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Top Ten Performers From Clemson’s National Championship

By Jim Johnson
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Here were the top ten performers for the Tigers, en route to their second ring in three years.

Clemson’s 44-16 drubbing of Alabama last night was one of the most impressive, shocking performances in recent college football history.

After a season of chalk, at least at the top, this rematch had an air of inevitability to it all season. However, in the eyes of most people, it was Alabama, THEN Clemson, then everyone else. Now, it’s quite clearly Alabama AND Clemson, then everyone else.

That game served as a sort of reenergizing source of inspiration for a sport normally dominated by unpredictability. That very thing once again reigned supreme, if not in the matchup, most certainly in the outcome. There were, of course, plenty of people that thought Clemson could or even would win that game, but no one really thought what happened would happen.

From the offensive line to the red zone defense, from the quarterback to the coaching staff, Clemson capped off its perfect 15-0 season with a perfect game.

Frankly, even Alabama could take a thing or two away from how Clemson’s program is run.

A total team effort, it’s difficult to select the most impressive individual outings from the bunch. Like Dabo Swinney’s favorite dating site, there are plenty of fish in this sea. That being said, here were the top ten performers for the Tigers, en route to their second ring in three years:

10. Dabo Swinney

Clemson made all kinds of history last night. They became the first FBS team to ever go 15-0 and win the national championship. They gave Alabama its worst loss of the Saban era. Trevor Lawrence is now the first true freshman quarterback to win a national championship since 1985. However, chief amongst these recent accomplishments, Dabo Swinney put together arguably the greatest postgame interview of all-time.

For four-and-a-half staggeringly long minutes, he talked about joy, the word, and J.O.Y., the acronym, he humble bragged about all the great coaches that never get a chance to experience what he was feeling, he talked about his faith, about his players, about where he and his team is and is not supposed to be, about where they are anyways, about California’s geography, and about various modes of transportation, most specifically the R.O.Y. bus.

He even talked about the viability of his in-progress screenplay. In all seriousness, the last 30 seconds were genuinely inspirational. He cemented himself, and his program, atop the ranks of college football. Oh yeah, and he became the only active head coach other than Nick Saban with more than one ring.

9. Travis Etienne

Travis Etienne was the best running back in the country this season. With all due respect, Jonathan Taylor winning the Walker Award over him was actually a joke. Last night was only further proof of what was already abundantly obvious.

Against the third ranked run defense in the country entering the game, according to S&P+, the sophomore tallied 86 yards on 14 carries, nine of which went for either a first down or a touchdown, forced four missed tackles, and 2.21 of his 6.14 yards per carry came after contact. His two rushing scores and one receiving touchdown made him just the third player to ever find paydirt thrice in a single game against Alabama, during the Saban era.

Those two rushing touchdowns also pushed him to a remarkable 24 for the campaign, placing him firmly in second in ACC history, behind James Conner.

8. Tony Elliott

The only defense better than Alabama’s this year was Clemson’s. Maybe that’s why Tony Elliott looked so comfortable all night. Most teams, well all teams save Clemson, lack the talent to even begin to replicate the Crimson Tide. Ranked top five in both run and pass defense S&P+ prior to the matchup, only two teams had broken 30 points all night, and no one had dropped a 40-piece. Clemson did the former in the first half, and cracked the latter before the fourth quarter.

Saban’s defense was ravaged for 482 yards of total offense, the most one has allowed since the 2016 title game, against Deshaun Watson and company. The 347 passing yards allowed were also the most since that aforementioned national championship.

Elliott’s offense didn’t turn the ball over or allow any sacks. He made sure Trevor Lawrence was able to get the ball out quickly, as he’s done all year, and took shots at the right time, picking on an Alabama defense that has been susceptible to big plays. He outcoached Nick Saban. Enough said.

7. Mitch Hyatt

The entire offensive line deserves credit for its performance, and was perhaps the most impressive position group on the field, but rather than use five spots to write about each of them individually, let’s hit it here under the face of the front five.

Alabama recorded a pressure on Trevor Lawrence on just 6 of 32 dropbacks. At 18.75%, it was their lowest single game pressure rate this year. The Crimson Tide entered the game pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 42.8% of their dropbacks, including at least 31% of dropbacks in every game this season.

Outside of Quinnen Williams, Saban’s vaunted front seven was largely stifled. Anfernee Jennings made a few splash plays but was inconsistent. The rest of the group combined for only one tackle for loss. And, again, they did not allow a single sack to the team that entered the contest ranked third in the nation in sack rate.

