Note: The following appears in the Georgia Tech gameday football program.
To review Clemson’s 2018 national championship season, you have to go back to Jan. 13, 2018, the night of the football banquet that honored the 2017 Tiger team. At that event, Head Coach Dabo Swinney announced that Austin Bryant, Clelin Ferrell, Mark Fields and Kendall Joseph had all decided to return to Clemson for one more season. I tweeted that announcement from the banquet and my phone started making sounds like a popcorn machine. Two days later, Christian Wilkins announced he would return, giving Clemson a defensive line that had three returning first-team All-Americans, a first in history.
Combined with All-American Mitch Hyatt’s earlier announcement that he would also return for his senior campaign, it meant four linemen who had made an All-America team as underclassmen would return for the 2018 season. That just doesn’t happen today.
Those three days, Jan. 13-15, 2018, had as much to do with Clemson winning the national title as any other three-day period in 2018.
Think of what the return of Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott, Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams would have meant for the 2017 team. Had they returned, Clemson might have won three consecutive national championships, something that has never happened in college football history.
TEXAS TWO-POINT TWO-STEP
Clemson’s second game of the season on Sept. 8 was at Texas A&M, a team it had not faced since 2005, but the Tigers and Head Coach Dabo Swinney were very familiar with the opposing head coach. Jimbo Fisher was in his first year as the leader at Texas A&M, but he had faced Swinney the previous eight seasons as head coach at Florida State.
Committed to using Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence at quarterback in the first half, both led touchdown drives. On his first play under center in front of the boisterous crowd, Lawrence connected with Tee Higgins on a 50-50 ball for a 64-yard touchdown, giving Clemson a 14-3 lead.
But Bryant was even more effective on this night. He made a perfect pass to Diondre Overton for an eight-yard touchdown to give Clemson a 21-6 lead in the third quarter. He later guided the Tigers on a 75-yard drive that Travis Etienne finished on a one-yard touchdown run. That play gave Clemson a 28-13 lead entering the fourth quarter.
However, Aggie quarterback Kellen Mond was far from done. The sophomore totaled a school-record 330 passing yards in the second half alone and directed Texas A&M to two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the second of which came with just 46 seconds remaining in the contest.
On the game-tying two-point conversion attempt, Mond was pressured by Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins as he was chased toward the home sideline. In a desperate situation, Mond threw the ball into double coverage in the endzone, but K’Von Wallace came down with the ball and Clemson preserved its 23rd win since 2011 in games decided by eight points or less.
Kelly Bryant was 12-17 passing for 205 yards and a touchdown, a career-high 191.3 passing efficiency and a team-high 54 rushing yards and a score. He led an offense that did not commit a turnover for the second straight game.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD
While Clemson headed to Atlanta on Sept. 22 with a No. 2 ranking, Tiger fans entered Bobby Dodd Stadium with concern. Since 2003, only Clemson’s 2016 national championship team had tasted victory there, and Clemson had won just 14 of 60 previous games against the Yellow Jackets in the city of Atlanta.
However, freshman Trevor Lawrence had not played in any of those games.
This proved to be a landmark game, as Lawrence posted another efficient game with four passing touchdowns to four different receivers, leading the Tigers to a dominant 49-21 victory. He joined Willie Simmons (North Carolina, 2000) as the only reserve quarterbacks in Tiger history to total four passing touchdowns in a game. The native of nearby Cartersville, Ga. led Clemson to 35 points in his 35 snaps.
The victory gave Clemson’s senior class a 4-0 record against Georgia Tech, just the second Tiger senior class in history with a 4-0 record against the Yellow Jackets, and it was the defense that made the difference. In those four games, Georgia Tech’s offense averaged just 15.5 points, 197 total yards and 128 rushing yards per contest. It also averaged just 2.8 yards per carry and 3.5 yards per play in those four games.
PLAY OF THE YEAR
An undefeated Syracuse team that was not ranked, but would finish 2018 ranked No. 15 in both polls, came to Clemson with confidence on Sept. 29. After all, the Orange were the last team to defeat Clemson in the regular season, a 27-24 victory that shocked the college football world in the Carrier Dome the previous season.
