NEW ORLEANS — The third act wasn’t a drama.
Alabama vs. Clemson, Round III, didn’t resemble the national championship shootouts of the previous two years. Instead, it was a story of revenge enacted coldly and with all the mercy of squashing a bug.
The Crimson Tide defeated Clemson, 24-6, on Monday in the Sugar Bowl semifinal of the College Football Playoff at the Superdome. It was more surgical and exacting in method than flashy or thrilling, but the final result was an overwhelming victory for a team that came into the postseason amid debate over its worthiness to receive the final seed in the four-team playoff.
Alabama (12-1) advances to play Georgia next Monday in the national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The SEC champion Bulldogs (13-1) beat Oklahoma in double overtime in the Rose Bowl semifinal to earn a spot in the title contest.
After splitting the last two national championship games with the Tigers (12-2) — losing last year after beating Clemson the year before — Alabama this time disarmed its opponent, taking away its weapons with an overwhelming defensive performance. UA controlled field position and found enough opportunities to put points on the board.
“The guys played with a relentless competitive attitude,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I mean, they were warriors out there on this field.
“This was a tough game. Clemson has a good team, and I can’t be prouder of a bunch of guys for the way they competed in the game for 60 minutes. They just did a fantastic job.”
Alabama answered critics who suggested that it was not worthy of the fourth and final seed in the playoff field with a suffocating performance.
“We just wanted to prove to all the doubters and the naysayers that we’re a really dominant team and we haven’t really lost anything,” said defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne, who intercepted a pass and caught a trick-play touchdown pass.
Alabama’s first scoring drive netted a 3-0 lead on a 24-yard Andy Pappanastos field goal. Late in the first quarter, Jalen Hurts found Calvin Ridley for a 12-yard touchdown pass for a 10-0 lead.
The Tigers answered with their best drive of the night, but that stalled and Clemson settled for a field goal. Alabama missed a field-goal try in the final seconds of the first half and took a mere 10-3 lead into the locker room despite outgaining Clemson 182 yards to 73 in the first two quarters.
Hurts fumbled away Alabama’s first snap of the second half, setting up the Tigers in favorable field position. This was the chance Clemson needed, but it didn’t do much with it. UA’s defense pushed the Tigers back five yards on three snaps and held Clemson to another field goal.
And that was all the Tigers got. Clemson gained just 188 yards on 70 snaps: 2.7 yards per play.
Payne started and finished things all by himself in the third quarter. He intercepted a pass, with an assist from Anfernee Jennings’ big hit as Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant released the ball, and then lined up as a fullback to catch a 1-yard touchdown pass to cap the Crimson Tide’s subsequent possession.
That put UA up 17-6 with 5:35 to go in the third quarter, and Mack Wilson returned an interception 18 yards for a score on Clemson’s next snap.
The rest of the game was an exercise in grinding Clemson down and running out the clock. The ending of the third act was anticlimactic, but the curtain closed with Alabama moving on to play for a national championship yet again.