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Clemson's national championship win over Alabama was 5 years in the making

Not all growth is linear, but Clemson's rise to a National Championship was

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For the fourth time in seven years, college football’s national title was decided in an outright classic football game. And for only the fourth time in eight years, someone other than Alabama won it. Let’s get straight to the most important numbers.

Five years ago, Dabo Swinney made a change

In the 2012 Orange Bowl, West Virginia scored eight touchdowns in nine possessions to turn a back-and-forth shootout into a 70-33 laugher. Geno Smith threw for 407 yards and six touchdowns, Tavon Austin caught 12 passes for 123 yards and four scores, and the Mountaineers humiliated Swinney's Tigers.

It put Swinney in a strange place. His Tigers won the ACC that year and won 10 games for the first time since 1990, but they still managed to pull what the internet would then call "Clemsoning,” and they still got humiliated on a national stage to finish off what an otherwise solid season. Swinney had engineered a little bit of improvement, and the offense was dynamic. But could he ever build a complete team?

Two weeks after the Orange Bowl embarrassment, Swinney hired out-of-favor Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who appeared to need a fresh start as much as Clemson’s defense did, to replace Kevin Steele.

Two weeks after that, Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris landed a commitment from the consensus top quarterback in the 2014 class, a kid from Gainesville, Ga., named Deshaun Watson.

It took a couple of years for the pieces to all gel. The offense improved from top-25 level to top-15 level with Tajh Boyd behind center. The defense held steady in 2012, then improved from 62nd in Def. S&P+ to 41st in 2013 and second in 2014. And in 2015, after injuries held him back for a bit, Watson took over as the starting quarterback.

In the five seasons since the 2012 Orange Bowl, Clemson...

  • beat LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, then beat Ohio State and Oklahoma twice in the postseason (only one of the games was close).
  • won the ACC twice.
  • reached the national title game in 2015.
  • won it in 2016.

Progress isn’t supposed to be linear, but it has been for Clemson. Hell, progress wasn’t supposed to happen at all when the school panic-hired its best recruiter in Swinney to replace Tommy Bowden. Swinney had no coordinator experience, and only five years earlier, he was out of the coaching game altogether.

But Clemson did improve steadily, and Swinney won the school its second national title — on the day that the first coach to do so, Danny Ford, was selected for induction into the College Football Hall of Fame. Swinney’s Tigers spotted Alabama 14 points, then used all but one second to complete a comeback and win the title, 35-31.

Discover Orange Bowl - West Virginia v Clemson
Clemson fans in 2012.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama
Clemson fans in 2017.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Alabama gained 58 net yards on its first 25 first-down snaps

Before what nearly became Alabama's game-winning drive, an out-of-nowhere, go-ahead burst that included a fourth-down conversion, a trick play, and a 30-yard run by Jalen Hurts, the Crimson Tide had snapped the ball 24 times on first down. Only four of those plays gained even five yards, and only two gained more than six. Plus, they committed three procedure penalties that created first-and-15s.

Last week, I wrote this about the importance of first downs for Bama:

As important as third downs will be when Clemson has the ball on Monday, you could make an easy case that Alabama's first downs will be equally important.

Clemson's defense has a significant advantage when the pass is involved, and especially when passing downs are involved. The Tigers rank only 27th in Standard Downs S&P+ and have suffered big-play breakdowns, but they're third in Passing Downs S&P+ and fourth in Passing S&P+.

The combination of a diverse pass rush (nine players have at least 2.5 sacks, but only one has more than 6.5) and a nasty secondary have been too much for most opponents.

First downs were huge for Alabama, because the Clemson defense was sure to have an immense advantage on passing downs. Short first downs create long third downs.

Sure enough, the Tide drove more than 22 yards on just three of their first 16 possessions and finished the game 2-for-15 on third down.

We will look at that and conclude, simply, that "Bama stunk on third down." They did. Because they stunk on first down.

Four big fourth-quarter receptions for Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett

I also wrote this last week:

The bad news: Lack of explosiveness has resulted in tons of third-down conversion attempts for Clemson (215 overall, fourth-most in the country).

The good news: the Tigers are fifth in the country in third down conversion rate. They move the chains over 51 percent of the time. Efficiency assures a lot of third-and-manageables, and when Clemson does fall behind, Watson is a third-down cheat code.

Clemson’s third-down conversion rate on third-and-long (7 to 9) is better than the national average for third-and-medium. Meanwhile, Alabama opponents are converting third-and-medium at a lower rate than the national third-and-long average.

You think this might be a pretty big key to the national title game?

I was right and wrong. In the second half, when Clemson scored 80 percent of its points, the Tigers’ third-down conversion rate did improve from 36 percent to 43 percent. A gorgeous 26-yard strike to Leggett on third-and-10 set up Clemson’s first touchdown, and the second score was a 24-yarder to Hunter Renfrow on third-and-6. In the first three quarters, those two passes accounted for two of their five third-down conversions.

However, Clemson did its damage before the down marker threw up a “3.” Leggett and Mike Williams combined to catch five fourth-quarter passes for 89 yards, all on first or second down. Renfrow caught a third-and-3 pass on the final drive, then caught the game-winner on first down.

In the end, third downs didn’t matter as much as nearly four quarters of Alabama offensive shakiness. Clemson ended up with 99 snaps to Alabama’s 66, courtesy of 11 Bama punts and seven three-and-outs. Instead of relying on third downs, Clemson scored touchdowns via big plays against a gassed Alabama defense.

Eight Clemson games came down to the wire in 2016.

  • On Sept. 3, Auburn got the ball back with a chance to take the lead and upset Clemson and got off a Hail Mary that had the distance.
  • On Sept. 10, Troy got to within six points of the Tigers and lined up for an onside kick to try to steal a win.
  • On Oct. 1, Louisville had the ball at the Clemson 9 with 40 seconds left, down six.
  • On Oct. 15, NC State lined up to kick a go-ahead 33-yard field goal with two seconds left in Death Valley.
  • On Oct. 29, Florida State advanced into Clemson territory with 1:20 left, down three.
  • On Nov. 12, Pitt DID down Clemson via last-second field goal.
  • On Dec. 3, Virginia Tech advanced inside the Clemson 25, down seven with 1:28 left.
  • On Jan. 9, Clemson got the ball back with 2:01 left, down three, tasked with driving for one more score against the best defense in the country.

In seven of the eight instances above, Clemson figured out a way. And the Tigers have a ring because of it.

Deshaun Watson's remarkable career at Clemson