It had been a tumultuous week for the Tiger team. On Monday, Head Coach Dabo Swinney had a meeting with Kelly Bryant to tell him that freshman Trevor Lawrence would become the starting quarterback.
Bryant had a 16-2 record as a starter, including 4-0 in 2018, but Lawrence clearly had been the better passer at that point in the season. He had nine passing touchdowns, while Bryant had two, including Lawrence’s 4-0 advantage the previous week at Georgia Tech. Bryant had not done anything to lose the job, but Lawrence had made some remarkable plays to win the job.
With a new NCAA rule allowing a player to redshirt even with four games of participation, Bryant decided to take advantage of it, so he left the team (but not the school) for the rest of the season and announced a transfer to Missouri in January.
In the second quarter, Lawrence scrambled to his left and took a hit near the Syracuse sideline. He suffered an injury on the play and was out for the game. Tension in Death Valley intensified as Syracuse took a 16-7 lead at halftime.
It was now redshirt freshman Chase Brice’s turn at quarterback. He had played 25 snaps at quarterback prior to the Syracuse game.
The Orange had a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. but Brice eventually settled into the offense and completed two passes for 31 yards to Justyn Ross. Travis Etienne followed the blocking of All-American Mitch Hyatt to score from 26 yards to bring the Tigers within 23-20 with 11:08 left.
After the teams forced punts on the next three possessions combined, Clemson took over on its own six with 6:06 to play. Brice drove the Tigers to their own 48, where they were faced with a fourth-and-six. Brice completed a 20-yard pass to Tee Higgins on the Clemson sideline for a first down at the Syracuse 32.
That would be a play that Tiger coaches and players would point to as the most important of the season. It had been executed by a player who began the week as the third-string quarterback.
The Orange defense was heartbroken, and Etienne, who finished with a career-high 202 rushing yards, scored five plays later to give Clemson a 27-23 lead with 41 seconds left. Clemson’s 94-yard drive to close the game was the longest game-winning drive that resulted in a touchdown inside the last minute in school history.
Great teams usually have recordbreaking performances at some point in their seasons. The 1981 Clemson team beat Wake Forest 82-24, still the most points Clemson has scored in an ACC game. The 2016 Tiger team defeated South Carolina 56-7, the Tigers’ largest victory margin (49) against the Gamecocks since 1900.
The 2018 team had a run of four games of remarkable accomplishments, as the Tigers beat Wake Forest (63-3) on Oct. 6, NC State (41-7) on Oct. 20, Florida State (59-10) on Oct. 27 and Louisville (77-16) on Nov. 3 by a combined score of 240-36 and an average score of 60-9.
In the four games, Clemson had 1,174 rushing yards and 1,180 passing yards. For the first time ever, a Clemson team had a 400-yard rushing game and 400-yard passing game in one season. Both took place during this four-game run. The offense averaged 588 yards per game and 8.3 yards per play.
In the 63-3 victory at Wake Forest, Clemson had three 100-yard rushers on the way to 471 rushing yards on just 40 carries. Clemson had six touchdown plays of 50+ yards. The 60-point victory margin was Clemson’s largest in an ACC game.
NC State came to Clemson undefeated and ranked No. 16 in the nation, but it left with a 41-7 defeat, tied for the second-largest margin of victory over a ranked team in Tiger history.
The following week, Clemson handed Florida State its largest margin of defeat in a home game with a 59-10 victory. The Tiger defense held the Seminoles to -21 rushing yards, tied for the second-best rushing defense in Clemson history.
Clemson defeated Louisville 77-16, the second-most points by the Tigers in an ACC game. Clemson totaled 661 yards on just 57 plays, as the Tigers averaged 11.6 yards per play, breaking a school record that had stood since 1903. The Tigers averaged 13.3 yards per carry, breaking the school record of 11.8 that was established four weeks earlier at Wake Forest.
FIVE IN A ROW
Clemson amassed 744 total yards, third most in school history, in recording its fifth win in a row over rival South Carolina in the regular-season finale on a soggy Nov. 24 night at Memorial Stadium. It marked the first time since a seven-game streak from 1934-40 that Clemson defeated South Carolina five consecutive times.
The win capped a 12-0 regular season, just the third time Clemson had a 12-0 record (1981, 2015). With the victory, Clemson kept its hopes alive of being selected for the College Football Playoff for a fourth straight year.
