Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2019 CFP National Championship Game

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2019

Biggest Winners and Losers of the 2019 CFP National Championship Game

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    It was dubbed as a heavyweight battle, but by the end of the night, Clemson was the only one throwing haymakers.

    Maybe it wasn't quite a first-round knockout, but the Tigers certainly put a beating on the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, who weren't used to getting beat at all, much less like they did in a historic 44-16 pummeling.

    "There ain't ever been a 15-0 team, and I know we're not supposed to be here. We're just little ol' Clemson, and I'm not supposed to be here. But we are, and I am!" Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi on the ESPN broadcast after the game. "How 'bout them Tigers, man? We beat Notre Dame and Alabama, we left no doubt, and we walk off this field tonight as the first 15-0 team in college football history."

    These were easily the two best teams in the nation, and they came out swinging. Unfortunately for the defending national champions, the young Tigers were simply better all over the field. Clemson's offense was clicking all night, and the defense joined the party in the second half.

    All that ended up culminating in the lopsided final tally. It was a stunning outcome.

    Alabama-Clemson IV was an orange attack, and the win evens Clemson's senior class with Alabama's in victories (55) and national titles (two).

    As always, though there can only be one true winner and loser, there were a lot of games within the game, and that's why we're here. Let's examine the outcome by looking at the things that went right and those that went woefully wrong in the national championship game.

Winner: Trevor Lawrence

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    Last year, then-freshman Tua Tagovailoa broke through on the national stage by leading Alabama to an improbable win in the national championship game. 

    He stood and watched the favor returned Monday, as freshman Trevor Lawrence continued to make coach Dabo Swinney's early-season move to bench incumbent Kelly Bryant the story of the year in the sport.

    All Lawrence did was grow and develop at a rapid pace, making the superstar players around him better as they helped him blossom in the highest-profile position for the nation's top team. On the biggest stage of the year, he shined.

    "Well, he was the best player," Swinney told ESPN's Rinaldi, describing the decision to play Lawrence over Bryant.

    "And that's not a knock against Kelly Bryant; I love Kelly Bryant, and what a great player he is. But my job is to make decisions that put the team in the best possible path to win, and after four games, he was the best player. I think you saw that."

    The freshman from Cartersville, Georgia, was supposed to be one of those transcendent, can't-miss prospects, and he lived up to those expectations this season. He distributed the ball to his incredibly talented receivers time and time again Monday on his way to 347 yards and three touchdowns.

    Whether it was his third-down throw to Justyn Ross, who smacked down Saivion Smith to get open, for a 74-yard touchdown or his beautiful pass to Tee Higgins downfield, Lawrence was special.

    Early in the game, he was jacked up and overthrew several balls. But he never really got happy feet, and he stepped up in the pocket and performed under duress. He made every single throw and got the ball to all those playmakers.

    They did the rest. The future is bright for Clemson, and it's largely because Lawrence has at least two more years with the paw print on his helmet.

Loser: Nick Saban and the Alabama Coaching Staff

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    When Nick Saban talks, we all bend an ear to listen. It's easy to believe the godfather of college football, a living legend who may go down as the greatest to ever coach the game.

    So, when he told ESPN's Maria Taylor at halftime in regards to Clemson, "defensively, we're going to have to play a lot better than what we're playing. They're doing some copycat stuff that other people have done against us that we haven't practiced against, so we'll get it fixed at halftime," we believed him.

    Was it a dig calling the Tigers' offensive success "copycat" plays? It sounded like it. But the bottom line is all those plays worked, and they just kept coming in a tidal wave in the second half.

    When the carnage cleared in a 44-16 loss, it was domination all over the field and a coaching mismatch. If you were stunned by that, join the club. Nothing Alabama called seemed to work, and for every punch the Crimson Tide threw, Clemson returned a combo.

    Trick play on special teams? Clemson snuffed it out and made it look bad.

    Fourth-down calls and key plays? Veteran coordinator Brent Venables pieced together a memorable performance, as his defense allowed 443 yards but just 16 points. 

    How about all those Clemson third-down conversions (10-of-15) and clutch downfield plays? The Tigers made big play after big play regardless of distance on the money play each drive. Lawrence sustained drives and often broke off big plays at key moments.

    From downfield strikes to the beautiful shovel pass at the goal line to Travis Etienne, it was a showcase game for all of Clemson's coaches.

    Maybe it'll be a performance for others to copycat down the road.

