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Clemson beat Alabama, the final product of so many what-ifs

Think of all the little moments that led us to this one.

CFP National Championship Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

If previously unstoppable Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough didn’t miss most of the second half, or if Alabama’s offense hadn’t been handed to an entirely different coordinator a week before the national title game, after the previous coordinator wore out his welcome ...

If Alabama had gotten more than a field goal out of a Clemson fumble in the third quarter, when Ryan Anderson was tackled by Tigers receiver Hunter Renfrow before yet another Alabama defensive touchdown found its way onto the stat sheet ...

(Tackle is a strong word, actually: Renfrow threw himself into Anderson’s legs like a kid throwing a stick into the spokes of a bike.)

If the Alabama offense hadn’t gained just 7 yards on the following three plays, and settled for a field goal to take a 17-7 lead when a touchdown could have gotten them a seemingly insurmountable 21-7 lead ...

I’m not trying to torture you, Alabama. We just have to review these, because this is a process.

You like Processes, with a capital P, like the vaunted system that got you four national titles under Nick Saban, arguably the greatest college football coach to ever live, much less coach the Crimson Tide. You have to go over all the ifs. It’s what champions do, even if they just blew a chance at a fifth title.

If Alabama, a team more built for predictable outcomes than any in the history of college football, had drawn any other team than Clemson, then this could have been different for them. The Tigers, given a choice, take more plays, more opportunities. The clock, for Clemson, is a thing stopped by first downs, not bled by a run game for the purposes of making less football to worry about.

Alabama, by design, wanted a shorter game, the kind of managed crushing operation Saban dreams about in the precisely six hours of sleep he requires a night. With a 17-7 lead, the plan — and for Alabama, with every gesture, there is always a plan — was the same as it had ever been. Fewer snaps. More hostile poundage lined up two-deep along the defensive line. More bludgeoning than Clemson could handle, followed by endless, resigned punting.

Alabama tried that plan. Clemson receiver Mike Williams, already playing after being sidelined with a shot to the head in the first quarter, took vicious shots from the Alabama secondary. The Tiger defense rolled face-first into Scarbrough on the ground. After he exited with the injury, they gamely tried to contain QB Jalen Hurts. With one huge exception at the end of the game, they succeeded.

No Clemson player tried to cover O.J. Howard, because Howard is invisible to all Clemson defenders and always will be. After torching Clemson last year, Howard got yet another completely uncovered touchdown, was open on almost every play, caught a pass on a trick play from ArDarius Stewart, and even inadvertently stole a screen pass from his running back. (Don’t laugh too hard. Even with the mistake, he had blockers in front of him.)

The Tigers had a plan, too.

They had a plan all along, and it wasn’t much different than the game plan last year, when Clemson freaked Alabama out so badly that the staid Crimson Tide collective resorted to an onside kick. Saban later grumbled about Clemson’s refusal to run up the middle in the first half of that matchup, when the Tigers were hoping less to score and more to get Alabama fatigued. Last year, Clemson wanted a second half run through a gassed series of defenders unaccustomed to four quarters of free-range football.

This year, despite a dismal first half of offense, the Tigers got to a crucial number: 45 plays, mostly racked up in service of fumbles and punts but still taken out of the Alabama defense in short passes, perimeter runs, and read-option plays. To put that in perspective, consider that in 14 games, the Crimson Tide’s defense played an average of 63 plays a game total, many in garbage time, when second- and third-stringers took most of the reps.

Clemson scored on its 60th play to make it 17-14 and break out of the patented Alabama sleeper hold. After that 60-play mark, in a quarter and a half of football against the standard of the era, Deshaun Watson’s offense had 262 of its 511 yards and 21 of its 35 points. The Crimson Tide defense were frogs; Alabama didn’t even know it was in the pot or that the water was boiling hotter with each play.

And there come the ifs again: If officials, who played a loose hand all night for both teams, called pick plays a different way, well, we wouldn’t be here. Clemson scored two touchdowns off end zone “rub” plays, plays that run one way are legal, and run another are not. The line between the two can be subjective. Unless you are an Alabama fan, in which case, they represent further evidence the forward pass should be banned and that the world is out to keep the (four-time recent national champion) Tide from enjoying anything.

There are other ifs, larger and more global moments of wondering. As in: How did this Clemson team even get here, in the cosmic sense?

For instance: If Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow doesn’t decide to do a sort-of-insane thing and walk on as a 155-pound wide receiver at Clemson, instead taking the full scholarship offers he had elsewhere, then he’s not there to catch Watson’s biggest touchdown.

Or if Rich Rodriguez doesn’t balk at the last second and accepts the Alabama job, instead of returning to West Virginia to ultimately take the Michigan job, then Alabama never gets Saban in 2007.

What if Nick Saban had never gone to Bama?

If that never happens? Then in 2008, Clemson doesn’t get hammered by Alabama in the Georgia Dome to open the season, which means no midseason resignation by Tommy Bowden. If Bowden never resigns, then an unknown wide receivers coach on the staff named Dabo Swinney never gets his audition for the job.

And if former Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips fires Swinney after a disappointing, 6-7 2010, Swinney never hires offensive coordinator Chad Morris in 2011, and in 2012, Morris never recruits Watson to Clemson.

The present is made of so many little moments.

If Watson has Renfrow open, he’ll float an easy toss. If Renfrow catches it, Clemson will win its first national title in 35 years.

After a thousand ifs gets you to this improbable moment, asking for one more doesn’t seem like much, not after you’ve run the official Best College Football Team In The Nation ragged over the last 20 minutes, broken its defense, pancaked its intractable linemen, and responded to its best shot by driving the length of the field to stand 2 yards away from a victory. It’s not much to ask, after all that.

It’s Watson’s easiest throw of the night. Next, Alabama has one second left on the clock, facing a final kick that will end in defeat. If that sounds familiar, it should.