In retrospect, maybe Monday night felt inevitable.
Clemson pushed Alabama to the brink two years ago. It won in dramatic fashion one year ago. Both results came in large part as a result of the spectacular play of quarterback Deshaun Watson, who's now in the NFL.
With Watson gone, Alabama got revenge in the most Alabama way possible. In Monday night's Sugar Bowl playoff semifinal, the No. 4 Crimson Tide dismantled the No. 1 Tigers 24-6 despite totaling just 261 yards with an average of four yards per play. Alabama was able to easily take control of the game because this was a vintage Nick Saban defensive performance. The Crimson Tide overwhelmed the Tigers at the line of scrimmage. Last year, Clemson wore down Alabama and staged a comeback; this time, the Tigers could barely muster a first down, totaling 188 yards with an average of 2.7 yards per play.
The Alabama offense has evolved, now leaning heavily on the running of quarterback Jalen Hurts, but this was a classic Crimson Tide performance, as the most talented roster in college football clamped down and sucked the life out of a Clemson offense that had given it so much trouble in the past two national championship games.
The first three possessions of the game were three-and-outs, but Alabama woke up with the help of its field-position victories. The Tide kicked a field goal and got a 12-yard touchdown pass from Hurts to Calvin Ridley by the end of the first quarter, taking what proved to be an insurmountable 10-0 lead.
Hurts ➡ Ridley. Six. pic.twitter.com/C9OlE0evsM- ESPN (@espn) January 2, 2018
Clemson did hang around for a while. It cut the lead to 10-6 early in the third quarter after Alabama fumbled on the first play of the half. And when Alabama then went three-and-out, Bryant led the Tigers into Bama territory. However, Bryant was intercepted by Alabama defensive lineman Da'Ron Payne, who returned it 21 yards, with a personal foul tacked on. Seven plays later, Payne took the field on offense in a goal-line package and caught a touchdown pass from Hurts, giving the 319-pounder an interception and a touchdown catch in a span of less than four minutes.
Da'Ron Payne is the 3rd player in the past 10 seasons to have an interception and receiving touchdown in the same game.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 2, 2018
Purdue's DeAngelo Yancey and Vanderbilt's D.J. Moore are the other 2 pic.twitter.com/XsCPo7xXIC
On Clemson's next offensive play, Mack Wilson intercepted Bryant and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown to put Alabama ahead 24-6 with 5:40 left. Even with more than 20 minutes left, the result felt inevitable by that point, because there was never an indication that Clemson's offense could mount the sort of challenge that it did last year, despite another stellar performance from a talented Tigers defense.
Clemson pushed Alabama out of its comfort zone two years in a row. No matter how powerful the Tigers have become, pushing the Crimson Tide out of their comfort zone a third time was a gargantuan task, especially without Watson.
There have been threats to Alabama's supremacy under Saban, and the Crimson Tide will face another one in an all-SEC national title game next week when they meet ascending Georgia, which won a thrilling Rose Bowl earlier Monday. But time and time again, Alabama shoots down the notion that it's showing cracks or becoming vulnerable in the big picture.
Alabama did not win the SEC championship this year, but in the Sugar Bowl, it did what it has often done under Saban: It smothered the opposition with a physically dominant performance that rendered the opposition helpless.
Alabama is not invincible, but, as always, nobody is more difficult to beat.