Tua Tagovailoa threw for 318 yards and four touchdowns and No 1-ranked Alabama beat No 4 Oklahoma 45-34 on Saturday night in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Orange Bowl.
The high-scoring Sooners reached the semifinal despite a porous defense that was no match for Alabama’s diverse attack, and the Crimson Tide led 28-0 after only 17 minutes.
Alabama (14-0) advanced to the national championship game for the fourth consecutive season and will play on 7 January in Santa Clara, California against familiar foe Clemson, which beat Notre Dame 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl. Clemson, ranked No 2, and Alabama will face off in the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, and have split two title games.
Both teams will enter 14-0. The winner will be major college football’s first 15-0 team since Penn in 1897.
“They’ve got a great program and a great team,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “I’m sure it’ll be a great challenge for us, and I’m sure we’ll need to play better than we did today.”
Tagovailoa’s performance in the semifinal argued for a Florida recount in the Heisman Trophy vote. He finished as the runner-up to Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray but won sweet consolation by completing 24 of 27 passes, with scores to four receivers.
“It’s always good to see your hard work pay off,” said Tagovailoa, who played on a sore left ankle.
While Tagovailoa connected on his first nine passes for 184 yards, Murray was sacked twice before he threw a pass, and his first completion came with his team already down 21-0.
Murray had one brilliant moment, a perfect deep throw on the move to Charleston Rambo in the end zone for a 49-yard score. He passed for 308 yards and ran for 109 but took several jarring hits, including when All-America nose guard Quinnen Williams dislodged his helmet and forced him from the game for one play in the fourth quarter.
The Sooners (12-2) were bowled over by the Crimson Tide. When Robert Barnes tried to stop Josh Jacobs in the open field, the Alabama running back lowered his head for the collision and continued to the end zone for a 27-yard score while the Sooners safety spun to the turf, dazed and briefly unable to get up.
“Our offense really controlled the tempo of the game,” Saban said. “The only time we really got stopped in the game is when we stopped ourselves.”
In a matchup between the two highest-scoring offenses in the country, Oklahoma fell too far behind early.
On the first snap, DeVonta Smith turned Tagovailoa’s short pass into a 50-yard gain. The Crimson Tide went on to score an Orange Bowl-record 21 points in the opening quarter.
At one point the disparity in yards was 191-0. The most noise the Sooners mustered in the early going was when linebacker Kenneth Murray talked trash with the Alabama bench – with his team trailing by three touchdowns.
Saban wasn’t ready to relax, though, spiking his headset during one of his several sideline tirades. And sure enough, the Sooners mounted a rally, closing to within 11 points three times in the final 18 minutes.
But two Oklahoma onside kicks failed, and Alabama ran the final 4:23 off the clock after the Sooners’ last score.
Clemson 30, Notre Dame 3
When Clemson’s Dabo Swinney entrusted a team with championship aspirations to freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence in September, this is what the Tigers’ coach had in mind.
Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns and No 2 Clemson beat No 3 Notre Dame 30-3 on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl to reach the College Football Playoff title game.
“He’s just so poised. He just sees it. And he’s got a gift of an arm,” Swinney said. “But I just love his humility and how consistent he is with his preparation, day in and day out. Easy, easy guy to coach. Easy guy to get behind and support. His teammates love him.”
Clemson’s overpowering and experienced defensive line, led by ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, smothered Ian Book and the Fighting Irish (12-1), holding them to 248 yards.
On offense, freshmen led the way. Lawrence, making his 10th career start, was 27 for 39 and did not throw an interception against a Notre Dame defense that had been one of the best on the country. Freshman receiver Justyn Ross had six catches for 148 yards and two long touchdowns.
“It makes it a lot easier on me when you just have guys all around you who are such great players and take that load off of you. There’s not much pressure when you have guys this good playing around you,” Lawrence said.
The Irish hung around for a quarter, with the teams exchanging field goals. But in the first quarter, Notre Dame All-America cornerback Julian Love went out with what coach Brian Kelly said after the game was a head injury and Lawrence started taking apart the Irish.
Lawrence hooked up with Ross deep down the sideline and the big receiver beat Love’s backup, Donte Vaughn, for a tackle-breaking, 52-yard score early in the second quarter. The Irish looked as if they might keep it close to halftime, but they couldn’t keep Clemson out of their backfield – even without suspended star tackle Dexter Lawrence.
In the final two minutes, Trevor Lawrence connected with Ross on a 42-yard score and with Tee Higgins for a one-handed, 19-yard touchdown reception – again over Vaughn – with two seconds left in the second quarter. Lawrence was 13 for 15 for 229 yards in the quarter.
“I wanted to help our team,” said Love, who passed concussion protocol at halftime and returned to the game. “And in a sense, I let them down in that regard.”
That made it 23-3 at half and once again the Fighting Irish looked outclassed against the best of the best. Not so different from the 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS championship game or the 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. In fact, Notre Dame is 0-8 in BCS and New Year’s Six games since winning the Cotton Bowl in 1993.
Receiver Miles Boykin insisted this Notre Dame team was different.
“I thought we played just as athletic as them and just as fast as them and it came down to execution and we didn’t execute today,” he said.
Though to be fair, Clemson has been doing this to everyone since Lawrence settled in. The Tigers haven’t had an opponent stay within 20 points since a close call against Syracuse on 29 September.
That was Lawrence’s first game as a starter, one he didn’t finish because of a head injury, and Clemson’s first after quarterback Kelly Bryant left the team.
Bryant, a senior, led the Tigers to the playoff last season and a semifinal loss to Alabama. He was pivotal in an early victory this season at Texas A&M. But Lawrence is a rare talent, a potential first overall NFL draft pick. When Lawrence took over, the ceiling on Clemson’s potential rose. Now it is being realized.
“I felt like he gave us the best chance to win and play at an explosive level,” Swinney said.
With his flowing blond hair, Lawrence is positioned to become one of college football’s biggest and most recognizable stars. It will help to have receivers such as Ross, Higgins and Amari Rogers, all underclassmen. And a runner like sophomore Travis Etienne, who broke a 62-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
But Lawrence is the leader. In his 11th start, he will try to become the first true freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
“He doesn’t just have a talented arm. That’s just what you guys see,” Clemson All-America defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “He’s a cool customer. He’s never rattled.”