SANTA CLARA — With stunning ease — and a freshman quarterback — Clemson toppled college football's greatest dynasty again to become the first perfect playoff champion.
Trevor Lawrence passed for 347 yards and three touchdowns and the second-ranked Tigers beat No. 1 Alabama 44-16 on Monday night in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
In the fourth consecutive playoff meeting between the Tigers and Tide, Clemson evened the series and beat 'Bama for the national championship for the second time in three seasons. Clemson is the first team in the AP poll era, dating back to 1936, to finish 15-0.
"We're gonna enjoy this one. We've got a nice spot to put it in our facility, right next to that other one," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We've got twins!"
Alabama coach Nick Saban and the Tide (14-1) were looking for a sixth national championship in 10 years, trying to add to an already unprecedented run in the sport. Instead, Clemson crushed Alabama, becoming the first opponent to beat the Tide by more than 14 points since Saban became coach in 2007.
Swinney's Tigers sealed their status as a superpower, no longer just 1A to Alabama's 1.
"We're 15-0, we beat the best team ever, nobody's taking that away from us," Clemson All-America defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said.
Two seasons ago it was Deshaun Watson dethroning the Tide with a last-second touchdown pass. Clemson's new star quarterback didn't need the late-game heroics. The long-haired Lawrence cut though Alabama's defense with the help of another fabulous freshman. Justyn Ross made a juggling grab, a one-handed snare and broke a 74-yard touchdown about midway through the third quarter that made it 37-16 and had Swinney high-stepping down the sidelines.
Ross, who scored two touchdowns in the semifinal rout of Notre Dame, had six catches for 153 yards against his home-state team.
Swinney takes a different approach than Saban, running a more fun-loving program than Alabama's all-business organization. But the results have been every bit as good. And on Monday night at Levi's Stadium, in a championship game played more than 2,000 miles away from Clemson's South Carolina campus, the Tigers were way too much for an Alabama team that had spent the season mauling its opposition by an average of 31 points per game.
Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa threw two crucial interceptions in the first half, the first returned 44 yards for a touchdown by A.J. Terrell to put Clemson up 7-0. The Tide came in scoring 48 points per game, but were shut out over the final 44 minutes by an opportunistic Clemson defense that stiffened in key spots.
Tagovailoa, the sophomore who came off the bench to win the championship game last year for the Tide, went 22 for 34 for 295 yards and two touchdowns.
"Good is not good enough," Tagovailoa said.
The Heisman runner-up was also the second-best quarterback on the field in the championship game. Lawrence finished 20 for 32, but went 18 for 25 for 277 yards over the final three quarters.
The teenager who took over as the starter four games into the season raised the Tigers' play, giving them an explosive offense to match a suffocating defense that was led by a star-studded line with All-Americans Clelin Ferrell and Wilkins.
"It's been an awesome journey," Lawrence said. "It's really unbelievable."
Tua Tagovailoa struggles in loss
Tagovailoa dropped back on Alabama's third play of the game, threw in between two receivers and had the ball intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
It proved to be that kind of night for the Crimson Tide's uber-talented quarterback, who didn't fare nearly as well as a starter in the College Football Playoff championship game as he did a year ago in relief.
Tagovailoa threw two interceptions, was stopped on a pair of fourth-down runs and struggled mightily in the final three quarters of a 44-16 loss to No. 2 Clemson on Monday night, the most lopsided loss of coach Nick Saban's career at Alabama.
Tagovailoa announced his arrival as a star on this stage a year ago when he came off the bench to throw three TD passes, including the game-winner in overtime to beat Georgia 26-23 for the championship in Atlanta. He followed that up with a Heisman Trophy runner-up campaign, throwing 41 TD passes and only four interceptions for the top-ranked Crimson Tide (14-1) to lead them back to the championship.
After struggling on an injured ankle before getting pulled in the SEC championship game, Tagovailoa delivered a brilliant performance in the Orange Bowl semifinal game against Oklahoma, throwing for 318 yards and four TDs with only three incompletions.
He looked to be on the way to another big game even after the early interception when he threw a 62-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy on Alabama's second drive, followed by a 1-yarder to Hale Hentges on the next possession.
But after Alabama drove inside the Clemson 10 late in the first quarter, everything changed for the Tide. A false start by Jedrick Willis Jr. at the 1-yard line helped stall a drive that led to a field goal that gave Alabama a 16-14 lead in the opening minute of the second quarter.
The Tide didn't score again with Tagovailoa in the game.
He threw his second interception on the next drive when he launched a deep pass into coverage and took a third-down sack the following drive when he didn't see a cornerback blitz coming. Things then fell apart in the second half with Alabama getting stopped on a fake field goal on the opening drive when holder Mac Jones was stopped for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-6.
Tagovailoa then was stopped short on two fourth-down runs before spending the rest of a rough night on the sideline.