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Dabo Swinney Proves Greatness by Besting Nick Saban in Epic Title Game Beatdown

Adam Kramer

Many years from now, when Dabo Swinney has finally had enough of coaching, they will talk about this night. They will talk about the time the sport’s greatest soundbite uncorked a historic beatdown on one of the greatest dynasties and coaches in college football—a role Alabama has never truly had to embrace under Nick Saban. They will talk about the way Swinney tied his future to a true freshman quarterback way back during the first month of season and how the decision paid off many months later.  

They will talk about Swinney, who doesn’t look or sound like most football CEOs. Maybe it’s the way he deliberately fills up a tape recorder unlike most coaches or that neighborly, Alabama-grown smile. But underneath it all is a relentless engineer building an empire. 

Clemson’s 44-16 throttling over Alabama in the CFP National Championship Game wasn’t just Swinney’s second national title in three years. This was a defining moment in a coaching career that still has so many chapters to be written.

And this wasn’t just any loss for Alabama, either. This was the most lopsided defeat Alabama has suffered in the Saban era—the kind of box score that still doesn’t feel quite real despite how quickly things got out of hand.    

By the end of it, Swinney was engulfed by his teammates on the Santa Clara, California, stage as the trophy presentation began. He didn’t look shocked or dumbfounded by the moment as he was two years ago when Deshaun Watson, his former star quarterback, found Hunter Renfrow for a game-winning touchdown in the title game over the same team. 

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Instead, Swinney looked like he was precisely where he expected to be before the night began. Thrilled and appreciative, just like always. The shock and sensation of a night that will take months to absorb was not to be found on the face of one of the few people who thought such an outcome was possible all along. 

“I know we’re not supposed to be here because we’re just little ol’ Clemson,” Swinney said after the game on the ESPN broadcast. “And I know I’m not supposed to be here, but we are and I am. And how about them Tigers? We left no doubt.”

In the past few weeks, Clemson beat two unbeaten teams in the College Football Playoff by a combined score of 74-19. Making the victories more sensational was the fact that they were orchestrated by two true freshmen—quarterback Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Justyn Ross.

Since being the named the starter against Syracuse, a decision that prompted then-starter Kelly Bryant to transfer, Lawrence has flashed brilliance before elevating his game against Notre Dame and finally Alabama. 

Lawrence dissected the Crimson Tide, finishing with 347 yards and three touchdowns on only 32 throws. His favorite target once again was Ross, who provided a handful of dazzling, game-altering catches on the sideline while finishing with 153 yards receiving—a kind of offensive output Saban has rarely allowed. 

Defensively, despite giving up yardage, Clemson held Alabama to its worst output of the season. An aggressive, brilliant game plan from defensive coordinator Brent Venables—an assistant that Swinney has worked alongside since 2012—ultimately proved to be the perfect complement to Lawrence’s near-perfect evening. 

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In the fourth quarter, Alabama took out quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. And with a few minutes remaining, Swinney emptied the bench and pulled the starting offense after a timeout—a kind of in-game victory lap that showcased just how one-sided the game became after an exciting, touchdown-heavy first quarter.  

For Swinney, his second national championship comes 10 years after he was named the head coach and 16 years after arriving at Clemson. Before then, he took a job in real estate before making his way back into the profession as the Tigers’ wide receivers coach. 

When he was named the interim head coach in the middle of the 2008 season, the general thought was that he would not get hired to be the full-time coach. But then he was, amid grumblings about the decision. And then he was almost fired a few seasons into his tenure.   

A decade later, Swinney has reached rarified coaching air. His 55-4 record in the past four seasons is matched by only Saban in that time. Both coaches have two titles, and two of the four losses have come to the other.  

And he has accomplished it all at the age of 49. Swinney, who is nearly 20 years younger than Saban, won’t turn 50 until next season.

“There are so many great coaches that are so deserving of a moment like this and never get a chance to experience it,” Swinney added. “To get to do it once and now to get to do it again is a blessing.”

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It is reasonable to believe that Swinney will win another title at Clemson. After all, Lawrence, who looks the part of a generational QB, still has two more years of eligibility at Clemson left. As does Ross. Running back Travis Etienne, who scored three touchdowns against Alabama, will also return.  

And the next batch of stars to complement those teams—players Swinney has recruited over the past few years—will be built over the coming months. Clemson's stars of the future, elite high school players from around the country, will continue to flock to Clemson to play for a head coach who does things different than most. 

"Everyone wants to win championships, and so do we," Swinney told Bleacher Report during the 2018 regular season. "But I want us to be one of the most consistent programs in college football history. That's really what I want."

More wins are coming, some likely as lopsided as the one he just produced. More conference championships. More opportunities to generate moments of this magnitude on stages like this.

In time, Swinney’s legacy will grow to something more than it is already—one of the greatest college football coaches to ever grace a sideline. But as it stands now, after a night that seemed impossible 10 years ago, perhaps Swinney is already there.

   
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