The Empire Strikes Back: Classic Alabama Returns to Own Clemson Grudge Match

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 2, 2018

Mack Wilson's 18-yard pick-six sealed Alabama's win over Clemson.
Mack Wilson's 18-yard pick-six sealed Alabama's win over Clemson.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Alabama cruised through September and October to begin the 2017 campaign, but a shaky November put the Crimson Tide on the brink of missing the College Football Playoff.

Though the dominance Nick Saban's team exhibited during its 8-0 start had faded, the CFP selection committee decided the early run overshadowed a loss to Auburn. In Round 3 of the postseason rivalry with Clemson, Alabama backed up that judgment.

Jalen Hurts and the offense weren't spectacular, but the defense limited Clemson's scoring attack to just 2.7 yards per play and six total points. The Tide recorded five sacks, forced two turnovers and earned a convincing 24-6 triumph in the 2018 Sugar Bowl.

It was the Alabama we saw for two-thirds of the regular season. The Alabama that seemed destined for the playoff. And the Alabama that hadn't showed up in the last two showdowns with Clemson.

From a commanding season-opening win over Florida State when the 'Noles had a healthy Deondre Francois to a 45-7 demolition of Tennessee, Saban's squad wrecked everything in sight. Only Texas A&M managed a loss within 18 points.

Hurts, while never a star as a passer, oversaw a run-first unit that averaged nearly 500 yards over the first eight outings. His turnover-free games and running ability complemented an elite defense, which ceded just 236 yards and 9.8 points per contest in that stretch.

November brought clashes with LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn, and the increased competition slowed Hurts through the air, as expected. That limited offense, combined with a poor defensive day, finally cost Alabama against Auburn.

However, Ohio State's pair of defeats—a stunning 31-point loss at Iowa the decisive factor—granted the Tide an opportunity to redeem themselves. And with more than a month to prepare mentally and heal physically for Clemson, they executed.

In each of the last two seasons, Alabama struggled to stop two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson. Clemson amassed 1,061 yards and 75 points in those matchups, celebrating a national title for the 2016 season after falling in 2015.

Quarterback Kelly Bryant couldn't accomplish the same.

During the first half, Clemson could hardly move the ball. Last season's national champions mustered just 73 yards of total offense through 30 minutes and crossed its own 30-yard line once.

Alabama swarmed Bryant throughout the night, holding him to 143 total yards.
Alabama swarmed Bryant throughout the night, holding him to 143 total yards.Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Conversely, 'Bama picked up yards frequently against a terrific Tigers defense. Four first-half drives covered at least 41 yards yet resulted in just 10 points. A missed field goal sent the Tide to the locker room clinging to a 10-3 lead.

Head coach Dabo Swinney was even optimistic about Clemson's deficit in his halftime interview on ESPN. "It's about as bad as we could play, [but] it's a touchdown game," he said.

Plus, on the opening snap of the third quarter, Hurts botched an exchange. The Tigers took over at the 20-yard line, in prime position to even the score.

Let a national contender hang around, and it'll probably make you pay. Instead, Alabama pushed Clemson backward, forced a field goal and stayed in front 10-6.

The defense—like all previous championship teams under Saban, and as it did early in the 2017 campaign—owned the game.

On the next possession, Da'Ron Payne intercepted a deflected pass before capping the ensuing drive with a touchdown catch. Mack Wilson picked off Bryant's next attempt and returned it 18 yards to the house, delivering the dagger and the final points of the win.

Two sacks forced a punt on the next drive, and Clemson didn't advance past its own 26-yard line until a late possession that ended in a turnover on downs. The Tigers finished with a season-worst 188 yards of offense, and it marked the fourth time Alabama held its opponent below 200.

"We established our identity," Saban said after the game. "I thought we lost it in the last game of the season."

It was something Clemson hadn't experienced thanks to Watson, either. This time around, though, Alabama asserted itself defensively and never relented.

Hurts wasn't electric, but he made a couple of plays and mostly protected the ball. Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough powered their way to a handful of timely conversions. Calvin Ridley caught a touchdown and set up another.

It was enough to complement an elite defense.

That was Alabama's identity this season, and it's similar to past title-winning years. If the Tide don't lose it against Georgia, another national championship trophy will be headed to Tuscaloosa.

          

Follow Bleacher Report CFB Writer David Kenyon on Twitter: @Kenyon19_BR.

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