May 27, 2024

What in tarnation happened in the National Championship?

A quarterback becomes immortal, a dynasty is defeated and Dabo Swinney obliterates a prominent sports media figure. These are just some of the things that happened on Monday, when Clemson defeated Alabama, 35-31, in an instant classic.

When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a scientist. And by scientist, I meant memorizing the order of the planets in our solar system and reciting them until I made millions of dollars.

This is what they teach kids in Germany.

Later on, I learned that scientists conduct these things called experiments, and that experiments have a hypothesis, and that you compare the results of said experiment to said hypothesis.

Now that I finally understood everything I needed to know about being a scientist, I decided to embark on a quest searching for the reason why teams won football games. My hypothesis was that one team scored more points than the other, and to my surprise, that hypothesis was 100 percent accurate across the board.

Need proof?

ut-am

ut-bama

ut-usc

ut-vandy

Happy?

So heading into the National Championship, I applied what I knew: Whoever scored more points between Alabama and Clemson was going to win the game. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles, folks. There’s nothing I can do about it.

Now that the complicated arithmetic is out of the way, we can start talking about football. Football is a sport both Alabama and Clemson are fairly good at. Prior to last evening’s contest, the two programs had a combined record of 55-3 since 2015. If Pennsylvania and Mississippi succeeded from the Union, a clear NCAA violation that always results in vacated wins (but not losses), that record becomes 55-1.

Wait…there’s still a loss? That was a super specific caveat, how could there still be a loss?

Oh, the turn tables. Last season, in the national championship, Alabama actually defeated Clemson because they scored more points than the Tigers.

This catalyzed me to start thinking like the highly trained scientist I am and conduct a new experiment.

Hypothesis: Alabama and Clemson played for all the marbles in 2015. They were about to square off and play for all the marbles in 2016, making this a rematch.

rematch

Conclusion: My hypothesis was correct.

Now, prior to the game, I did make a prediction that will ultimately come back to haunt me. Check it out:

my-tweet

So it’s safe to say I had a lot on the line for this game. There are many things I like to set on fire: Marshmallows, birthday candles, notes from ex lovers, the rain, mixtapes; notice how myself isn’t one of those things. So what in the world came over me to, forgive the pun, fire off a tweet with such devastating consequences?

Hypothesis: I’m not very smart.

Turns out, that hypothesis is also correct because way back in the day (August of 2014), someone actually blogged about the “Fire Challenge.” Take a look:

the-fire-challenge

While threatening to set myself on fire over a football game isn’t a life path I recommend for anybody, my score prediction was based on 1) Alabama’s ability to win any kind of game (they won shootouts and low-scoring affairs), 2) Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson had struggled with decision-making all season long and was facing arguably the most opportunistic defense in college football history, 3) Alabama scores from every position, whether through the air, on the ground, on defense or on special teams, and 4) Nick Saban is the greatest coach in college football history.

It’s not necessarily a hot take to side with the team that has won four of the previous seven national championships, and while there was a world where I envisioned Clemson winning, that world was later blown up by the Death Star.

(four hours and millions of commercials later)

Well, Clemson won in yet another classic championship game between the two blue bloods of college football, 35-31. The world isn’t destroyed, which means I have to set myself on fire. Fantastic.

I’m not one for overreactions, so calling it the greatest championship game in college football history isn’t something I’m willing to just yet. Unless you pointed a gun to my head and said, “If you don’t call Alabama vs. Clemson Part II the greatest championship game in college football history, I will pull the trigger.” At that point, I might give this game that dubious honor.

Before we dissect what transpired in a football game that forced me to stay up past my bed time, can we please address why Bill Walton, Jay Bilas, Keyshawn Johnson, Rachel Nichols and Michele Beadle were being recorded in a room while watching the game together?

