SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The first order of business after a manhandling should be to congratulate the man who did the handling.
So hats off to Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers, who handed a sound defeat to a very good Alabama team, earning the national title with a 44-16 win in which it made big play after big play, spectacular catches and well-timed defensive plays when needed.
The second order of business is to make sure that, when the next confrontation comes, you are prepared and the man won’t handle you so easily. That requires some self-examination, perhaps the constructive apportionment of blame and a new attitude. If Alabama comes out of California in that way, perhaps a defeat that was in equal parts surprising and humbling can lead it back to another opportunity, maybe even Alabama-Clemson V, in 2019.
The hardest part of the Santa Clara Calamity, for Alabama fans, was seeing the certainty that the Crimson Tide would make a game of it, in the second quarter or the second half or at some point because Nick Saban’s teams have done that almost invariably. Alabama teams have lost. On rare occasions, they have been flat. But it’s hard to remember any game in which, for a long stretch of painful time, they have been futile.
Impatience seemed to breed some of that. Again, credit to Clemson for keeping that pressure on for the final three quarters. But even in the early going, Alabama seemed to get away from what has been, for the better part of its 10-year run, an offensive identity. In the wake of a one-sided loss, it’s easy to declare that everything looked bad but, for long stretches, Alabama seemed capable of running the football and running it effectively.
Tua Tagovailoa didn’t have to do everything, but at times, he — or the plays that he was given by offensive coordinator Mike Locksley — seemed designed to do more than necessary. Tagovailoa threw two interceptions — the first one on a pick-six that he acknowledged was “a bad decision,” a misread of coverage.
That play shifted momentum — Alabama had stopped Clemson’s first drive on a three-and-out — but it came so early that UA could have overcome that score. But a second interception was more problematic. Josh Jacobs had run the ball repeatedly with success. Alabama trailed by just five points at the time.
There was nothing wrong with trying a deep ball at that point, but Tagovailoa threw into double coverage at a time when heroics weren’t needed. He made so many plays of the course of 2018 that he might have made another but it wasn’t the right risk because every time Clemson got the ball, it made Alabama pay.
The fake field goal that ended the opening drive of the second quarter — Saban acknowledged after the game that he should have just had Joseph Bulovas kick the ball — had the same feel: desperation, not deliberation. By the time Tagovailoa was sacked on a play that turned what had been first-and-goal at the Clemson 1 into losing the ball on downs at the Clemson 9, the outcome was more symbolic than anything else. By then, the Tigers had done enough to win.
Perhaps this game will cleanse the pipes, adjust the attitudes in a way that is needed. Alabama got beaten badly on Monday, but it didn’t just become a bad team.
A 14-1 SEC Championship season is quite an accomplishment, but it was not Alabama’s goal to accumulate nice accomplishments.
There is a theme for 2019. It won’t be easy to fulfill. It won’t be easy to beat Clemson, or Georgia, or LSU or Auburn or Texas A&M. But the goal has to be the one that Tagovailoa expressed after the bitter end.
“Five words,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s five words.
“Good is not good enough.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.
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