The loss still stung. It burned Alabama so badly to be beaten in the College Football Playoff semifinals last year that the Crimson Tide was determined to handle its business differently this time around.
The players said they were more focused and promised to be more prepared, more precise in their execution and more relentless in their effort.
Nick Saban said he saw something in his team coming into the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, that he had never seen before. Michigan State claimed it was ready for a 15-round brawl, but the Tide knocked out the Spartans early on Thursday night like a nonconference cupcake.
No. 2 Alabama 38, No. 3 Michigan State 0.
Alabama (13-1) will face No. 1 Clemson (14-0) on Jan. 11 in Arizona looking for its fourth national title in nine seasons under Saban.
"I think last year when we came to this game, we were just happy to take part in the game," Saban said. "I think this year we wanted to sort of take the game and really thought our guys had a vision of what they wanted and everybody paid the price for what they had to do in preparation."
The Tide took it but not the way it had done for so much of this season — at least offensively. Instead of pounding away at a Michigan State defense that was stacked to stop Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry from running wild, Alabama aired it out.
Jake Coker played the game of his career, hooking up with Calvin Ridley for two touchdowns, and going 25 for 30 for a career-best 286 yards. Conventional wisdom on beating Alabama was to take away the run and make Coker, the promising Florida State transfer who sat the bench most of last season, win the game.
The Tide looked like a team with no weaknesses against overmatched Michigan State (12-2). The freshman Ridley was brilliant, streaking by defenders on deep throws and outfighting them on jump balls. He caught eight passes for 138 yards. Jonathan Allen and the ferocious Tide defensive front sacked Connor Cook four times and allowed the Spartans only one trip into the red zone — which ended with Cyrus Jones intercepting a pass at the goal line.
Jones added a high-stepping 57-yard punt return touchdown for the Tide, which hardly even had to use the 242-pound Henry. He ran 20 times for 75 yards and scored two touchdowns. The last made it 38-0 halfway through the fourth quarter.
The Tide is the only team to be playing in the College Football Playoff each of its first two seasons. Last season Alabama couldn't get past the semifinals, upset by Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Tigers dominate Sooners
Clemson heads to the national championship game with a still-perfect record after a 37-17 smackdown of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Thursday night in Miami.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson turned in another stellar all-around performance, beating the Sooners with his arm and his legs. The defence did the rest, shutting down Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma's prolific offence even after losing star defensive end Shaq Lawson to a knee injury early in the game.
"It's been 34 years since Clemson had a chance to win a national championship," coach Dabo Swinney said. "I knew that we would be here. It was just a matter of when."
Clemson (14-0) dominated the second half and shut down Oklahoma's high-scoring offence that had averaged 52 points over its last seven contests. The Sooners (11-2) actually came into the game as favourites, but the Tigers showed their unblemished mark was no fluke.
"For some reason, we were the underdog in the playoffs," receiver Charone Peake said. "I was glad to see us come out and dominate."
Clemson is looking to become the first team in FBS history to finish 15-0.
Watson certainly lived up to the hype of being a Heisman finalist, accounting for 332 yards and earning the offensive MVP award.
He got off to a slow start passing, but came back to complete 16-of-31 for 187 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow that gave Clemson some breathing room late in the third quarter. Watson carried the running load in the early going, finishing with 145 yards on 24 carries and scoring the Tigers' first touchdown on a 5-yard run.
"Deshaun Watson is the best player in the country. It's just that simple," Swinney said. "People can have their own opinions or whatever, but there ain't a better one than No. 4. This guy is special in every regard."
The game went back and forth through the first half, the Sooners jumping ahead on an impressive first possession that culminated with Samaje Perine's 1-yard drive. Oklahoma went to the locker room with a 17-16 lead after Mark Andrews hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass from Mayfield with 1:34 remaining, and the Sooners defence came up with a pick in the end zone on an ill-advised throw by Watson into triple-coverage.
If Watson was flustered by that interception, he sure didn't show it after the break.
Clemson took the second-half kickoff and breezed down the field, covering 75 yards in 12 plays to reclaim the lead on Wayne Gallman's 1-yard run, the first of his two TDs. Oklahoma's first possession was the exact opposite: three straight yards-losing plays forced the Sooners to punt, setting the tone for the struggles they would face the rest of the game.
Mayfield, who threw for 311 yards but was picked off twice, wobbled off the field in the closing minutes after taking a shot to the head. Perine went out for a while with a leg injury. No. 2 running back Joe Mixon appeared to be knocked unconscious and never returned.