Clemson was incredibly balanced on offense, gaining 393 passing yards and 351 rushing yards, the first time the Tigers had 350+ yards of each offensive method in a game. Three times, Clemson had a 95-yard scoring drive, a first in school history.
Trevor Lawrence broke Deshaun Watson’s Clemson record for passing yards (393) against South Carolina.
Christian Wilkins made his final home experience memorable, as he scored on a one-yard run. He also had a sack and became the first Tiger with a sack and rushing touchdown in a game.
FOUR ACC TITLES IN A ROW
On Dec. 1, 2008, Dabo Swinney was named the full-time head coach of the Tiger program by Athletic Director Terry Don Phillips. Dec. 1, 2018 turned out to be a special day for Swinney as well, as the Tigers won the ACC championship outright for a fourth straight year, a first in league history, with a 42-10 rout of Pittsburgh.
Travis Etienne got the Tigers off to the best of starts with a 75-yard rushing touchdown on Clemson’s first play. It was the longest offensive play in the history of the ACC Championship Game. He ran the 75 yards in 13 seconds, tying for the earliest opening score in school history and the earliest score in an ACC Championship Game.
Etienne finished the game with 156 yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries and earned MVP honors.
The 2018 team was famous for late bursts just before halftime. On Pittsburgh’s last possession of the first half, A.J. Terrell intercepted a pass and returned it 31 yards to the Pittsburgh 10. One play later, Trevor Lawrence connected with Tee Higgins, giving the Tigers a 28-10 halftime lead.
The two teams slogged through a scoreless third quarter. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Lawrence found Justyn Ross on a 38-yard pass. Two snaps later, Adam Choice scored on a one-yard run. Freshman Lyn-J Dixon completed the scoring with three minutes left, and the Tigers had their 34th win in their last 36 games against an ACC opponent.
The defense allowed just eight passing yards and 199 total yards in the contest, defensive records for an ACC Championship Game. Tre Lamar topped the stat sheet with nine tackles, while Dexter Lawrence and Isaiah Simmons each added 2.5 of the Tigers’ nine tackles for loss.
MAKING ERVIL PROUD AGAIN
When Clemson defeated Notre Dame 24-22 on Oct. 3, 2015 in one of the most exciting games in Memorial Stadium history, an emotional Dabo Swinney put his hand over his head and dropped to his knees in the final seconds. The main reason for the head coach’s emotions was the thought of his father, who had passed away just two months earlier. It was his father’s dream to see this game.
Ervil Swinney had been a die-hard Alabama and Bear Bryant fan since his youth. While the Crimson Tide were near the top of college football during Bryant’s 25 years as Alabama’s head coach, there was one team he could not beat. Notre Dame was 4-0 against Bryant between 1973-80, and twice (1973,74), the Fighting Irish deprived Bryant of an AP national title in a bowl game.
So when Swinney beat the Fighting Irish during Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, his father was at the forefront of his mind.
Fast forward to Dec. 29, 2018, and Swinney’s second game against the eight-time national champion Fighting Irish in the College Football Playoff was even bigger. Notre Dame entered the Cotton Bowl with a 12-0 record.
A prime theme of the pregame dissection of each team was “big plays.” Notre Dame’s defense had given up just five plays of 40+ yards all year, fourth fewest in the nation. Clemson was second in the nation in plays of 40+ yards on offense (30).
The Tigers first found the endzone on a 52-yard scoring connection from Trevor Lawrence to Justyn Ross that put Clemson up 9-3 in the second quarter. It was the first of many big plays in the playoff for that combination.
Noticing that Notre Dame All-America defensive back Julian Love was out with an injury, Lawrence went back to Ross late in the second quarter, this time on a 42-yard passing touchdown with 1:44 left before halftime, giving the Tigers a 16-3 lead.
Clemson got the ball back after a three-and-out by Notre Dame. With just two seconds left in the second quarter, Lawrence completed a 19-yard passing touchdown to Tee Higgins, who made a juggling catch in the back of the endzone against Love’s replacement.
Two touchdowns in the last 1:44 of the first half was a backbreaker for Notre Dame. Lawrence passed for a Cotton Bowl first-half record 262 yards, and 137 of those passing yards went to Ross.
