It’s the first quarter of the national title game. Alabama has just scored a touchdown thanks to a rumbling, beastly thing of a run from Bo Scarbrough. This comes after Clemson went for it on 4th and 1 – in Alabama’s territory yes, but only barely. You had to respect Dabo Swinney’s decision, I suppose. When faced with the unstoppable war machine of Alabama football that Nick Saban has created, he opted to make the gutsy play instead of play for field position. Of course, it led to a Tide touchdown and an early deficit, and now Clemson has to dig out of an early hole. Such things are inevitable.
We always knew Alabama was going to be here, in this spot. Since week one, when the Crimson Tide rolled out a freshman quarterback who led the dismantling of a USC team that certainly wasn’t playing its best football in September, people wondered what it would take to stop the Tide. There were questions every now and then; small weaknesses that some thought a team might be able to exploit. But the Tide’s strengths, this season much more so than most others in the past, shielded their weaknesses the whole way. As the offense experienced some growing pains, the defense excelled, giving opposing offenses hell for four quarters and seemingly scoring at will. Rarely did any offense last long against Alabama’s defense at any point in the season, but if any teams’ could, it had to be Clemson, with arguably the best quarterback in the country at the helm.
It’s the second quarter. Bo Scarbrough has just ripped off another long touchdown run, looking like a man among boys as he bulldozes through the arms of Clemson defenders. This comes between two Clemson drives that go nowhere, of course. Clemson’s offense has been stagnant all night. Watson looks timid at times, and frantic at other times, with about a second to release the ball to a receiver that isn’t really open anyway. The Tide’s grip on the Tigers’ throat getting ever tighter.
There were whispers that the Tide might struggle this season. As Saban stayed mum on who he’d be starting against a USC team that many promised would deliver an early challenge to the defending champions, people really analyzed and over-analyzed the roster. Could a team with no defined quarterback, and an untested backfield of running backs really run the table? Such drivel was stamped out early, as the Tide rolled the Trojans in California, 52 – 6. True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts emerged as a talented duel-threat who could grow and lead the Tide under center. The war machine rolled on.
Two drives after Scarbrough’s second touchdown, Clemson is finally moving down the field. After being asleep for most of the first half, the Tigers offense is knocking on the door, and eventually breaks it down with a Deshaun Watson tightrope walk on the sideline and into the endzone. It’s 14-7 Alabama, but finally Clemson looks alive.
It wasn’t all about Alabama. Sure, they were always the favorite, but they were seldom the darling. More of an afterthought, really. For most of the year folks turned a blind eye on Tuscaloosa, choosing instead to focus on one of the many other storylines that are created throughout the course of the college football season. There was Houston, the midmajor darling who stood toe to toe with Oklahoma in week one before fading away in the middle of the season. There was USC, who looked very lost and very doomed for the first third of the season. There was Western Michigan, who rowed their boat all the way to a perfect 13-0 and still almost not getting a New Year’s Six bowl bid, because the bowl system would rather us muddle through an Oklahoma/Auburn Sugar Bowl than put both Navy and the Broncos into bowl games. The horror. And then there was Clemson, who demanded respect despite not playing like a team who deserved it, regardless of how close they’d come to finally cracking the code against Alabama a season ago. A close game to Troy, a game they probably should’ve lost against NC State, and a game they finally did lose against Pitt. The Tigers looked imperfect for much of the season, and yet, now on at the very end of the season and the beginning of the new year, here they are, lining up across the Tide in college football’s first true rematch for a national title.
It’s the third quarter. The Tide couldn’t fully capitalize on a Clemson fumble to open the second half, and sit on a 17-7 lead. After a drive that barely cracked the Tide’s side of the field once again, Dabo decided that this time he’d play the field position game, and called for a quick-kick that pinned Alabama inside the five. Three plays and a shanked punt later, and the Tigers are right back where they started inside Alabama territory. A few plays later, from the Tide 24, Watson finds his man across the middle of the field, who cuts back through the defense and scampers into the end zone. It’s now 17-14 and the Tigers, who spent most of the first half looking completely bemused by this Alabama defense, are making it a game.
