SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- For six consecutive weeks this season, there was no doubt within the College Football Playoff selection committee meeting room and largely throughout the country that No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Clemson were the top two teams in the country.
Turns out it was just in the wrong order.
In what was a jaw-dropping, dominant performance Monday night on the sport's biggest stage, Clemson asserted itself as the best team in the country with a 44-16 victory over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. It wasn't surprising that Clemson won -- these two programs have gone toe-to-toe for four straight seasons in the College Football Playoff. The baffling part was how disjointed Alabama looked, with no answers for a Clemson offense that caught the Tide unprepared with a few wrinkles picked up from studying Alabama's opponents.
The Crimson Tide bumbled their way through a mistake-laden game that included two turnovers that led to Clemson touchdowns, a botched fake field goal attempt, undisciplined penalties and an inability to stop Clemson on third down or convert their own opportunities. Another missed extra point was the least of Alabama's concerns.
The history between these two teams in the playoff era has been well-documented, a championship rivalry that has emerged along with the five-year-old system for determining a champion. Alabama and Clemson have now won 11 of the past 12 CFP games and each of the past four national titles. Just how close these programs have been in that span, though, is reflective of a shrinking gap between Dabo Swinney's Clemson program and a Nick Saban dynasty that has been the measuring stick for every other program in the country.
Alabama and Clemson now have the same record over the past four seasons: 55-4. They are 2-2 against each other in the College Football Playoff, but Clemson just took a 2-1 lead over the Tide (14-1) in title games. It's no longer Alabama and everyone else. Clemson made the case on Monday night that it's Alabama, Clemson and everyone else.
The Tigers made history with the victory, as it had been 121 years since a major college football team won 15 games. The 1897 Penn squad also finished a perfect 15-0. Clemson achieved that Monday night with a poised performance from true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who stole the spotlight from Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa with his strong, accurate arm and led the Tigers to a 31-16 halftime lead.
His ability to complete downfield passes of greater than 10 yards helped the Tigers sustain drives and exposed one of the few weaknesses in Alabama's defense this season. Lawrence threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns, and Tagovailoa was replaced by Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter.
Clemson's defense also had the edge, with the first pick-six in the College Football Playoff and 90 total yards off interceptions.
While this college football season was stable at the top and Monday night's matchup another repeat, Clemson punctuated an otherwise predictable season with the one upset that will linger the longest.