TAMPA — This mightn’t have been the greatest game ever played — though it’s probably in the top five — but it might be the most popular. Alabama is easy to admire but hard to embrace. The funny man Joe E. Lewis once said that rooting for the Yankees was akin to rooting for U.S. Steel. Pulling for Bama to win another national championship must feel a bit like hoping Microsoft has another strong set of quarterly earnings.
But such were the wild mood swings here Monday that there were moments when you almost — almost, I said — felt sorry for King Crimson. Their freshman quarterback stood revealed as the least adroit passer ever to lead a team to a title game. Their best back got hurt. Their defense went from being able to stonewall everybody to being unable to cover even one of Clemson’s many and splendid receivers. When the Tigers finally took the lead on Wayne Gallman’s 1-yard run, you felt Alabama was done — even though 4:38 remained.
That the Tide retook the lead on four plays — a 15-yard pass on third-and-16, a conversion on fourth down, a flea flicker to O.J. Howard and Jalen Hurts’ swerving 30-yard scramble — made you feel that Alabama, which owns everything already, was going to steal this game, too. But then you looked at the clock and saw 2:07 left, and you thought: Nope.
Know how many third downs Clemson faced on its championship-winning drive? One. Know how many times the proud Tide defense was penalized? Twice. Know how many timeouts the Tigers needed to burn? One. Know how many incompletions Deshaun Watson threw? One, not counting a stop-the-clock spike. If a title-winning touchdown against the nation’s No. 1 defense could ever be described as inevitable, this one was.
Alabama had a chance to put Clemson away but didn’t. The Tigers’ two turnovers cost them only three points. The Tide led 14-0 and 17-7 but had missed their cue. Their offense — under new management, Steve Sarkisian having taken over for the jettisoned Lane Kiffin — had been rendered Bo or no go. Bo Scarbrough scored the Tide’s first two touchdowns but was lost to an ankle injury. Bama would finish with 376 yards, 68 of them on that wild go-ahead drive.
“We were the better team tonight,” Dabo Swinney said afterward, and there was no denying the irrepressible Clemson coach’s claim. Dabo also said: “This was no upset.” From watching the second half, it didn’t feel like one.
Jeremy Pruitt’s defense fared only marginally better — 511 yards and 35 points, as opposed to 550 and 40 — than the totals Clemson amassed against Kirby Smart’s defenders in this game a year ago, with one massive difference: The Tigers owned the late going, scoring 28 points on drives of 42, 72, 88 and 68 yards over the final 22:10. The unstoppable Watson of last January was back again, back and every bit as good.
The winning touchdown was caught by Hunter Renfrow, once a walk-on. He would have nine other catches on the night, but his second-biggest play was his takedown of Ryan Anderson after the linebacker had caused and recovered a fumble and was headed toward the touchdown that would have given Alabama a 21-7 lead.
As a recruit, Renfrow was no big deal. Watson of Gainesville (Ga.) High was considered the nation’s best dual-threat quarterback, the kind that could change a program. He leaves after three seasons having lost only two games he started and finished. He leaves as a national champion. He leaves as the man who stopped Alabama one second shy of a fifth national title in eight years, something that had never been done, something that still hasn’t.
“I couldn’t hear the crowd,” Watson said of his final pass. “I was just in my zone … I knew it was going to be a touchdown.”
It was his Vince Young Moment — felling a reigning national champ, a team that many considered unbeatable, in an epic game. Stem to stern, this wasn’t quite a match for the Texas-USC Rose Bowl of 11 years ago, but it was doggone close. And, on this night as in Pasadena, the feeling was that the right team had won.
No knock on Alabama, but this would have been just another bauble for the already overstuffed Tuscaloosa trophy case. This meant more to Clemson and surely to college football. There’s a real chance Nick Saban and his Tide will turn around and win it all in Mercedes-Benz Stadium a year from now, but we saw Monday night something new and different: We saw Saban and his team lose a national championship game.
More than that, we saw Clemson win it. We saw the Tigers make Alabama’s prized secondary look inept. We saw Watson hang tough against the rush. We saw a man and a moment collide, and we saw Deshaun Watson, maybe the best player never to win a Heisman, win something far bigger than a Heisman.
“That tiger paw’s on top of the mountain,” Swinney said, “and that flag is flying.” It is indeed. Orange is the new crimson. College football has crowned its champion, and for once it’s not Alabama.
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