By Josh Roller | @Roller_01
Sports Capital Journalism Program
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The faces of dejection had just walked through a cloud of orange and blue confetti. There were Alabama players, at the end of a championship night that could have been a coronation for a decade-long dynasty, sitting in their uniforms staring at a dressing room wall. They had not moved since Nick Saban, the coach of the Crimson Tide, had finished the final postgame speech of a once-perfect season.
Other Alabama players were already walking out the door and heading to the team bus. The ones talking to the media found it hard to speak and struggled to remain composed. The Crimson Tide (14-1) had just lost to the Tigers (15-0), 44-16, in the College Football Playoff National Championship, the largest margin of defeat for Alabama since Saban became head coach in 2007.
Senior tight end Hale Hentges had just walked through the tunnel, helmet in hand, red-faced, with tears flowing down his face. “We had plenty of stuff left in the tank, we just did not deliver,” he said. “We had a really good drive to start the second half. We just didn’t finish and that was kind of the theme all night.”
Tua Tagovailoa had walked off the field alone. A year before, he had come off the bench to become the Offensive Most Valuable Player of the College Football Playoff National Championship. His 41-yard overtime touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith stunned the Georgia Bulldogs and instantly became part of Alabama football lore. On Monday night he was a disappointed sophomore with a towel over his head.
He had gone to the post-game press conference and upon his return to the locker room, no one was around him. He wasn’t talking to anybody, including teammates. The only acknowledgments he received were gentle pats on the back from staff members on their way out the door.
He sat in the same position in front of his locker — arms on his knees, hunched over — as he had on the bench in the final minutes. Tagovailoa watched Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the latest Offensive Most Valuable Player, walk off the field when he was replaced by Chase Brice.
Two interceptions had contributed to Alabama’s loss of momentum. “That was totally a bad decision,” Tagovailoa said of A.J. Terrell’s interception and the 44-yard return for a touchdown just 1 minute, 40 seconds into the game.
“It was a poor decision on my part,” Tagovailoa said in the press conference. “I just think we came out, and we were killing ourselves. We shot ourselves in the foot by me throwing that interception for a touchdown, and then not finishing drives the way we wanted to.”
By halftime, Alabama had allowed 31 points, the most in a first half during the Saban era. Clemson’s total of 44 points tied the second highest total the Tide allowed under Saban.
Alabama gained 443 yards, just 39 fewer than Clemson. Alabama averaged 8.2 yards on first down. But the Tide converted just four of 13 opportunities on third down. And Clemson’s third-down success was staggering.
The Tigers converted 10 of 15 third-down plays. On those 10 plays that extended drives, the Tigers averaged 25.5 yards per conversion, including gains of 74, 62, 37 and 26 yards.
“We couldn’t get off the field on third down,” Saban said. “We gave up a couple of explosive plays on third down. Third down and 13. Third down and 9.”
As Alabama players exited the locker room, walking towards the team bus, some held their head high, seemingly moving on. Many walked over to the table where food was waiting. They asked what was on the burritos and selected their preference. Many others, though, walked out of the locker room with their head hanging. Many almost sprinted past the video cameras.
The Clemson cheerleaders walked past, smiling and laughing. An Alabama player gave them a nod, silent congratulations at a shocking end to the Crimson Tide season.