Deshaun Watson actually smiled when Alabama reclaimed the lead with about two minutes remaining in the biggest game in the world. The “best player in the country” had three words for his Clemson teammates.
“Let’s be legendary.”
Legends were certainly forged Monday night in a college football championship game for the ages. Legends they will be toasting and talking about forever in the Esso Club and Tiger Town Tavern and every other pub and water cooler from the Upstate to the Lowcountry. Gamecocks fans might want to cover their ears for the next few decades.
The names Watson, Renfrow, Williams, Boulware, Gallman, Leggett, Cain, Wilkins and Tankersley will be remembered fondly by generations the same way Tigers still talk about Jordan, Davis, Kinard, Perry, Tuttle and Igwebuike. A few of them will soon be fastened permanently to the upper decks in the Ring of Honor at Death Valley.
The perfect exploits of those bygone Tigers in Miami somehow pale to the dramatic feats these new legends unleashed Monday night in Tampa to dethrone the undisputed kings of college football. Clemson’s defense out-Bama’ed Bama much of the night, forcing 12 consecutive failed third-down plays, 10 punts and limiting the Tide to a field goal after a fumble recovery at the 16 to start the third quarter might have derailed everything.
Then its offense ultimately finished the job against the worn-down Tide with one second to spare.
It was a rematch that more than lived up to the five-star original a year ago with a fitting new spin on the conclusion.
“The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight,” said Dabo Swinney in the middle of an emotional postgame celebration that may never end. “We saw the top of it last year, didn’t get quite there. Tonight we took that next step.”
Clemson football never seems to come without doubters. Oddsmakers made them six-point underdogs. This observer admittedly had little faith when the Tigers trailed 14-0 while spinning wheels early and the Tide, Rasputin-like, went back up 10 points twice in the third quarter.
Swinney took rightful objection when hot-take artist Colin Cowherd labeled Clemson a “fraud.”
“Ask Alabama if we’re a fraud. Ask Ohio State if we’re a fraud. Ask Oklahoma if we’re a fraud,” Swinney said. “The only fraud is that guy, because he didn’t do his homework.”
The Tigers don’t need to justify this to anyone. The result speaks for itself. The previous seven national titles had been won by teams named Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State and Alabama. Clemson ticked off every one of those victims in its 14-1 march to glory.
“There was no upset tonight,” Swinney said. “That’s the last thing I told them when we left the locker room. I said, when we win the game tonight I don’t want to hear one word about this being an upset. The only upset is going to be if we don’t win the dadgum game.”
The fourth quarter alone was a dadgum masterpiece. Clemson fans had to be bracing for another agony when Alabama tight end O.J. Howard – AGAIN – ran loose on a 68-yard touchdown for a 24-14 lead late in the third quarter. It was deja vu all over again. Nick Saban’s teams were 97-0 with a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.
Watson and the Tigers didn’t care about any of that. On a night when he took a hard shot to the head on the third play of the game and was sent into a frightening helicopter spin later, Watson undauntedly showed everybody why he should have won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player. His targets Mike Williams, Ian Leggett and Hunter Renfrow made one clutch catch after another.
Watson accounted for 158 yards in the fourth quarter alone, completing 12 of 19 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 28 more including a 15-yarder to the goal-line to set up Wayne Gallman TD. Just like a year ago, Alabama couldn’t stop him as he amassed 420 yards passing and 43 more rushing, figuring in four of Clemson’s five touchdowns and all but 48 of its 511 total yards against the best defense in the nation.
“I just wanted to sign my name and end it with an exclamation point, and I think I did that,” Watson said of his remarkable three-year collegiate career. “Moments like this I’ll never forget.”
Fittingly, Watson’s final collegiate pass was a casual 2-yard rollout and rub toss to Renfrow that sent the majority Tiger crowd into delirium. It’s only fitting that the coach who walked onto Alabama’s team to earn a championship ring in 1992 earned another one 25 years later courtesy of a reception by a former walk-on no bigger than himself. Renfrow, a red-shirt sophomore from Myrtle Beach with a pair of touchdowns in consecutive title games, will never have to pay for a drink again in his home state.
“It’s like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this was all a dream,” he said.
It was not a dream. It really happened. Folks can watch the whole thing over and over again on their DVR recording with the “keep until” setting that will never be erased. The championship library is only poised to keep growing from the example this team established.
“They’ll take this with them forever,” Swinney said of the new Tiger legends. “They’ll take this into their marriages, they’ll take this into their jobs. The moment will fade, but the work ethic, the will to win, the passion, the courage, the guts, the teamwork, the belief, how to think the right way, they’ll take that with them forever.”
Swinney’s wrong about only one thing. As long as Tiger fans convene, that moment will never fade.