College Football

There and Back Again

clemson-quarterback-trevor-lawrence-challenges-alabama

On November 19th, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams played a Monday Night Football game inside the L.A. Coliseum. You might remember it – the final score was 54 – 51, included a number of jaw-dropping highlights, and was quickly lauded as one of the best games not just in the modern era, but of all time.

I mention that game only because of the immediate reaction to it. Every sportswriter under the sun was quick to draw comparisons to any Big XII game you might see on your television on a Saturday afternoon. It was high scoring, and involved minimal defense except for four or five game-changing plays. It was heralded as the future of football, and it was rooted squarely in the college game.

Last night, we saw a different version of that same scenario play out. After Clemson’s opening offensive possession stalled, they managed to cut short what looked like a promising Alabama drive with an interception returned for a touchdown. Forcing Tua Tagovailoa, one of the best college QBs I’ve ever seen, into a mistake was one thing, being able to capitalize on it immediately and get points on the board was another. Defensive play that changes the game completely? Check.

To Tagovailoa’s credit, he came out and almost immediately threw a 62-yard bomb for a touchdown. It was the best possible way to recover from the pick six, and suddenly it looked like we had a “Game of the Century” candidate on our hands. It was Kansas City and Los Angeles all over again. Until…well…it wasn’t.

I knew Alabama was going to lose near the end of the first half. I was talking with my friend, podcast co-host, and Alabama fan, Sam Pouncey, about what Alabama needed to do to close out the half and give themselves the best possible chance to swing the momentum. We agreed that they needed to hold Clemson to a field goal, and then salvage something, anything, out of a two-minute drill before the half ended. The former happened, but when Alabama’s offense took the field, they decided they were content. Nick Saban, who has often been criticized (usually unfairly) for being too methodical and complacent was, well, complacent. Alabama ran two plays, burned the clock, and went into halftime down 16 instead of, at the very least, down 13.

You can argue whether or not that was the right decision. However, why it struck me as the death knell for Alabama was that it was a complete lack of aggression against a team and in a situation which aggression was sorely needed. One of Clemson’s biggest strengths as a team this year was their ability to smell blood in the water and capitalize on it. We saw it in their Cotton Bowl blowout of Notre Dame, a game that was only a blowout because of a four-minute stretch at the end of the first half, in which the Tigers scored a touchdown, held the Irish to a three and out, and then went 80 yards in 46 seconds to score again before the half ended. Where Notre Dame tried to play it safe and regroup at halftime, Clemson wanted the ball back to step on the throat. It turned what looked like a close game between two very good teams into a blowout.

Don’t get last night twisted though, it was an ass-kicking. Clemson wasn’t really that  much better than Alabama on any given night, they just so happened to be last night. As I pointed out to Sam (the aforementioned Alabama fan), sometimes it just isn’t your night. You could hear the football gods cackling with every third and long Clemson converted, every circus catch, every play that cemented Trevor Lawrence as the far-and-away best player on the field.

When a team is making plays like this, there isn’t much shame in getting beat. Sometimes it just isn’t meant to be:

It wasn’t entirely because of fate that Alabama got beat this badly, but a fault in its philosophy as well. This was never more evident than when on their opening possession of the second half, Alabama lined up for a field goal from Clemson’s 22 yard-line with the Tigers showing their base defense. The Tide instead attempted a fake, and design of the play aside (the kicker was the lead blocker for goodness sake), it was a horrible decision all around. One of the most memorable plays from the 2016 championship game, an Alabama victory of Clemson, was a successful onside kick for Alabama in the fourth quarter of a one-possession ball game. It was beautiful and unexpected, due mostly to Saban’s aforementioned reputation of being conservative and relying on his players to out talent other teams instead of relying on aggression and trickery.

Last night’s fake field goal was another attempt at that same idea, however that game and the game of football are completely different from three years ago. Clemson didn’t even try to block the kick because they really didn’t care if Alabama settled for three points. Even if they had made the field goal, the Tigers would get the ball back up 13 with an offense that was starting to move the ball at will against the Tide’s defense. By the time Alabama really started to show urgency and attempt fourth down plays with their actual offense, the game was well out of hand. Saban’s too little, too late aggression might have worked in a one-possession game three years ago, but last night it got them laughed off the field.

It didn’t really sink in for me until this morning, but Clemson had one of the most dominating performances in a football game at any level. It was aggressive, it was mean, and most importantly, it was the direction football is going. Dabo Swinney’s coaching and plan were phenomenal, and while Saban is one of the greatest at the college level, some of his old-school tendencies that crept into the Alabama game-plan would have ultimately cost them the championship, if by an inch instead of the mile we saw.

This is the future of football, and it just dismantled one of the best teams from one of the greatest dynasties in the history of the sport. If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will.

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