Then there was USC, yes, those same USC Trojans that got hammered by Alabama in week one. They had a story of their own, and they along with Penn State – two teams that were considered dead by October – delivered a Rose Bowl for the ages. There was Pitt, PITT, who beat that Penn State team that went from cellar to ceiling, and even beat Clemson. There was Iowa knocking off Michigan, Wisconsin going to the wire repeatedly with one of the toughest schedules in college football this season, and the Washington Huskies living up to every bit of their offseason hype throughout the season, and capping things off with a conference championship and berth in the playoff. But then they had to play ‘Bama, which is of course, where such things go to die. This is inevitable.
Just when things are rolling for the Tigers, Jalen Hurts, or rather, O.J. Howard brings us back to reality. With shades of last seasons’ title game, Howard breaks loose down the sideline and is hit in stride by Hurts, and just like that, Clemson is down 24 – 14, and things are starting to look bleak. Again.
Even the coaching searches were interesting. LSU fired Les Miles – LES MILES – mid-season, after a slow start and an offense that looked stale and out of touch. People kept tabs on Texas and Charlie Strong all season, as his job status went from safe with a win over Notre Dame, to all but fired with a loss at hapless Kansas. People watched Tom Herman like a hawk, and when Texas scooped him up, they watched PJ Fleck too. He eventually went to Minnesota, in what was almost an afterthought in the grand scheme of coaching searches. And then there was Alabama, the solid rock, with a coach who will go to his grave griping about how much it’s going to cost him on the recruitment trail, and they’re 15 minutes away from the inevitable.
It’s the fourth quarter. After an early score to narrow Alabama’s lead to just three, and a few exchanges of punts, Clemson is driving again. First a nine-yard pass, then five, and then 17. And then lightening struck. Watson throws a jump ball that’s sailing directly toward the chest of a member of Alabama’s secondary, that is, until Mike Williams jumped what seemed like 35 feet in the air and ripped it down. Clemson scores two plays later, and gives the Tide their first 4th quarter deficit since…last season’s title game.
Even bowl season was excellent. With marquee players opting not to play in bowls, it led many to question the point of having so many bowl games that weren’t connected to the playoff, and what it could mean for the future. But then we got the Orange Bowl, which saw touchdown to blocked PAT to run back for a two-point conversion that led to a last-gas effort by Michigan, who fell to the Seminoles. We saw a rejuvenated LSU squad, led by the once-embattled Ed Orgeron, put the clamps on Heisman trophy winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville. We saw Arkansas score 24 straight against Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl, only to have the Hokies hit back with 35 straight of their own, and win the game by 11. And we saw slugfest after slugfest of Kansas State/Texas A&M, Northwestern/Pitt, Utah/Indiana. The inevitability of an Alabama ending couldn’t stop these moments, nor could they lessen them. Because the top-dog in the college football fight has rarely been the story. The champion is usually an afterthought – a culmination of culminations. Alabama could roll on with it’s pro-style brand of football built on recruiting that puts every other program in the country to shame, but it couldn’t take all of these moments from us.
Just when Clemson seemed like they finally could win it all, for real this time, Jalen Hurts struck. In one play the 18-year-old scampered 30 yards nearly untouched into the endzone, and with two minutes left to play, Clemson needed yet another score against the nation’s best and most feared defense.
Maybe the end of the season is meant for us to reminisce on all of the non-champions, all of the teams that didn’t quite figure it out all the way, but still figured it out mostly. The USCs, the LSUs, the Penn States. Maybe it’s about looking at the team’s that just couldn’t make it and faded down the stretch – the Ohio States, the Lousivilles, the Michigans. Maybe it’s about looking oustide the elite microscope that Alabama has placed over itself and see that, regardless of the Tide being practically unstoppable, this sport was, and is, still worth watching.
There are six seconds left in the game. Clemson has just drawn a pass-interference call in the endzone, placing the ball at the two-yard line. Clemson has one timeout, and they’re down three points. Nobody would blame Dabo for calling on his kicking unit and tie the game to go to overtime. But you don’t call for your offense to go for it on 4th and 1 in the first if you’re not prepared to take one more shot late in the fourth, with a chance of failure a real possibility. And you definitely don’t let Alabama, with a depth chart of running backs who could start anywhere in the country if they chose to, regroup and re-oil their treads before rolling over you in overtime. So Dabo takes one more shot. Deshaun Watson takes the snap, rolls right, and hits a wide open receiver just across the goal line. There’s one second left, but it hardly matters. Clemson kicks an onside, recovers it somehow, and gets to kneel the ball in victory formation after throwing the game winner with one second to play. It’s over. Clemson wins.
Huh. How about that?