6. Christian Wilkins

There was talk before the game that, with Dexter Lawrence suspended, Alabama might have the better defensive line of the two teams. That was not the case on Monday night. Quinnen Williams might have been the best individual, but Christian Wilkins was right there with him, if not even better.

Against an Alabama offensive line widely regarded as one of the two or three best in the game, Wilkins tallied four total pressures on Tua Tagovailoa, including a shared sack. Three of his four tackles were also considered stops, or plays that constitute wins for the defense.

For a couple of years now, Wilkins has been the leader of one of the best defensive lines in college football history, both on and off the field. In his final game as a Tiger, he showed why he will live forever as a program legend.

5. Tee Higgins

Overshadowed in the highlight reels by his teammate Justyn Ross, Higgins was nonetheless spectacular in his own right.

He wasn’t Trevor Lawrence’s favorite target on Monday night, or even his second favorite, but he reeled in three of his four targets for 81 yards and a score. His 27 yards per reception and 20.25 yards per target both led the Tigers’ pass catchers. That 75% catch rate also topped out amongst those receiving more than two targets.

He used up all of his top play juice against Notre Dame, but from an efficiency standpoint, Higgins was right there with Ross, against Alabama.

4. A.J. Terrell

Clemson’s secondary struggles were wildly overblown in the lead up to this game. Sure, it was a relative weakness, but when everything else is elite, just being really good makes you a relative weakness, by proxy.

A.J. Terrell and Trayvon Mullen had both been pretty stellar all season. Some of the criticisms of the safety play were justified, but these cornerbacks were lights out for most of 2018, and played maybe the games of their careers in the national championship.

Terrell, in particular, shined especially bright. Obviously, he started fast with that 44-yard pick six to draw first blood, but even outside of that play, he was great. Against an Alabama pass offense that entered the game ranked first in S&P+, he held Tua Tagovailoa to a 55.6% completion rate on throws into his coverage and was only targeted on one of every 7.4 cover snaps. With Terrell leading the way, Tagovailoa’s passer rating was about 60 points lower than his season average, prior to Monday night.

3. Brent Venables

This wasn’t just Nick Saban’s best offense ever at Alabama, it was one of the best in recent college football history. Second only to Oklahoma by most metrics, it was first in passing S&P+, fourth in rushing S&P+, with an elite offensive line, five dynamic pass catchers, a dominant trio of backs, and the Heisman runner-up behind center.

They moved well enough between the 20’s, but anytime Clemson needed a stop, it got one. Alabama averaged 1.6 yards per play in the red zone, compared to 7.4 on non-red zone plays, and scored merely a touchdown and a field goal on four such trips.

Alabama also converted just 4/11 third down tries after ranking second in third down success rate, and were held to 50% on six fourth down tries. As Dabo Swinney noted after the game, Clemson bent, but they never broke. And they helped out the offense, with 14 of the Tigers’ 44 points coming off of turnovers.

2. Trevor Lawrence

Aside from accomplishing what no other true freshman signal caller had since 1985, Trevor Lawrence was dynamite. He posted the highest passer rating, and average the most yards per attempt against Alabama since Johnny Manziel, in 2013.

He was extremely poised, getting the ball out quickly, as he had done all season, and picking his spots to test Alabama’s corners on deep balls. He didn’t turn the ball over, and tied Jake Fromm with the highest completion rate against the Tide this season.

Pressured as little as he was thanks to that offensive line performance, he was superb under duress, going 4/6 for 110 yards and two touchdowns. And he was clutch, converting 8/12 passes on third down, the most completions Alabama allowed on such plays in a game this season, whilst becoming the first player since Brandon Allen in 2015 with multiple third down passing touchdowns in a single game against Nick Saban.

1. Justyn Ross

Ross, another true freshman, was the best player on the field in Santa Clara. After setting a new career high against Notre Dame in the semifinals, he topped that mark with 153 yards on six catches, including two ridiculous snags that will be played on promo packages until the end of time.

Those 153 yards are the fourth most allowed by Alabama in the Saban era, and they pushed him to 1,000 for the season, giving him the edge over Higgins as Clemson’s leading pass catcher.

After accounting for nearly half of Trevor Lawrence’s passing production in the College Football Playoff, it’s safe to say with four of the five offensive players on this list coming back, that Clemson’s offense will continue to be a force to be reckoned with for the foreseeable future.

Stars are made in the postseason. Clemson fans have known for awhile how good this guy is. Now everyone else does, too.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP