Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 10, 2019

Clemson Reminds Us The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty

Less than a week ago, most sports fans and an overwhelming share of college football pundits all shared a few certainties. The Alabama Crimson Tide were, as usual, the number one team in the country, with no serious challengers. Head coach Nick Saban was the greatest gridiron teacher in the land, who while leading Alabama teams to glory somehow also found time to rehabilitate the careers of other college coaches whose careers had gone awry, such as Lane Kiffen and Mike Locksley. And when it came down to crunch time, Saban and Alabama would make the daring call that would swing the momentum of college football’s championship game in the Crimson Tide’s favor.

Taking those absolutes in order, in the runup to Monday’s finale of the collegiate football season, the New York Times ran a story about the enormous depth at Alabama under a headline suggesting that the team’s most serious challenger might well be its own second or third string roster. Saban hired Kiffen as Alabama’s offensive coordinator and Locksley as an analyst after the former’s brief appointment as USC’s head coach ended ignominiously and the latter’s career arc was sidetracked by a scandal at the University of New Mexico. And we were all reminded repeatedly of Saban’s bold genius in swapping out quarterbacks at halftime of last year’s championship tilt, when he replaced starting signal caller Jalen Hurts with backup Tua Tagovailoa at halftime, a change that ultimately led to a national title.

Supporters of the Clemson Tigers could do little to lessen the steady drumbeat of certitude. Never mind that Clemson was in the title game for the third time in four years, just one less than Alabama. Ignore the fact that the Tigers arrived at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara with a perfect 14-0 record, matching that of the Tide and marking the first time in the College Football Playoff’s short history that the season’s final game was contested by two previously unbeaten teams. Discount the 30-3 thrashing that Clemson laid on Notre Dame in its Cotton Bowl semifinal, a more impressive showing than Alabama’s 45-34 Orange Bowl win over Oklahoma. The Las Vegas sportsbooks sided with the pundits, setting Clemson’s resume aside and favoring Alabama by almost a touchdown. A third national championship in four years awaited Alabama on the other side of the mere formality of sixty minutes of football.

Then, as so often happens in sports, the game intervened. For the first six plays from scrimmage all went according to the widely expected script. Clemson quickly went three-and-out after receiving the opening kickoff, and Tagovailoa began to move Alabama down the field, completing his first two passes after the Tigers punted. Then came the first inkling that perhaps the evening would not go exactly as most had assumed. Tagovailoa’s third pass was caught as well, but by the orange and white shirted A.J. Terrell rather than by the intended target, and the Clemson defender raced 44 yards down the field for a pick-six that gave the Tigers an early lead.

To Alabama’s credit, Saban’s squad immediately struck back. Just 1:15 after falling behind, the Tide evened the score on a bomb from Tagovailoa to Jerry Jeudy. But almost as quickly Clemson reclaimed the lead, driving 75 yards in just four plays, with Travis racing 17 yards around left end for the go-ahead touchdown. Then once again the Crimson Tide responded, this time with a methodical drive that was capped by a short touchdown toss to Hale Hentges. A missed extra point meant the Tigers still had a one-point lead, but on a night when it looked like both teams could score at will that hardly seemed to matter. When the Alabama defense finally joined the fray and stopped the next Clemson drive, and the Tide then moved into position for a field goal to take the lead for the first time, 16-14, it was natural to think that order was finally being restored.

What the nearly 75,000 in the stands and the millions watching at home couldn’t know was that the 25-yard field goal, coming less than one minute into the second quarter, was the last score that the favorite would record. For all the attention paid to Tagovailoa, the hero of the night was Clemson’s freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Installed as the starter by head coach Dabo Swinney at midseason in a call no less daring because it was made far from the spotlight of the national title game, Lawrence was unawed by either the moment or his opponent. After a slow start he took over the contest, repeatedly coming up with big plays. Lawrence converted ten of fifteen third down chances, running up more than 250 yards of offense just on those plays. For the game he completed 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns as Clemson scored thirty unanswered points to win 44-16. It was the most decisive championship game win in the five years of the College Football Playoff. The four-touchdown margin was also the biggest loss by Alabama in the Saban era, while Swinney’s team became the first college squad to win fifteen games in a season since the University of Pennsylvania Quakers in 1897.

In the wake of Clemson’s emphatic win, some of the same media mavens who were loudly singing Alabama’s praises right through the start of the second quarter Monday night have now jumped aboard the Tigers’ train, in part because both quarterback Lawrence and receiver Justyn Ross are true freshmen, with the potential to serve in starring roles for three more years. But the postgame infatuation with Clemson is as overdone as was the pregame swooning over Alabama. Both are outstanding major college programs, with all that is good and bad about that term. The Crimson Tide have a very long history of filling that role, while the Tigers have found their place in the sun more recently. Both should be part of the national championship conversation for the foreseeable future. What pundits and fans need to remember is that with the rapid turnover of rosters and the vagaries of the game itself college football, like every other sport and life itself, will always be unpredictable.

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