In the desert, Alabama and Clemson played a doozy. When it was over, the Crimson Tide had a 45-40 victory, their fourth national title since 2009 and the glory of prevailing in one of the best national championship games ever.
Jake Coker threw for 335 yards and two touchdowns, Derrick Henry ran for 158 yards and three more scores, and Alabama poured on 24 points in the fourth quarter to hold off the Tigers, who kept it close with a phenomenal performance from Deshaun Watson (405 passing yards, four touchdowns and 73 more rushing yards) that topped even Vince Young's magisterial night for total yardage in a national title game.
The Crimson Tide came through in the fourth quarter with plays from players who weren't even their most reliable playmakers all year. Tide kicker Adam Griffith executed a beautiful surprise onside kick that set up the touchdown that put Alabama up for good. Kenyan Drake, Henry's backup, returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to put Alabama up by double digits for the first time. Tight end O.J. Howard had a career-high 208 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Howard also set up the Tide's final score with a huge catch-and-run.
Clemson played a great game against Alabama's fantastic defense, but got hammered repeatedly by big plays on defense and lost the special teams battle.
That more than provided the margin of victory and handed over the Tide's 16th national championship.
Three things to know
1. We got a phenomenal game, finally. The 2015 bowl season had largely been a bust up until Monday night, with just 14 of 40 bowls being decided by seven or fewer points. None of the New Year's Six bowls were decided by fewer than 14 points, either.
But this? This was a classic. Alabama and Clemson went back and forth for 12 great rounds and the winner prevailed by landing the last combination of the evening and withstanding a final flurry from the loser.
Few national title games this century were on par with this one -- maybe Ohio State upsetting Miami, Texas outdueling USC and Florida State surviving Auburn would be in the conversation. But for sheer quantity and variety of big plays, this one will stand the test of time.
2. Deshaun Watson is college football's newest superstar. Clemson's Heisman finalist had a better passer rating than Heisman winner Marcus Mariota did in 2014 and improved throughout 2015 despite losing his leading receiver, Mike Williams, to a neck injury early in the year. Watson lost another elite talent, Deon Cain, prior to the Playoff. The quarterback still stepped up.
His performance on Monday put him on a plateau by himself:
Clemson QB Deshaun Watson just became the first Division I quarterback with 4,000 passing yards and 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Ever.— Aaron Brenner (@Aaron_Brenner) January 12, 2016
Even with an absurdly loaded field of running backs, Watson will enter 2016 as a Heisman favorite head-and-shoulders above the field. And deservedly so.
3. Special teams swung this game. The most important play of the game was probably Drake's kick return, which put Alabama ahead by enough to prevent Clemson from ever having a chance to fully erase its lead. But Alabama's onside kick also led to a touchdown and a missed Clemson field goal cost the Tigers three crucial points, too.
In a game this tight and on a stage this big, the Tigers needed to match Alabama in all three phases of the game. In two of them, it was close -- and in the third, it was anything but.