The Clemson Tigers are major college football’s national champions. They beat Alabama in a thrilling National Championship on Monday night in Tampa, 35-31.
Their victory avenged the Tide’s win in the teams’ title game meeting last season, when Clemson played brilliantly but came up just short against a juggernaut. This time, the Tigers finished the job at the end of a dramatic night.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson found former walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow on a sprint-out, two-yard touchdown pass with a second to play, taking Clemson from a 31-28 deficit to the win. It was Renfrow’s 10th catch of the night and the biggest college football catch in a long time.
Alabama’s true freshman quarterback, Jalen Hurts, ran for a go-ahead, 30-yard touchdown with 2:31 to play, minutes after Clemson had taken its first lead. That set up Clemson’s final drive, which turned out to be the most dramatic moment of the season. Hurts’ touchdown, like Renfrow’s a few minutes later, was a response itself.
Right before Hurts’ go-ahead drive, Watson had led Clemson on a six-play, 88-yard touchdown drive that ended with 4:38 to play and gave the Tigers their first lead of the night. Wayne Gallman scored the go-ahead touchdown. It looked like that would be Clemson’s biggest play. Obviously, it wasn’t.
That drive’s key play was a soaring 26-yard grab by Mike Williams, the Clemson star receiver who missed last year’s game after breaking his neck.
The Gallman touchdown seemed like it’d finally kill Alabama. It didn’t.
Alabama had an arm’s-length lead for the first half and change. The Tide led, 14-0, after two Bo Scarbrough touchdown runs in the first half, forcing Watson and Clemson’s offense to play catchup. The Tigers did, with two touchdowns sandwiching a Bama field goal to make the score 17-14, Tide, late in the third quarter.
Clemson had a setback, though, a few minutes later. Alabama faked a wide receiver screen to ArDarius Stewart, and tight end O.J. Howard, a star of last year’s game, disguised himself as a blocker and then ran downfield. Clemson safety Van Smith bit on the fake screen, and 68 yards later, Alabama’s lead was back to 10.
The Tide ended the third quarter up, 24-14. But a Watson touchdown fade to Mike Williams a minute into the fourth made it 24-21, officially making the National Championship a see-saw and setting it up for the finish of the year and beyond.
This is a stunning result. Sort of.
Even as a 6.5-point underdog going up against a 14-0 team that had won four of the last seven national titles, Clemson was a popular pregame pick. The Tigers had perhaps the country’s best player in Watson. They had the knowledge that they’d come close against Bama the last time. And they had one thing Bama didn’t: a legitimate underdog mindset, fueled by the agony of a narrow miss a year ago.
That’s not enough to beat Alabama, of course. Beating Alabama requires good fortune — maybe an officiating break, maybe a bounce, maybe a few of Alabama’s best players having serious down games, or maybe all of those at once. Clemson got enough of those to have a chance, and the Tigers kicked down an open door.
Nobody’s unbeatable, but Alabama had come to feel that way. The Tide entered on a 26-game winning streak. They’d only come close to defeat once this year, in a 48-43 win against Ole Miss in September. LSU and Washington kept their games close for varying stretches of time, but Alabama was an inevitability against both. The Tide also had Clemson’s historical number, though only their recent past could’ve affected what happened at Raymond James Stadium. If it didn’t, it couldn’t have hurt Clemson.
The Tide will be fine. They’ve signed the country’s top-rated recruiting class for six years in a row. There’s a chance they’ll lose that mantle to Ohio State this year, but either way, they’ll add another windfall of elite talent to the one they currently have. They’ll return a sophomore quarterback who just came a whisker away from being the second true freshman starter to ever win it all. They still have an embarrassment of riches. It probably won’t take long for the Tide to roll in this game again.
Oddsmakers have already decided the Tide are the early favorites to win this trophy next year, which would make five in nine years. They’ll enter the season on a one-game losing hiccup instead of a 27-game winning streak, with a Week 1 meeting against Florida State. That’ll still be a blockbuster. Everyone else should still be scared.
But Monday wasn’t about the future. It was about right now, and about a program that suffered the ultimate disappointment a year ago, then avenged it in the most dramatic fashion. It was about an ultra-talented team that pulled together and figured out how to slay the sport’s scariest dragon, on the grandest stage of all of them.