Top-ranked Clemson and No. 2 Alabama will face off in the desert for the national championship after dominating wins in the College Football Playoff semifinals. The Tigers romped in the second half for a 37-17 win over No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, followed by an even more dominating performance in which the Crimson Tide thumped No. 3 Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl.
Monday night’s title game in Glendale, Arizona, matches a high-scoring Clemson offense led by quarterback Deshaun Watson against Nick Saban’s latest dominating defense at Alabama, which limited the Spartans to 239 yards.
There’s another storyline to the title game. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is an Alabama alumnus who played on the Tide’s 1992 national championship team.
Now, he’s going against the greatest coach of this generation. Saban has won three national titles in the last six years at Alabama to go along with a BCS title at LSU.
Clemson (14-0) and Alabama (13-1) will be playing for the first time since 2008, when Alabama won 34-10 in a game that signaled the Tide’s return to national prominence under Saban.
That was also a pivotal year for the Tigers. Embattled coach Tommy Bowden resigned after six games, and Swinney – who was in charge of receivers – took over as head coach. Serving at first on an interim basis, he got the job permanently after leading Clemson to bowl eligibility.
Now, he’s got the Tigers within one win of their first national title since 1981.
”I knew that we would be here,” Swinney said. ”It was just a matter of when.”
Alabama is playing for another title after being upset by Ohio State last season in the semifinals of the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Saban said his team came into this playoff with a different attitude.
”Last year we sort of just participated in the game,” he said. ”This year, we really wanted to make a statement and do something special.”
These teams have been on a collision course since Clemson and Alabama were ranked 1-2 in the second CFP rankings. They’ve held the top two spots since.
With Alabama favored by seven points, Clemson is the underdog for a second straight game. Oklahoma was favored in the Orange Bowl by four points.
A team once known for such inexplicable stumbles that a derisive term was coined for it – Clemsoning – blew out the Sooners over the final two quarters after trailing 17-16 at halftime.
Watson turned in another stellar all-around performance, beating Oklahoma with his arm and his legs. The defense did the rest, shutting down Baker Mayfield and a Sooners offense that was averaging 52 points over its previous seven games.
Clemson showed the sort of balance it will need to cope with Alabama’s stifling defense, rushing for 312 yards and passing for 218. Watson, who was named the game’s offensive MVP, passed for one touchdown and ran for another. Wayne Gallman rushed for 150 yards and a pair of TDs.
”As a unit,” Watson said, ”it’s tough to beat us when we’re all on the same page and have each other’s back.”
The defense was even more impressive, especially since star end Shaq Lawson was knocked out of the game in the opening minutes with a knee injury. The Sooners matched their lowest-scoring game of the season as Mayfield was sacked five times and intercepted twice, finally getting knocked out of the game when he took a blow to the head trying to make a tackle after his second pick.
The Tigers didn’t just beat the Sooners.
They beat them up.
Lawson, who intends to turn pro after this season, has gone through workouts with the team and said Saturday he expects to play despite some lingering soreness. Lawson leads the Tigers with 10 1/2 sacks and is tops in the country with 23 1/2 tackles for loss.
Alabama looked like a team with no weaknesses against Michigan State.
Senior Jake Coker was nearly perfect, going 25 for 30 for a career-best 286 yards. Freshman Calvin Ridley was brilliant, streaking by defenders on deep throws and outfighting them on jump balls while catching eight passes for 138 yards and two TDs.
Jonathan Allen and the ferocious Tide defensive front sacked Connor Cook four times and allowed the Spartans only one trip into the red zone – which ended with Cyrus Jones intercepting a pass at the goal line.
Jones added a high-stepping 57-yard punt return touchdown for the Tide, who hardly had to use Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry. The big tailback was just a role player against a Spartans defense stacked to stop the run. He finished with 75 yards but did score two touchdowns.
Now, the Tide will try to prevent Clemson from becoming the first team in FBS history to finish 15-0.
”Clemson is a great team, undefeated, a great program,” Saban said. ”I’m sure our guys will be motivated, trying to do the best they can to play the best they can in the game. It’s a great opportunity for them. I’m proud as hell of them to get where they are.”
Only a handful of teams have even had the chance to play 15 games, with longer regular seasons, conference title games and now a four-team playoff stretching schedules out more than ever before.
”August 3rd, when we started the season, I gave them shirts that said `Dream the Dream,”’ Swinney said. ”And I said `15 for 15,’ with the message being let’s make them print 15 tickets this year, somehow, some way.
”My gosh, they’ve got to print a 15th ticket to see the Tigers now,” Swinney added. ”It’s been a great 2015.”