NEW ORLEANS – Alabama dominated Clemson 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl to take the rubber match between the two programs and book its trip to next week’s College Football Playoff National Championship. There the Crimson Tide will meet Georgia in all-Southeastern Conference finale.
Here are three takeaways from Alabama’s win:
1. Angry Alabama
As a program, Alabama may have heard that Clemson was prepared to rip away its crown as the dominant team in college football. By controlling the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, dictating field position and dominating the time of possession, the Crimson Tide reasserted themselves in the third meeting with Clemson in as many years. And they did so by returning to basics, with a playing style that resembled the Alabama teams of the recent past – the early title teams of the Nick Saban era.
Clemson, which accounted for more than 1,000 yards of offense in the past two meetings combined, was held to just 188 yards. The Tigers’ vaunted defensive line was held in check by Alabama’s offensive front, if not outright dominated. Alabama’s own defensive line was physical and punishing, with an added dash of flair: Da’Ron Payne not only made an interception but concluded the ensuing drive with a short touchdown grab to push the Tide’s lead to 17-6 in the third quarter. A pick-six by linebacker Mack Wilson on Clemson’s next offensive play made it 24-6 and sealed the Tide’s return trip to the title game.
It was a dominant performance by a team many believed had backed its way into the Playoff field after ending the regular season with an Iron Bowl loss to Auburn. But Alabama is like the Incredible Hulk: You won’t like the Tide when they’re angry.
2. The SEC will take over Atlanta
An all-SEC championship game, Alabama against LSU in 2011, ushered in the end of the Bowl Championship Series. It’s only fitting that the first same-conference championship of the Playoff era will again pit two teams from the league. As kickoff began here at the Superdome, Georgia was sealing a classic Rose Bowl win against Oklahoma, setting up a date with Alabama in the Bulldogs’ backyard.
Unlike as in 2011, when LSU topped Alabama during the regular season, there will be no earlier point of comparison when the Tide and Bulldogs match up next Monday. But there will be no surprises: Alabama knows what Georgia is about and vice versa, with Saban’s former chief lieutenant, Kirby Smart, already installing his own version of the process to bring Georgia within a win of its first national title in decades.
3. Clemson looks ahead to 2018
Clemson has more than earned its place among college football’s active pantheon of elite programs by sandwiching last year’s national title with two trips to the Playoff. This one got off the rails in the third quarter, with the turning point Payne’s third-quarter interception of Bryant – the Tigers were driving down 10-6, but never sniffed the Tide again.
No, the Tigers did not supplant Alabama as the primary face on college football’s Mount Rushmore. But there’s no reason to think Clemson won’t remain among the elite in 2018, when it returns the heart of this year’s team and needs only to replace six seniors, as well as the handful of players who might declare for the NFL draft. The Tigers are built to last.
A major question still looms: Will Bryant be the starter in 2018? He was steady and reliable for much of his debut year in the starting lineup, and wasn’t helped against Alabama by a series of drops and weak pass protection. But the Tigers have a number of other options, including an incoming five-star recruit in soon-to-be true freshman Trevor Lawrence.