NEW ORLEANS -- Alabama's defense needed time to rest and a stage on which to shine.
The opportunity emerged after the playoff selection committee slotted Alabama at No. 4 despite no division or league title. Twenty nine days later -- and 37 days after Alabama's last game -- the Tide defense took the field looking fresh, fast and forceful.
In other words, normal again.
By the end of the night, there were no questions about linebacker attrition or a seemingly unremarkable defensive line or the lack of defensive touchdowns, the hallmark of last year's Tide D.
There also were no legitimate questions about Alabama's playoff worthiness. The Tide are headed back to the College Football Playoff title game for the third consecutive year after crushing No. 1 Clemson 24-6 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Alabama advances to face Georgia on Jan. 8 in the first intraleague national championship pairing of the playoff era. The CFP National Championship Game presented by AT&T appropriately will take place in Atlanta, site of the SEC championship game.
Nick Saban will aim for his sixth national title and fifth at Alabama, as he faces Georgia's second-year coach, Kirby Smart, who knows a lot about dominant Tide defenses after serving as the unit's coordinator from 2008 to 2015. When Georgia's victory over Oklahoma was announced during the first quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Alabama fans cheered and began chanting, "SEC! SEC!"
The third edition of the so-called Clemson-Alabama trilogy featured fewer points and less drama. Two Alabama interceptions midway through the third quarter put away a game that the Tide had dominated everywhere but on the scoreboard. After outgaining Clemson 182-73 in the first half but outscoring the Tigers by just seven, Alabama's lead had shrunk to 10-6 as Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant led a nice drive into Tide territory.
But linebacker Anfernee Jennings shot into the backfield and hit Bryant as he threw. Nose guard Da'Ron Payne caught the ball and rumbled into Clemson territory. Alabama completed the drive with a 1-yard pass from Jalen Hurts to the 308-pound Payne, his first career reception and second career touchdown. On the ensuing possession, linebacker Mack Wilson picked off a Bryant pass and raced 18 yards to the end zone, giving Alabama a three-score lead.
No Alabama position group had been hit harder by injuries than the linebackers, who lost Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis in Week 1, lost mainstay Shaun Dion Hamilton for the season and Mack Wilson for the rest of the regular season in early November, and lost promising freshman Dylan Moses during bowl practice. Senior Rashaan Evans joked during the week that preseason camp, barely four months ago, felt like "the good ol' days."
After the extended time off, Alabama's linebackers looked as sharp as they had all season. Evans and Jennings consistently entered the Clemson backfield, while Wilson showed no ill effects of the foot injury.
Clemson's offensive line proved no match for Alabama's speedy pass-rushers, and the Tigers never got their run game going against 300-pound space-eaters Payne and Raekwon Davis. Tigers wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who had the game-winning touchdown in last year's national championship and had been a Tide killer in the past two title games, didn't make his first reception until the first minute of the fourth quarter.
While the teams looked decidedly different in their previous games -- Clemson clobbered Miami 38-3 in the ACC championship -- the lead time clearly benefited Alabama and Saban.
As in last year's national title game, Alabama built a double-digit lead in the first quarter, capitalizing on fabulous field position. The Tide defense forced three-and-outs on the first three possessions, and Clemson finished the first quarter with minus-7 net yards. It was their first negative total in the first quarter since 2008, when Wake Forest stifled the Tigers in coach Tommy Bowden's final game (Dabo Swinney took over as interim coach the following week).
Clemson's defense did its part in limiting Alabama for as long as it could, but the Tide had a solid game plan. After underfeeding top running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough in the Iron Bowl loss -- both had only six rushes -- offensive coordinator Brian Daboll attacked with traditional runs. Harris had eight carries in the first quarter, and he and Scarbrough combined for 19 runs in the first half. Hurts also spread the ball to nine different receivers rather than locking in on Calvin Ridley.
Alabama's offense might need more production against Georgia. On this night, it simply had to avoid mistakes.
The big, bad Bama defense is back, pushing Saban and the Tide toward another national title.