say that Saban has met his equal. Not in terms of a full body of coaching work. Not in terms of college football history. Not in terms of eternity. But during the past four seasons — as noted earlier — Swinney has won as many games overall as Saban, and went 2-2 against Saban in the playoff, and is 2-1 vs. Saban in championship showdowns, and just hit Alabama for the worst loss of Saban’s career (considering  the magnitude of Monday’s game.)

Swinney has averaged 12.1 wins per season since 2011, and now has collected two championship banners to fly … and he’s still only 49 years old.

Saban won his first national title (with his 2003 LSU team) in his 10th season as a head coach. Saban was 52 at the time. Swinney won his first national championship in his ninth season as a HC, at age 47.

Saban won his second natty at age 58; on Monday Swinney captured his second national title at age 49.

That means Swinney was nine years younger than Saban when each coach, respectively, won their second national championship. Dabo’s future isn’t just bright; it’s radiant.

This also means that Dabo has to stop with this “Little Ol’ Clemson” routine. Listening to him cast the Tigers as the proverbial  Little Engine That Could  after taking down Alabama was just flat-out weird. Coach, you’re the best guy in the business … but what happened Monday night didn’t make you Herb Brooks, and it didn’t make your squad the CFB version of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team, OK? This was no Miracle on Ice; this was a savage mauling of a proud defending champion … by a team … YOUR team, coach … that had already beaten Alabama for the champeen trophy to cap the 2016 campaign. Clemson is top dog …  not a scrappy little underdog. Time to  rebrand.

Finally, some bullet points from Monday’s game:

  • Swinney is in position to Three-Peat. Two words: Trevor Lawrence, the true freshman who will serve up beautiful passes from his weaponized right arm as Clemson’s QB for the next two seasons — you know, until all 32 NFL teams go into the tank in an effort to lose enough games to secure the No. 1 overall pick and draft Lawrence in 2021.

 

  • Clemson freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross — a 6-4 aerialist and contortionist — made some incredible grabs as part of his six-catch, 153-yard, one-TD haul in Monday’s conquest. In the two playoff games, Ross soared over the Notre Dame and Alabama defenses for 12 catches, 301 yards (an average of 25.0 per reception) and three touchdowns. Wait a minute; Lawrence and Ross will be playing catch for the next two seasons? Perhaps ACC defenses can apply for permission to use 13 players on defense. Four linemen, two linebackers, and seven defensive backs.

 

  • Clemson cornerback Trayvon Mullen after Monday’s demolition: “We’re the best ever. 15-0. Best ever.” Hard to argue with the young man; no FBS team has gone 15-0 until now. And we’re talking about 121 years of college football.

 

  • Going into the game, Alabama’s defense had allowed a third-down conversion rate of 31.8 percent this season. Monday, Clemson clicked on 10 of 15 third downs; that 66.7% rate was the highest-ever against a Saban-guided ‘Bama team in a game. And these were no gimme putts; Clemson had to pick up at least seven yards on nine of its 15 third-down opportunities.

 

  • Alabama struggled on third downs, and in the red zone. After converting 54 percent of their third down plays through the 14-0 start, the Tide went 4-f0r-13 , just over 30 percent, against Clemson. Alabama had four possessions and 17 snaps in the red zone and came away with only nine points.

 

  • Lawrence wounded a confused and inexperienced Crimson Tide secondary for 342 yards passing, topped by three touchdowns through the air. But some of Lawrence’s most destructive work came on third down: 8 of 12 for 240 yards and two touchdowns. Bravo.

 

  • I feel bad for Tagovailoa. A great season got lost in space Monday; his two highly avoidable interceptions were huge in this game; Clemson made the heists to ring up 14 points on Tua turnovers. Notable: Through their first 14 games of the season, the Tide had given up only 10 points off turnovers … four fewer than Clemson burned ‘Bama with in one game.

 

  • Alabama fans are hoping that Saban’s incoming recruiting class features some pass rushers. Against the Crimson Tide, Trevor Lawrence could have taken the snap, paused to put the ball on the ground, gone to the sideline to fetch some scissors, cut his own hair — and Alabama still wouldn’t be close to sacking him…

Thanks for reading …

-Bernie