This article is part of our Week In Review series.
This year's Championship Game didn't go the way anyone was expecting. Were there Clemson backers and believers? You bet. But to expect an absolute drubbing the likes of which we haven't really seen during the Nick Saban Alabama era, that seems far-fetched.
Per SI.com's Ross Dellenger, a Saban-coached team hadn't lost that badly since his LSU days when the Tigers lost to Georgia 45-16 in 2004. As for Alabama, Monday's Title Game marked the Tide's worst loss since a 38-7 defeat at the hands of Virginia Tech in the – get this – 1998 Music City Bowl, per Cecil Hurt of the Tuscaloosa News. So, how the heck did that happen? Let's investigate.
Clemson brought in the No.6 overall class in 2018, bolstering its two-year recruiting average to 12th overall and its five-year recruiting average to 9th overall. Those numbers don't quite match up with Alabama's rankings of No.4 in the two-year average and No.1 in the five-year average (data via SBNation). However, they're competitive rankings nonetheless, and Clemson managed to unearth some gems that had perhaps gone underrated by the recruiting services.
For years, Alabama has laid waste to its competition not only by having superior starting talent, but by having starter-level players in depth spots. That always meant that Alabama could blow a team's doors off by out-athleting the opposition right off the bat. And if that wasn't enough, Alabama could chip away at the other team over the course of 60 minutes. Where the opponent would have to rotate weaker or more inexperienced defensive linemen, Alabama could use a deep rotation in the trenches without batting an eye because of how well it recruited those positions.
Clemson's recruiting and development negated Alabama's advantage in that regard. When star defensive lineman and likely first-round pick Dexter Lawrence was suspended for the playoffs, Clemson didn't miss a beat. The Tigers simply adjusted, went next-man up, and registered 15 tackles for loss and eight combined sacks over the course of the playoff. Not bad.
Clemson being able to go toe-to-toe on the recruiting trail with Alabama meant that the title game was going to come down to coaching. Taking nothing away from Nick Saban and his legacy and the talented staff underneath him, Dabo Swinney and company blew Alabama out of the water in this regard.
"We thought they'd throw the ball to us based on what we were doing with our SAM (linebacker). We were in a cloud coverage, something we hadn't really done going into the game and it worked out to perfection." defensive coordinator Brent Venables said regarding Clemson's Pick-Six to open the game (from USA Today's Dan Wolken).
Once Clemson got the lead, it stayed on course and kept pushing forward. Alabama, in turn, got out of its comfort zone and became desperate, which is almost unseen out of any Nick Saban-coached team.
The fake field goal will stand as one of the more bizarre play calls in a championship game, and it completely captured the direction of both teams in a single moment.
On the Clemson side, we had the Tigers stay out in their base defense, completely ready for some trickeration to try to turn the tide, so to speak. On the other side, we had Alabama in a 4th and 6 situation line up for a field goal that had fake written all over it. One would think that with Clemson's normal defense on the field, Alabama would have called a timeout knowing that whatever fake it was going to run wouldn't work. But no. have your less-than-mobile third-string quarterback take the snap and run up the gut withthe kicker trying to serve as the lead blocker. Should be fine, right?
Looking elsewhere, Clemson excelled in high-leverage situations and finished drives while Alabama floundered in those aspects. The Tigers converted 10 of 15 third downs while the Tide went a meager 4-for-13. In terms of scoring efficiency, Football Outsiders notes that Clemson scored touchdowns on five of six scoring chances while Alabama cashed in on just two of its five opportunties.
Explosive plays were also decidedly in Clemson's favor. The Tigers had six plays of 25-or-more yards. The Tide had two; one of which came on their first touchdown of the game and the other didn't come until the tail end of the third quarter. Alabama simply couldn't generate the explosive plays that had been its calling card all season long.
As if it wasn't already apparent, Clemson is now officially on equal footing with Alabama. No, this isn't a dig at Bama. Saban's squad isn't going anywhere any time soon. They have already secured the No.1 overall recruiting class in this cycle and Alabama will be returning stars like Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Najee Harris in 2019. That said, Clemson is bringing back most of its offensive core, too. Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross are rising sophomores while the likes of Travis Etienne and Tee Higgins each have at least one more year on campus before heading to the NFL.
Dabo Swinney has built Clemson into a recruiting and on-field juggernaut on Alabama's level, but with a completely different feel. While Alabama's image is a steely, "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing" one that lines up with Nick Saban's persona while Swinney's Clemson wins championships and has fun doing it (did you know they have a slide ?!)
Monday night wasn't the last time we'll see these two teams on this stage. But for the first time, the scales may be tipping in Clemson's favor beyond just a one-game sample. A true changing of the guard may be underway.