Note: The following appears in the Wake Forest gameday football program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 150th season of college football. The author of this article, Tim Bourret, is one of 150 college football historians on a committee formed by ESPN that is selecting the top teams, games, players and programs during the first 150 years. In conjunction with that, Bourret is writing articles this year on the great moments in Clemson football history. Below is the seventh and final installment of the series.
To win its second national championship in three years, Clemson had to defeat the two teams with the most national titles in the AP poll era (since 1936). The Tigers started the journey with a 27-point victory over eight-time champion Notre Dame in the semifinal game in the Cotton Bowl. To win the national championship, Dabo Swinney’s team had to defeat 11-time champion Alabama.
Clemson was on par with Alabama in many areas in 2018, and over the last four years for that matter. Alabama entered this game with a 55-3 record from 2015-18, while Clemson was 54-4 over that time. A Tiger win would tie the two programs with an all-time record number of victories in a four-year period.
It was the fourth consecutive year that Clemson and Alabama met in the postseason, a first in the history of college football. This time, it was two 14-0 teams doing battle, the first meeting of 14-0 squads in college football history.
Clemson wasted little time in taking the lead, but it did so in an unusual way. On Alabama’s first possession, sophomore cornerback A.J. Terrell stepped in front of a Tua Tagovailoa pass and sped 44 yards to the goal line for a touchdown. Terrell became the 22nd different Tiger to score a touchdown in 2018, a record for one season.
Alabama responded on the next possession and scored in just three plays, capped by a 62-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to Jerry Jeudy, who won the Fred Biletnikoff Award the previous month.
The scoring fest continued on the next possession, when Clemson executed its own 62-yard pass play. On third-and-14, Trevor Lawrence found Tee Higgins for 62 yards, as the play led to a Travis Etienne 17-yard touchdown run.
Alabama came right back again and marched down the field for a touchdown drive that culminated with a one-yard pass from Tagovailoa to tight end Hale Hentges. The Crimson Tide then took a 16-14 lead on a short field goal. That would be Alabama’s last lead of the night. In fact, it was its last score.
Swinney’s offense regained the lead on the next drive, as Etienne scored on a one-yard run to end a 65-yard drive.
A key play took place on the following drive when Tagovailoa threw a long pass into double coverage. The ball was overthrown and cornerback Trayvon Mullen intercepted the pass.
The junior, who was the game’s most valuable defensive player, returned the theft 46 yards to the Alabama 47. Eight plays later, the Tigers took a two-possession lead when Lawrence executed a five-yard shovel pass to Etienne. Clemson added another score on a field goal by Greg Huegel, and the Tigers led 31-16 at halftime.
It marked the third consecutive 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 Tiger 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 the Alabama kicker against the Clemson front. Nyles Pinckney shot a gap and stopped Jones for a two-yard loss, and the Tigers took over on downs.
On the ensuing drive, Lawrence completed another third-down pass, this time to Justyn Ross, and the freshman from Alabama sped 74 yards for a score, the longest pass play in Clemson history in a bowl game. On the night, Lawrence completed 8-11 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns on third down.
Clemson scored again in the third quarter, this time on a 12-play, 89-yard drive that came immediately after another fourth-down stop by the Tiger 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 pass of the game on a five-yard slant to Tee Higgins, who made a leaping catch. It gave the Tigers a 44-16 lead with 21 seconds left in the third quarter.
Clemson took over on its own one-yard line 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 Tiger history in terms of time of possession.
Nothing could have brought a bigger smile to the face of Swinney as the final 39 seconds on the clock ticked away. Clemson handed Alabama a 44-16 defeat, and the 28-point margin was twice as large a defeat as Saban had suffered at Alabama.