Stephen's Report

Five reasons behind UA’s lopsided loss to Clemson in CFP title game

Kevin Jairaj - USA TODAY Sports

Nick Saban and the University of Alabama has already heard enough of “The Dynasty is Over” speech, so there is no need to dive into that here. 

However, Clemson’s victory on Monday night does effective immediately place Dabo Swinney as 1B to Saban’s 1A in terms of best coaches in college football. Swinney and his staff soundly outperformed Saban and his on the biggest stage for a College Football Playoff national title. 

The 28-point loss (44-16) is one that will drive Saban mad with fury in the offseason, as he intends on getting the seventh national championship to surpass Paul Bryant. In sticking to what recently occurred, listed below are five reasons behind why the matchup went the way it did. 

Clemson’s plan for Tua Tagovailoa worked 

Schools like University of Tennessee and Louisiana State University thought it had something for Tagovailoa, but in the end, it was defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Clemson that putting something on the talented sophomore quarterback. Venables, who has not accepted a head coaching job for various reasons, formulated a plan that consisted of both pressuring the native Hawaiian and fooling him with different looks in coverage.

Despite nearly accounting for a seventh 300-yard passing performance (295) and two touchdowns, Tagovailoa was rattled, flushed from the pocket frequently and tossed two crucial interceptions – including one that was returned for a touchdown by Tigers’ defensive back, A.J. Terrell in the first quarter of action. 

For the Heisman finalist and consensus All-American, he looked defeated upon taking the field after halftime. Saban should have noticed Tagovailoa’s body language at that point; however, he chose to continue with him and Alabama’s problems continued to rise. He will enter next season with a lot to prove, but Tagovailoa was simply not super and Clemson’s defense broke him. 

Alabama quit on defense 

Normally, one can turn on an Alabama game and pinpoint the moment where the Crimson Tide’s defense would flip the switch and dominant its opponent. Tide fans waited for that moment, but instead it saw a Clemson offense that made its defense quit. Whether it was a lack of pass rush, lack of focus in the secondary, a lackluster game plan or all of the above, Saban and defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi had absolutely no answers for Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers’ offense. 

The 6-foot-6, 215-pound freshman quarterback picked Alabama apart with accurate throws and displayed a toughness where he could not be shaken. Lawrence hit on 20 of 32 pass attempts for 347 yards with three touchdown and no turnovers. After he was heavily courted by the Tide in the 2018 recruiting cycle, Justyn Ross decided to spurn Saban and go with Swinney. 

The 6-foot-4 superb athlete had a monster performance, collecting a game-high 153 yards receiving with one touchdown on six catches. He owned Alabama’s secondary with an average of 25.5 yards per catch, while his 74-yard score demonstrated his athleticism and pure speed against cornerback Saivion Smith (hurt on the play) and free safety Deionte Thompson. 

Even with Clemson being one-dimensional for much of the game, Travis Etienne found ways to be effective against the Tide. He tallied two rushing touchdowns and gashed its front seven with huge runs late in the matchup.

Etienne finished with 86 yards rushing on 14 carries. Tigers converted 10 of 15 third downs and outscored Alabama, 30-3 in the second half.

Poor play calling 

It reached the red zone four times, yet the Tide came away with a touchdown only once. 

Getting cute with run-pass options calls, rather than running the football or designing a play to catch Clemson off guard, doomed Alabama. The Tide out rushed the Tigers, 148-135 and there were moments in the game where Damien Harris and Najee Harris were ripping off big gainers. 

The decision to plug Eyabi Anoma in at the last minute was costly.  

With Christian Miller not being to play much, the talented freshman should have been on the field sooner to give a valiant pass rush. Alabama has had kicking problems all season, but to not take the field goal when there was still a fighting chance (31-16) and then to fake a kick with its slowest quarterback – Mac Jones – were not good calls.

On top of that, to elect to punt on a fourth down when trying to get back in the game was not a good move either. 

Saban was better off sticking with the run while Tagovailoa was struggling to try to settle in, instead the king of second half adjustments got whipped. 

Jalen Hurts was not utilized 

This one is by far the most disappointing. 

For a player that remained loyal to the Alabama football program, to see Jalen Hurts not get a fighter’s chance to take field and at least try to provide a spark was highly upsetting.  

The two passes he attempts (0 for 2) both came with the game already in hand for Clemson, as it had crossed the 40-point threshold. Saban gave Tagovailoa an opportunity in the 2018 CFP title game versus Georgia, but fear gripped him to make the switch for Hurts on Monday night. 

RELATED: Alabama denied Jalen Hurts in CFP title game and it suffered greatly

Following his heroics from the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and after Dan Enos has improved his passing abilities, one would think Hurts earned the right to at least try to get the big pay back against the school that beat him his freshman year, right? 

Saban did not think so. 

Tide fans will never know if Hurts could have pulled victory out of the fire a second time, because like a selfish high school coach, Saban denied one of his leaders a chance to make an impact. 

Clemson wanted it more 

A defensive front that consisted of Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and Kendall Joseph were embarrassed after a 24-6 loss in the Sugar Bowl to Alabama in 2017. 

The juniors for that Clemson team made it up in their minds that they refused to go the National Football League with a bad final taste of college football. Those players returned for a senior year and chance to rewrite their story and the energy each one had wasn’t matched by Alabama. 

The Tigers well-coached, well-prepared and more focused. 

At the end of day, both sides of the ball for Clemson took it to Alabama and it was a moment for everyone to realize how special Dabo Swinney truly is. Desire is important and the desire to win was more so wearing orange and white for the ACC and crimson and white for the SEC.

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Stephen M. Smith is the managing editor and senior writer for Touchdown Alabama Magazine.  You can “like” him on Facebook or “follow” him on Twitter, via @CoachingMSmith.

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