Notre Dame never threatened in the second half and finished with just 88 rushing yards and a season-low 248 total yards. The Fighting Irish finished with just three points, fewest in their illustrious history in a bowl game.
Lawrence received offensive MVP honors and was 27-39 passing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. He joined Deshaun Watson as the only players to pass for 300 yards and three touchdowns in a College Football Playoff game.
Somewhere above, Ervil Swinney was watching the postgame celebration, marveling at the fact that his son is 2-0 against the school Bryant never beat.
LEAVING NO DOUBT
To win its second national title in three years, Clemson had to defeat the two teams with the most national championships in the poll era (since 1936). The Tigers started the journey with a 27-point win over Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. Nine days later, Dabo Swinney’s squad had to defeat top-ranked Alabama in Santa Clara on Jan. 7, 2019.
Clemson wasted little time in taking the lead, but did so in an unusual way. On Alabama’s first possession, A.J. Terrell stepped in front of Jerry Jeudy and sped 44 yards for a touchdown. Terrell became the 22nd Tiger to score a touchdown in 2018, a school record for one season. It was shocking for the Alabama fanbase, because Tua Tagovailoa had thrown just four interceptions in 2018.
The teams traded scores throughout the first quarter and into the second quarter. Alabama had a 16-14 lead with five minutes left in the second quarter.
Swinney’s offense regained the lead on the next drive, as Travis Etienne scored on a one-yard run. A key play took place on the following drive when Tagovailoa threw a long pass into double coverage. The ball was overthrown and Trayvon Mullen intercepted the ball. The junior, who was the defensive MVP, returned the theft 46 yards to the Alabama 47. Eight plays later, the Tigers took a two-score lead when Lawrence executed a five-yard shovel pass to Etienne.
The Clemson defense made another stop to give the Tigers time for another drive before halftime. The Tigers drove 61 yards in the final two minutes and Greg Huegel kicked a 36-yard field goal with 45 seconds left to give Clemson a 31-16 lead at halftime.
It marked the third-straight postseason game that Clemson scored twice in the last five minutes of the second quarter to take a commanding halftime lead.
Alabama opened the third quarter with a drive that took over five minutes. On fourth-and-six from the Clemson 22, Nick Saban called for a fake field-goal attempt. Reserve quarterback and holder Mac Jones took the snap and attempted to follow the blocking of his 170-pound placekicker against the Clemson front. Nyles Pinckney shot a gap and stopped Jones for a two-yard loss.
On the ensuing drive, Lawrence completed another third-down pass, this time to Justyn Ross, and the freshman from Alabama who narrowed his recruiting to the Tigers and Crimson Tide sped 74 yards for a score, the longest pass play in Clemson history in a bowl game. In the game on third down, Lawrence was 8-11 passing for 240 yards and two touchdowns.
Clemson scored again in the third quarter on a 12-play, 89-yard drive that came immediately after another fourth-down stop by the defense in the red zone. Lawrence connected with Ross twice on the drive thanks to circus catches by the freshman.
Lawrence completed his third touchdown of the game on a five-yard pass to Tee Higgins, who made a leaping catch. It gave the Tigers a 44-16 lead with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.
After another Alabama drive to the Clemson red zone was stopped by the defensive pursuit of Tagovailoa near the sideline, there was an exchange of punts.
Clemson took over on its own one with 10:02 remaining. Incredibly, the Tigers ran out the clock, driving to the Alabama five. The 10:02, 94-yard drive was the longest in Clemson history in terms of time of possession.
Lawrence, who joined Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway (1985) as the only first-year freshmen to lead a team to a national title, was the game’s offensive MVP, as he was 20-32 passing for 347 yards and three touchdowns. He completed passes to nine Tigers, including Ross, who had six receptions for 153 yards, his second consecutive monster playoff game.
The Tiger defense held an Alabama offense that had averaged nearly 48 points per game to a third of that total, including no points in the last 44 minutes. The 28-point defeat was double the worst previous loss for Saban at Alabama.
The victory made Clemson the first 15-0 team since Pennsylvania in 1897, giving Clemson the right to the claim, “Best Ever!”