Winner: Trevor Lawrence's Supporting Cast

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    Everybody wants to talk about Oklahoma's offense, and Alabama has drawn a lot of well-deserved headlines for all it accomplished on that side of the ball, too, as the Crimson Tide playmakers helped carry a young defense to the national championship game.

    But it's time to acknowledge the Clemson Tigers may have the most talented offensive players in the country.

    You have to give a ton of credit to quarterback Trevor Lawrence, but when you have magnificent players surrounding you, it's not quite as hard to look as good as Lawrence did as a first-year player.

    There was Justyn Ross—the top-ranked player in the state of Alabama as a high school senior last year, per 247Sports' composite ratings—eviscerating Alabama's defensive backs to the tune of six catches for 153 yards and a touchdown.

    Ross showed his strength at the line of scrimmage, his speed in the open field and his athleticism with one-handed grabs.

    Then Tee Higgins wasn't to be denied, as he had a lunging scoring grab over the middle to cap a night in which he finished with three catches for 81 yards and a score.

    It's easy to forget just how impressive sophomore running back Travis Etienne is, but he quietly had a pair of rushing touchdowns and a receiving score in the title game. He was the fastest player on the field at times, gaining the edge and hitting the hole in a flash play after play.

    You forget about steady senior Hunter Renfrow, who's killed Alabama before and can crush you on third downs. Tavien Feaster spells Etienne and shows he could start for a lot of teams in the country, too.

    Then there was the offensive line, who kept Alabama's massive defenders off Lawrence, giving him time to step up in the pocket and find all these sleek, shiny weapons all over the field and torch Alabama in a way that hasn't been done much at all in Nick Saban's tenure.

    It was a thing of beauty for Clemson fans, and the best thing is most of these guys are back, too.

Losers: Viewers Who Tuned in Late

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    Were you a little tardy getting home from work? Did the significant other make you sit down for a nice family dinner, not caring if you were late to the big game?

    If this describes you, oh boy did you miss a lot.

    Five minutes into Alabama-Clemson IV, 21 points already decorated the scoreboard. You missed a 44-yard pick-six from Crimson Tide signal-caller Tua Tagovailoa and a pair of 60-plus-yard passes. One was a Tagovailoa 62-yard scoring strike to Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy.

    On the next drive, on a 3rd-and-14, Trevor Lawrence hit Tee Higgins for another 62-yard strike to set up a 17-yard touchdown run by Travis Etienne.

    Many predicted a shootout, with two brilliant offenses, many of the nation's top playmakers and two underclassmen quarterbacks who are some of the most impressive throwers to come along in a long time. Those pundits were right.

    These two juggernauts traded heavyweight punches starting in the first series.

    When Alabama put together a 10-play, 75-yard drive that cut the lead to 14-13 and chewed up 4:12, it felt like an eternity.

    Next time these two meet (and, really, you'd be ridiculous to bet against that happening) make sure you're settled into your favorite seat and strapped in for a heck of a ride.

    Everything else can wait.

Winner: Clemson's Championship Response on Defense

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    Clemson built a 15-point halftime advantage, it still felt like anyone's game. It wasn't like the Tigers were stopping the Crimson Tide.

    But instead of the expected second-half shootout, the Clemson defense responded in a big way.

    Sure, the Alabama offense that rolled up 443 total yards, but that's misleading. The Tigers forced two turnovers, made every big play on crucial downs, kept Alabama uncomfortable and chewed up runners at all angles.

    The turnovers that came from the back end of the defense and were huge in the first half, but after the break, it was more about the front seven. They pressured Tua Tagovailoa and made him look pedestrian. On pivotal third and fourth downs, the Tigers showed up time after time.

    Alabama was just 4-of-13 in third-down conversions, and though it converted three of the six fourth-down chances, rarely did those extended drives end in touchdowns.

    As Swinney said in the postgame interview, the Tigers often bent, but they rarely broke.

    Losing Dexter Lawrence to a failed drug test was huge. But Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins and other elite, difference-making defenders were on the field, and they were more than enough for coordinator Brent Venables to unleash on Alabama.

Loser: Turnover-Prone Tua

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    Entering Monday's national championship game, Alabama super sophomore Tua Tagovailoa was one of the most decorated players in college football, in part because he was one of the most careful.

    A first half that saw the Tigers build a 31-16 lead over the Crimson Tide was because the Heisman Trophy runner-up lapsed from that normal level of consistency.

    Tagovailoa threw 41 touchdown passes and just four interceptions in leading Alabama to a 14-0 record and into the title game. But on the first series, Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell came off his man and jumped a route, snatching a Tagovailoa pass intended for Jerry Jeudy and rumbled 44 yards for the go-ahead score.

    Later, Tagovailoa threw another interception on a deep ball that was tracked down by Trayvon Mullen, and the Tigers turned it into a touchdown, too. 

    That's 14 points on takeaways, and the usual steady Tagovailoa looked shaken by the different packages Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables threw at the Tide.

    There was yet another time when Tagovailoa was snowed under by a Clemson blitz and fumbled the ball, but luckily for Alabama, the Tide jumped on the ball or it would have been another touchdown.

    Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi that Tagovailoa's turnovers were "the difference" at halftime.

    Tagovailoa finished a respectable 22-for-34 passing for 295 yards, a pair of scores and a two picks, but it was a rough night overall for one of college football's top players.

    Last year on this stage, Tagovailoa showed the world how talented he is and made everybody learn his name. Against the Tigers, he showed he's still an underclassman capable of looking bad against a great defense.

Winner: Parity (Sort Of)

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    As Dabo Swinney said after the game while accepting the national championship trophy, "Alabama is Alabama." The name has become synonymous with championships.

    But he also said he thought coming in that Clemson was the better team. That much wound up being obvious in a laugher of a game.

    Considering Alabama had the opportunity to win its sixth national title in the past decade under Nick Saban, Clemson delivered a gut-punch to the dynasty.

    Entering this game and with Alabama well on its way to yet another top-ranked recruiting class, it felt like the Crimson Tide were approaching invincibility. The machine just keeps on churning.

    Clemson stopped that though, perhaps giving the rest of college football hope that it isn't just Alabama lapping the pack by itself. The Tide have company at the top.

    If you think the Tigers are going away with Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Travis Etienne and plenty of other mega-playmakers rotating in waves over the next few years, think again. One has to wonder if anybody can topple the Tigers.

    Clemson's win Monday night was a win for college football, which, for better or worse, was suffering from Alabama fatigue. By this point, we all just expect the Crimson Tide to be playing for the national championship, putting double-digit players on All-America teams and into the NFL.

    But the Tigers have become a factory, too.

    Is this parity? Or is this just the two best teams in college football playing Round 4 of a rivalry that's destined to shape the sport's landscape over at least the next half-decade? Will Georgia or Ohio State be able to approach this level consistently? Are Oklahoma, Notre Dame, or perhaps another team on the cusp?

    Or is this going to become the Celtics-Lakers of the 1980s NBA?

    It's a win for college football that Alabama can be stopped, but now who's going to stop Clemson? The only answer, at least for the foreseeable future, is the Crimson Tide. So, get used to this.

Loser: Alabama's Ill-Advised Fake Field Goal

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    It was almost like Kirby Smart sneaked back into an Alabama visor.

    The Georgia head football coach and former Crimson Tide defensive coordinator caught a lot of flak from a 4th-and-11 fake punt call from the 50-yard line with just over three minutes remaining in the game that led to Justin Fields getting smothered by Alabama defenders and leading to the go-ahead score in a 35-28 UA win on Dec. 1.

    Alabama made its own baffling blunder of a special teams fiasco in the national championship game.

    Already trailing 31-16 and needing points, the Tide lined up for what would be a 38-yard field goal by Joseph Bulovas. Instead, Alabama must have seen a look it liked, because holder Mac Jones took the snap and tried to run up the middle for the six yards needed for a first down.

    Cue the circus music.

    It was a poorly designed play with Bulovas blocking. Clemson tackle Nyles Pinckney wasn't having any of it. He grabbed Jones, who isn't fleet of foot, and slung him down well shy of the first down.

    One can certainly understand Nick Saban's lack of belief in Bulovas' ability to make the mid-range field goal. He had already missed an extra point, after all.

    But the Tigers weren't fooled. If anything, Bama would want Jones, who is a pass-first quarterback, throwing the football to try to pick up the necessary yardage. Instead, he ran into a line full of 300-pounders.

    Clemson took the ball and quickly capitalized on the turnover with a 74-yard scoring strike to Justyn Ross to take full control of the game 37-16. It wasn't the reason Alabama lost the game, but on a night when Clemson's coaches held the full advantage, they snuffed this one out.

          

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of Sports Reference and CFBStats.com. All recruiting information is from 247Sports, and rankings are from 247Sports' composite.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.