The beauty and tradition of the Rose Bowl was relocated to the sprawling concrete of North Texas. The backdrop of the sun-soaked, San Gabriel Mountains was replaced by a mountain of metal and glass inside ultra-modern AT&T Stadium. The game’s classic logo sat beneath Jerry Jones’ massive jumbotron.
Nothing could have looked more out of place — except Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff.
On the field where the Fighting Irish failed to score a touchdown in their blowout playoff loss to Clemson two years ago, No. 4 Notre Dame suffered its latest humiliation on the sport’s grandest stage, as No. 1 Alabama cruised to a 31-14 win to advance to the national championship game for the fifth time in the past six years.
The Crimson Tide (12-0) will play the winner of No. 2 Clemson/No. 3 Ohio State on Jan. 11 in Miami, where Nick Saban can pass fellow Alabama legend Paul “Bear” Bryant with a record-setting seventh national championship.
Eight years after Brian Kelly was embarrassed in the national title game against Alabama, Notre Dame (10-2) still looked like a featherweight in the wrong class, incapable of standing toe-to-toe with the most dominant team in the nation. In seven BCS or New Year’s Six bowl games, Notre Dame has gone winless, with no game decided by fewer than two touchdowns. Kelly is now 1-7 against top-five opponents, appearing eons from capturing Notre Dame’s first national championship since 1988.
After missing the playoff for the first time last year, Alabama will again be the favorite to win it all, having never gone three straight seasons without a national title since Saban arrived in 2007.
Three years since his title-winning overtime touchdown, DeVonta Smith showed how much his legend has grown — and why he is likely to become the first wide receiver in 29 years to win the Heisman Trophy — finishing with seven catches for 130 yards and three touchdowns.
Elevating a near-flawless performance from fellow Heisman finalist Mac Jones (26 of 31, 303 yards passing, four touchdowns), Smith first scored less than five minutes after kickoff, going practically untouched on a simple pass in the flat by beating one defender and splitting another pair for a 26-yard touchdown.
Starting its next drive at its own 3-yard line, Alabama needed just five plays to score again. Just before Jahleel Billingsley’s 12-yard touchdown catch, star running back Najee Harris made a metaphor of the mismatch, hurdling over the head of cornerback Nick McCloud, en route to a 53-yard run.
For 8 minutes and 3 seconds, Notre Dame executed its game plan to perfection. At the conclusion of a 15-play, 75-yard drive, Kyren Williams punched in a fourth down score from 1-yard out to cut the score to 14-7 early in the second quarter.
Smith responded less than three minutes later, taking a short slant 34 yards for the score, marking the sixth time in the past seven games he’s scored at least two touchdowns.
On each side of halftime, Alabama was shockingly stopped on consecutive drives, but the winningest quarterback in Notre Dame history couldn’t capitalize.
Unable to threaten a secondary which had been torched for 408 passing yards and 46 points in its most recent game, fifth-year senior Ian Book displayed the confidence of a freshman. After completing just 50 percent of his passes with an interception in the 2018 playoff, Book routinely played it safe, harmlessly dumping it off until garbage time. When Book — who completed 27 of 39 passes for 229 yards — finally took a chance downfield, he was intercepted by Christian Harris on a badly underthrown ball midway through the third quarter.
Smith sealed the game on Alabama’s next possession, keeping his feet just inside the sideline for a 7-yard touchdown catch with 4:58 left in the third quarter, which put the Crimson Tide up 28-7.
After being shut out in the second half, the 20-point underdog cashed in on Book’s 1-yard touchdown run with 56 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Who says Notre Dame can’t win when it counts?