Apparently, beaucoup comedy went down, but since I actually care about watching football like a true American, I was only able to catch a few minutes of thisz riveting television. Here’s my analysis of each member:

  1. Bill Walton: Dressed up like Uncle Sam, which says everything you need to know about the guy. He’s goofy in an endearing way for the first few seconds, but by the fourth second, you rethink existence (This is a joke. Walton is a national treasure that we must make sure Nicholas Cage never tries to steal. Actually, a Bill Walton-Nicholas Cage combo would be beautiful. Let’s make it happen).
  2. Keyshawn Johnson: He was awkwardly silent, almost as if he thought the whole shing ding was stupid.
  3. Jay Bilas: Uhhhhh, this is college FOOTBALL, stay in your lane, buddy.
  4. Rachel Nichols and Michelle Beadle: They wouldn’t shut up. I’m not saying they should have. I’m just saying they talked a lot and that I wished they hadn’t.

It took me a few minutes to register what even occurred, but eventually, after I finished reconciling over the death of every celebrity in 1992, I was focused on the game.

If you missed the game or didn’t watch the game because you don’t like watching football but enjoy reading about football, mi casa, su casa. If you did watch the game but lack the highly trained eye I have, then read on.

Alabama showed up and didn’t win

Alabama had showed up to its previous 26 games and gone 26-0.

Alabama showed up on Monday night and went 0-1.

Why is that?

It happened because they didn’t do their normal showed-up stuff

My theory is that Alabama showed up and didn’t do its typical showed-up activities. Maybe the team likes to enjoy a friendly game of Mancala before kickoff, but didn’t because Saban was so tense he mistook the marbles for sunflower seeds and ate them. Maybe the team was practicing how to smile because Saban has banned happiness and he won’t stand for it in a game of this magnitude.

I don’t know exactly which showed-up stuff they didn’t do, but they didn’t do it, and now they’re losers.

Alabama’s offensive strategy lacked cohesiveness

Alabama’s first offensive play was indicative of how the evening would go on that side of the ball: A Jalen Hurts pass deflected at the line of scrimmage. Needless to say, the Crimson Tide lacked any cohesiveness offensively. executing a hodgepodge of largely successful running plays drowned out by a myriad of unimaginative passing plays.

As much as Lane Kiffin deserved criticism for his dumbfounding complaints about how Saban runs the ship in Tuscaloosa, maybe his play-calling against Washington in the Peach Bowl had purpose. Against the Huskies, the Crimson Tide threw the ball 14 times. Under Steve Sarkisian, that number more than doubled to 31.

It’s not just that Alabama threw more. It’s the type of throws Sarkisian called that are so puzzling. Instead of implementing the jet sweep and option throw to a sneaking OJ Howard in the backfield—two throws that have worked all season long for the Crimson Tide—Sarkisian instead opted for downfield shots and roll outs.

Two problems. First, Hurts is rawer than raw (don’t forget, he’s a true freshman) and hasn’t developed touch on his deep ball yet. There were a couple of instances where an Alabama receiver beat the coverage downfield, only to be overthrown by a quarterback who is more of a long-distance thrower than a long-distance marksman. Second, rollouts shrink the field in half, unless the play call is designed to lure the defense on one side while a receiver slips open to the other side of the field, but that gadget was never used. Instead, Hurts rolled to his right, thus eliminating an entire side of the field, and more often than not, found nobody open, resulting in a modest run or a simple throwaway.

In addition, the 31 pass attempts distracted Alabama from what was working: The ground game. Yes, Bo Scarborough—whose two long touchdown runs in the first half made me nervous this game might turn into a blowout—got injured and missed a large chunk of the game, but who does Alabama turn to when they lose a five-star running back? Another five-star running back.

Clemson had no answer for the Crimson Tide on the ground. Hurts gained 63 yards on 10 carries, Damien Harris rushed for 24 yards on five carries and Joshua Jacobs gained 16 yards on two carries. Between the three, that’s 17 carries for 103 yards, good for six yards a pop.

Alabama’s offensive philosophy has been simple over the past decade: Run the ball and control the clock. Yet, that simple formula was abandoned on Monday despite heavily assisting in four championships. The Saban-Kiffin fiasco received all the headlines, and Saban might deserve some criticism for letting Kiffin go, but Sarkisian has been around the program long enough to know that the offense he called on the biggest stage wasn’t the offense Alabama is accustomed to running.

Clemson didn’t challenge Alabama up the middle

There are only three things in life that confuse me:

  1. How cricket is played
  2. Why women are attracted to Russell Brand
  3. Why teams challenge Alabama up the middle

In case nobody has heard, Alabama has players who excel at football in the front seven. Ever heard of Jonathan Allen? What about Reuben Foster? Dalvin Tomlinson? Da’Ron Payne? Da’Shawn Hand? These guys play defensive football at high levels. Don’t believe me? Heading into last night’s game, the Crimson Tide allowed only two yards per rush and were the only team in college football to allow under 1,000 yards rushing.

Clemson averaged only 2.2 yards per carry on Monday night (42 carries, 91 yards), but it didn’t stagnate their offense. While 42 carries seems like a lot (because it is), a good chunk of those carries were Watson running when he either didn’t have time to throw or there was nobody to throw to. For the most part, the Tigers did an excellent job of not attacking Alabama’s strength, so much so that on a fourth-and-one attempt early in the game, they ran a pitch play, which Alabama sniffed out with ease.

I’ve seen too many offenses this season foolishly challenge the teeth of the Crimson Tide defense and fail every single time. Tennessee did it back in October, which created too many obvious pass situations on third down, and that completely stifled their offense. Although Clemson didn’t fire on all cylinders for the vast majority of the evening, they (along with Ole Miss) prove that the only way to topple Saban is by relentlessly throwing the ball and hoping your defense can stuff Alabama’s ground game.

Watson becomes immortal

Nobody is happier to see Deshaun Watson head to the NFL than Nick Saban. While Alabama’s defense normally torments opposing quarterbacks with its monstrous front seven and lockdown secondary, Watson (along with Johnny Manziel and his field goal kickers) will forever be in Saban’s nightmares.

Watson’s averages against Alabama in 2015 and 2016

  • 33-of-51.5, 412.5 yards, 3.5 touchdowns, 0.5 interceptions

All other starting quarterback’s averages against Alabama in 2015 and 2016

  • 15-of-29, 171 yards, 0.9 touchdowns, 1.04 interceptions

The crazy thing about Watson’s back-to-back performances for the ages against the same opponent on the same stage is that they played out in different fashions. Last year, Watson carved Alabama up from the jump, but this time around, it wasn’t always easy. He was on the receiving end of a few vicious licks (I suspect Watson and Reuben Foster won’t be best friends), and throughout the first half, appeared like he was slowly decaying into another likable character turned zombie on The Walking Dead.

To his credit, Watson did what most quarterbacks would fail to do and refused to actually turn into a zombie. If someone offered me zombie status, I would take that in a heartbeat, no questions asked.

He could’ve folded when Clemson fell behind 14-0 and were being dominated on both sides of the ball. He could’ve waved the white flag when he was close-lined by Rueben Foster or catapulted in the air like a helicopter circa John Elway 1997, only to enter the fourth quarter trailing 24-14. He was given chance after chance, but couldn’t completely crack college football’s greatest Da Vinci code. But eventually, like a male college student living alone for the first time, trying to get all four corners of his bed sheets on, Watson figured it out.

His demeanor in the pocket grew in confidence as the game progressed in spite of a relentless pass rush. His passes had a little extra zing. After Jalen Hurts’ cold-blooded, jaw-dropping touchdown run gave Alabama a 31-28 lead with a little over two minutes left, was there any doubt that Watson would paint one last masterpiece?

The finale was written in stone, and as a result, Watson is now a bonafide college football immortal and the second greatest college quarterback ever, behind only Tim Tebow.

And what’s that going to get him?

The Cleveland Browns.

Life just isn’t fair, man.

Championship was an odd combo of three Super Bowls

Something I found fascinating about this game was that it reminded me of three Super Bowls blended into one game, which made it the greatest television event since Donald Trump fired an entire team on The Apprentice.

It had a Super Bowl 38 (XXXVIII for all my Romans out there) feel because there would be long gaps of no scoring, but the game ended with 66 total points. Same thing happened with the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers back in 2004. The game was a scoreless tie for the first 26:55, a Super Bowl record. Then, Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme decided it was time to score some points, putting up 24 combined points in a little over three minutes. History repeated itself in the second half, as the game was scoreless in the third quarter until the remaining 37 points were scored in the fourth quarter.

It had a Super Bowl 49 (XLIX) feel because you had a quarterback facing off against the premier defense, and while it wasn’t always pretty, the end product was the stuff of legend. Tom Brady threw two awful interceptions against the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom, but finished with a Super Bowl record 37 completions for 328 yards and four touchdowns. Similar to Super Bowl 49, the national championship came down to a last-second play at the goal line.

It had a Super Bowl 50 (L, also known as what Alabama TOOK on Monday) feel because it was incredibly obvious if Alabama’s defense didn’t execute at a historic level, they would lose the game. Remember Super Bowl 50? I’m still trying to figure out why Coldplay, Beyoncé and Bruno Mars performed the halftime show together, but yes, I remember the game. I legitimately felt sorry for Denver’s defense because time and time again, their offense put them back on the field to take on league MVP Cam Newton and an offense that put up 500 points during the regular season. Every time the Panthers got the ball, I thought, “Okay, this is the time Carolina takes over this game.” But the Broncos answered the bell every single time and won the most improbable Super Bowl of my lifetime.

Alabama’s defense was exceptional

They gave up 511 total yards of offense and 35 points, but yes, Alabama’s defense again proved why it’s the cream of the crop. In total, they allowed five touchdowns, but forced 10 Clemson punts and two turnovers. The problem was that the Tigers ran a staggering 99 plays because Alabama’s offense was incapable of mustering together one methodical drive that drained clock. They scored 31 points, but it was probably the most poorly executed high-scoring performance I’ve ever seen because Alabama’s offense only did one of two things: Score quickly or go three-and-out. Alabama’s five scoring “drives” elapsed on average only 1:28, and after starting the game 2-of-3 on third down conversions, the Crimson Tide went 0-of-12 the rest of the way.

I don’t care how historically potent a defense is. If Deshaun Watson is given 17 opportunities to score, eventually, the dam is going to break. After Alabama’s defense gave every ounce of its energy to hold off Watson and the surging Clemson offense over the first three quarters, they simply had nothing left in the tank in the fourth quarter, allowing Watson to orchestrate three touchdown drives.

Just look at this way: The Tigers scored on five of their 17 possessions, or 29 percent. During its previous 14 games, Clemson averaged 13 possessions per game and scored on 44 percent of them. So despite Clemson receiving 31 percent more possessions than they normally did per game, Alabama’s defense still held the Tigers under their scoring rate by 15 percentage points, which is bonkers.

As a fan of sport, I love watching excellence, so it legitimately made me sad to see such a dominant unit’s efforts hampered and wasted by the ineptitude of another.

The Alabama dynasty is still alive

For a split, fraction of a nanosecond, the Alabama dynasty died. Then, it was revived because no team reloads and retools better than the Crimson Tide do. It’s easy to think the sky is falling in Tuscaloosa because nobody can yell “Roll Tide!” and triggers millions of eye rolls (now, if you yell that phrase, you’re probably doing so sobbing in your room, underneath your AJ McCaron poster), but let me remind everybody that since 2008, Alabama is a stunning 9-2 in championship games (5-1 in SEC Championships and 4-1 in National Championships).

There is no more impressive résumé in college football history: Since 2008, an overall record of 112-13, four championships, an appearance in each of the first three College Football Playoffs and a pair of Heisman Trophy winners.

The Crimson Tide are basically the New England Patriots of college football: Always in the hunt, have an iconic head coach with an iconic personality that is iconic because it’s not trying to be iconic and a culture of success that can overcome any level of roster overhaul.

However, although Watson is gone to the NFL, Clemson isn’t going away. Dabo Swinney has forced himself into the elite head coach conversation and is a recruiting savant. There’s more parody in college football, so maybe this comparison is ridiculous, but this Alabama-Clemson rivalry kind of feels like the Golden State-Cleveland rivalry in the NBA.

Dabo sends Colin Cowherd to the Stone Age

One last thing:

What. A. Time. To. Be. Alive.

Edited by Nathan Odom

Featured image from AL.com

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Follow me @DavidJBradford1 on Twitter, email me at dbradfo2@vols.utk.edu for any questions.