TAMPA, Fla. — Really, a team coached by Dabo Swinney couldn’t have won a national championship any other way.
The Clemson coach’s life story could have been written by Horatio Alger, the guy who invented the classic American success story, if Alger had a drawl and ever said, “Bring your own guts.”
Swinney, the former walk-on wide receiver, won his first national championship against his alma mater — the team that denied him a year ago, the monolithic defending national champion Alabama — with 1 second to play, on a throw to a former walk-on wide receiver.
Hunter Renfrow, a sophomore who turned down a scholarship offer from FCS Appalachian State to pay for the chance to play for Swinney, caught the winning 2-yard touchdown pass from the greatest player ever to wear a Clemson uniform.
His name is Deshaun Watson, and the combination of his will and his right arm drove the Tigers to overcome two deficits in the final five minutes for a 35-31 victory on Monday night with a second to spare.
A year ago, Clemson lost the playoff final to Alabama, 45-40, despite Watson throwing for four touchdowns and gaining 478 yards of total offense. This time, the Tide throttled Watson for most of the first half. Yet he came out of halftime a different guy, and he finished with four touchdowns (one rushing, three passing) and 463 yards of total offense. So the Tide’s defense is making progress.
Watson gave a performance reminiscent of what Texas quarterback Vince Young did to defending national champion USC in the Rose Bowl 11 years ago. Watson, like Young, finished second in the Heisman Trophy. And Watson, like Young, made the Heisman voters want to petition for a recount after winning a national title.
“I’ll say it again,” Swinney said. “He didn’t lose out on the Heisman. The Heisman lost out on him. They lost out on an opportunity to be attached to this guy forever.”
Instead, Watson will be attached forever to the campus he is leaving after only three seasons, albeit with a 32-3 record as a starter and an undergraduate degree. He ended his Clemson career in a way that will be remembered in the part of South Carolina they call the Upstate for as long as Tigers football players rub Howard’s Rock.
This victory was not the grueling reality of fulfilling expectations, as Alabama might have felt with a win, but the unbridled joy of realizing a dream. Clemson had done it. Clemson had knocked off Alabama, the program Swinney has often described as the template for what he wanted to build in Death Valley. It took him eight seasons.
“The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight,” Swinney said. “We saw the top of it last year, didn’t get quite there. Tonight we took that next step. It was really the only thing we hadn’t done in the last eight years, and we got it done.”
You heard the complaints for the past week, the grumbles about a rematch, the worry that two southern teams, playing for the national championship for the second consecutive year, wouldn’t engage the rest of the nation.
If executive director Bill Hancock has any sense, he will propose that the College Football Playoff sign Clemson and Alabama to a long-term contract. For the second consecutive year, the Tigers and the Crimson Tide played a championship game for the ages.
Clemson won on Monday after spotting Alabama a 14-0 lead. It won without an effective running game (91 yards on 42 carries). It won despite losing the turnover battle, 2-0. That means your national champion, ladies and gentlemen, finished minus-1 in turnover margin.
But after a so-so first half, Watson found his rhythm in the second half (23-of-33, 267 yards, and those three scoring passes), leading the Tigers to touchdowns on four of their last seven possessions — taking a lead until 4:38 remained, losing that lead in only six plays, and then taking it back again.
Alabama scored 31 points with one arm tied behind its back — the right arm of freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts. He completed 13 of 31 passes for 131 yards, 68 of them on a touchdown pass to the Clemson killer, tight end O.J. Howard, who caught two long scoring throws against the Tigers a year ago.
The Tide’s best weapon, tailback Bo Scarbrough, rushed for 93 yards and two first-half touchdowns. But once he limped off the field late in the third quarter, the Tide’s offense had little left in its playbook.
Hurts also rushed for 68 yards, including a 30-yard scramble that gave Alabama its last lead, 31-28, with 2:07 to play.
“I just smiled right when they scored,” Watson said. “I seen the 2:01 on the clock [after the Tigers’ kickoff return], and I just smiled and I just knew. I just told my guys, ‘Hey, let’s be legendary, let’s go be great.'”
The Alabama defense had sacked Watson four times and hit him a few other times. It had forced two fumbles. But on the final drive, the Tide looked tired. They missed tackles. And Clemson’s biggest receivers, Mike Williams (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) and tight end Jordan Leggett (6-foot-5, 260 pounds), created space that hadn’t been available for most of the game.
A 24-yard pass to Williams put the Tigers into the Tide’s territory, and a 17-yard outstretched grab by Leggett put Clemson on the Alabama 9 with 14 seconds to play. A pass interference penalty against Williams by outmatched corner Anthony Averett put Clemson on the Alabama 2 with 6 seconds remaining.
“Coach Swinney said, ‘Hey, boys, if you want to be a champ, you gotta go win it,'” recalled Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “He said that on the headset. Let’s get our best play. Let’s get it dialed up. If it’s not there, then we’ll kick the field goal. But let’s go try and win it.”
Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott called the sprint-out pass to Renfroe, the slight sophomore with sticky hands. Watson took the pistol snap 5 yards deep, moved seven steps to his right and let it fly. Alabama defensive back Tony Brown got held up in traffic, and Renfrow put Clemson ahead.
“It’s like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this was all a dream,” Renfrow said.
Thirty-five years ago, a quarterback named Homer Jordan threw a touchdown pass to a receiver named Perry Tuttle, and Clemson won its first national championship in the Orange Bowl over Nebraska. On Monday morning, the College Football Hall of Fame announced that the coach of that Clemson team, Danny Ford, is one of its newest members.
A few hours later, right up the Tamiami Trail, Clemson won its second national title, on a play that will finally make Jordan and Tuttle move over.
With only :01 left on the clock, Swinney chose an onside kick, which Clemson recovered.
Swinney, sitting between Renfrow and Watson on the podium, said, “What a way to win a national championship, to be able to go out on the field with 1 second and take a knee. See this guy get one more snap. Just special.”
They will say that about this game, and this team, for as long as the Tigers rub Howard’s Rock.