After Alabama drove to a first down at the Clemson 1-yard line, Payne re-entered the game — presumably to add another big body for blocking purposes. That seemed to be what Clemson believed, and the Tigers bit hard when Hurts faked a handoff.
Payne slipped open near the right pylon and hauled in a touchdown pass, sparking celebration, and some relief, among the Crimson Tide fans in the crowd.
Clemson was thoroughly demoralized after its next offensive play. Quarterback Kelly Bryant’s pass deflected off the hands of Deon Cain and was intercepted by linebacker Mack Wilson, who returned it 18 yards for another touchdown.
Just like that, Alabama had a 24-6 lead it would not relinquish.
The Crimson Tide and the Tigers had met in the national championship game the past two seasons, with Alabama winning two years ago and Clemson taking the title last year.
“These guys have worked hard for a long time to get back in this position because of what happened to us last year when we got here, so now we’ve got to focus on trying to finish,” Saban said in a postgame television interview.
Alabama, which was a somewhat controversial choice for the playoff semifinals, will face quite a test from the offense of No. 3 Georgia, which racked up 527 total yards of offense in a 54-48 victory against No. 2 Oklahoma earlier Monday.
Alabama will be playing for its 16th national championship; Georgia last won a national title in the 1980 season. The teams play in opposite divisions in the SEC and did not play each other in the regular season.
Georgia’s campus in Athens is about 75 miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Alabama’s home in Tuscaloosa is also only about 200 miles away from the site of next week’s game.
The teams are close in other ways. Georgia Coach Kirby Smart was a longtime defensive coordinator under Saban at Alabama.
“I’m proud of the job Kirby’s done there,” Saban said in an interview broadcast on ESPN after the game. “They’ve got a great football team, so it will be a challenging game for us. We’ll enjoy this for a little bit, but then we’ve got to get ready for that one pretty quick.”