Clemson leaves no doubt with championship blowout of Alabama

Chatter about Alabama’s unbeatable, dynastic reign over college football will be stalled for a year.

Perhaps much longer.

True freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence picked apart the top-ranked Crimson Tide and led Clemson to a 44-16, leave-no-doubt victory in the CFP National Championship Game on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium.

Lawrence, who likely would be the No. 1 pick in April’s NFL draft if he were eligible, went 20-for-32 for 347 yards and three touchdowns in redefining the “freshman moment.” Instead of buckling under the bright lights, an estimated 70 million TV viewers and an in-person crowd of 74,814 highly entertained fans, Lawrence had his best moments amid the most pressure.

The 6-foot-6, 215-pound prototype quarterback from Cartersville, Ga., spliced together a personal highlight reel while making an Alabama team with the nation’s best record this decade (113-13) and five championships since 2009 look like an FCS opponent.

Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who also won a title at LSU and is tied with Bear Bryant for the most by any coach, had no answers for Lawrence. Clemson became the first top-division team to go 15-0 since Penn in 1897, and Lawrence became the first freshman starting quarterback to win a championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.

“Trevor has always been a special talent in my mind, and it doesn’t surprise me,” Saban said. “He’s got the right stuff as a person, and he’s played phenomenally well for his team this year.”

Lawrence did not look rattled, from sauntering onto the field before the game in a blazer, khakis and no socks to calling a timeout with 2:45 remaining and starting the celebration, and he got plenty of help along the way. He connected with nine receivers, including Justyn Ross six times for 153 yards.

Clemson’s Travis Etienne ran for 86 yards and scored three touchdowns, and teammate A.J. Terrell had eight tackles and an interception he returned for a touchdown.

Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who finished second to Kyler Murray in the Heisman voting, went 22-for-34 for 295 yards, and the Crimson Tide ran right at the country’s top-ranked scoring defense. Alabama’s three running backs combined for 163 yards on 31 carries, but Tagovailoa threw two interceptions, and the Crimson Tide converted only 4 of 13 third-down chances and failed twice on fourth down in the re-re-rematch of the growing rivalry.

Alabama beat Clemson in the 2016 championship, and Clemson returned the favor in 2017. The Crimson Tide knocked off the Tigers in the semifinals on their way to the 2018 crown, but there was no sign of fan fatigue regarding the matchup as the game got off to a roaring start.

Despite Alabama possessing the ball for 12 of the first quarter’s 15 minutes and outgaining Clemson 224 yards to 86, the Crimson Tide trailed 14-13 because of Terrell’s pick-six and a missed extra-point try.

Terrell appeared to be in man-to-man coverage on the outside, but he left DeVonta Smith and jumped in front of Jerry Jeudy to intercept a pass in the flat on Alabama’s first drive. Terrell then raced 44 yards for a touchdown 100 seconds into the game.

After the teams traded scores on drives that each included 62-yard passes, Najee Harris ran three times for 20 yards to set up Tagovailoa’s 1-yard touchdown pass to Hale Hentges. Joseph Bulovas then missed an extra-point attempt for the sixth time this season, leaving Alabama down 14-13 with 6:23 to play in the first quarter.

The Crimson Tide took their first lead on a 25-yard field goal by Bulovas, but the advantage lasted only 40 seconds as Clemson got a 1-yard touchdown burst from Etienne to go ahead 21-16 with 11:38 to play in the first half.

Tagovailoa, who threw four interceptions in the season’s first 14 games, threw two picks on his first 15 attempts in the title game. The second was an overthrow of Jeudy that was intercepted by Trayvon Mullen and returned to the Alabama 47. Eight plays later, Lawrence’s 5-yard shovel pass to Etienne put the Tigers up 28-16.

Greg Huegel tacked on a 36-yard field goal with 45 seconds left in the first half to put Clemson up 31-16 lead — the largest deficit of the season for Alabama. But, as Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said on his way to the locker room: “There’s nothing less important than the score at halftime.”

Clemson was pretty good in the second half, too. After sniffing out and stopping an Alabama fake field-goal try, Lawrence sent Ross on a 74-yard dash for a touchdown and a 37-16 lead. Cornerback Saivion Smith went down after his left ankle appeared to give out, and Lawrence quickly spotted a wide-open Ross, who turned about a 10-yard throw into the Tigers’ longest pass play of the season and left Alabama players with the thousand-yard stare.

“I know we’re not supposed to be here. We’re just little, ol’ Clemson, and I’m not supposed to be here,” Swinney said. “But we are, and I am. How about them Tigers?”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rsimmons@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/collegesports/article/Clemson-leaves-no-doubt-with-championship-blowout-13516149.php.

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