TAMPA, Fla. — Agony and ecstasy are on polar ends of the spectrum but in the sport of college football, the two are never far from each other on every snap, every drive and every game. Few programs know that better than Clemson, whose long climb toward the mountain top in the sport has seen them come so close to the former, only to find heartbreaking ways to reach the latter.
On Monday night and into the wee hours of Tuesday morning though, the Tigers found themselves pinching each other amid the orange and purple confetti falling onto the field of Raymond James Stadium. No longer was the team coming up just short or writing an ending they would rather forget. No longer would they be muttering ‘What if?’
No longer, most importantly, would Clemson be stuck in that perpetual climb toward the mountain top. For the first time in 35 seasons, the Tigers were able to look around and find themselves atop the entire college football world holding the one thing that has eluded the program in recent years: a national title.
Clemson beat Alabama 35-31 in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game, capping an unprecedented rematch of last year’s final two in as thrilling a fashion as the moment deserved.
“Eight years ago our goal was to work our tails off and eventually get Clemson back on top, and tonight that's a reality. It truly is,” head coach Dabo Swinney said, grinning ear-to-ear. “The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight. 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.”
Getting it done is an understatement, as the Tigers inched and clawed their way down the field against Nick Saban’s undefeated Crimson Tide that would make them earn every yard. The defending champions had gotten the better of the two last year in the thrilling back-and-forth affair out in Glendale but this year the script was re-written in ways that were both predictable and unpredictable at the same time.
After three mostly meandering quarters of smash-mouth football between a pair of heavyweight defenses, things finally started to loosen up in the closing minutes of the fourth. Clemson had not led all game long before mounting a six-play, 88-yard drive that was nearly capped off by Offensive Player of the Game Deshaun Watson leaping into the end zone in a fashion that would have made Vince Young proud. The quarterback had stepped out at the one however, allowing veteran tailback Wayne Gallman to leap across the goal line for an improbable four-point lead against the nation’s best defense.
The Tide never seemed flustered nor overwhelmed by the moment despite a stagnant offense that was mostly contained aside from one big play to tight end O.J. Howard — the same player who tormented the Clemson defense a season ago. A timely trick play to Howard injected some life into the team at midfield and then freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts showed why he has a promising future by weaving through the defense on his way to a 30-yard score.
It was a familiar feeling that had hallmarks from last year’s title game and a scenario Saban no doubt would have taken: a three-point lead with 2:01 on the clock and his swarming defense loaded with NFL talent on the field to protect the lead.
That’s just what Watson wanted as well, embarking on a career-defining drive that covered 68 yards on nine plays to go into the history books as one of the great comebacks the sport has seen on its grandest stage. He fired darts all the way down the field to his deep stable of receivers before eventually finding the smallest player on the field in former walk-on Hunter Renfrow, who was wide open in the end zone after rubbing his man off Artavis Scott.
“I just flashed back from last year when they scored, and when we scored, and we were down five but we ran out of time. But I just smiled right when they scored. I saw the two minutes and one second on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew,” the quarterback said. “I just told my guys, hey, let's be legendary, let's go be great. I told myself, they left too much time on the clock. Last year they ran out the time, but this time they left us a little bit too much.
“I kind of smiled (on that last play), and I knew before I even snapped the ball it was going to be a touchdown. All I had to do was just get the ball to him.”
Swinney had often talked in the lead up to the game that this was a championship bout between college football’s heavyweights who have dominated the sport the past two seasons. The energetic coach never backed down from the challenge, of beating his alma mater where he won a ring 25 years ago or of topping the master himself in Saban (gunning for a fifth title over eight seasons in Tuscaloosa).
And after coming ever so close time after time, Swinney and his team finally delivered a knockout punch to finish standing with that championship trophy in the end.
“I was thinking on the bus ride over just how far we’ve come as a program to get to this stage,” said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, a former Tigers wideout himself and the son of another Clemson coach. “The day coach Swinney was promoted to interim head coach and he promoted me to receivers coach, I went home and told my wife that I was so excited and I saw on the ticker on ESPN that 0 of the last 29 interim coaches went on to get the full-time head coaching job. To go from that, to now, and winning a national championship is absolutely incredible.”
It’s a credit to Swinney as much as his players for never wavering in the goal of bringing home the title to a small town in South Carolina. As a walk-on with the Tide under Gene Stallings, nobody ever gave him much of a chance to succeed but he wound up playing key roles as a player and then later as a coach. Many thought he would be out the door once the season was over following the dismissal of Terry Bowden but he’s persevered to transform the once wayward program into one of the elites.
“I wish I could say that he’s changed or he’s different, but he hasn’t. That is what makes him special,” former signal-caller Tajh Boyd said in a joyous locker room after the game. “He’s a dreamer. But it’s not just the fact that he is a dreamer, it’s the fact that he has a plan. ‘This is what we’re going to do to get to the point we need to, this is how we’re going to do it, just trust me and we’ll get there.’ I trusted him and believed him and now they’re here.”
The Tigers were so close last season, and yet so far away from where they wanted to be. While they returned the bulk of the team that pushed the Tide to the brink and gathered all the accolades to begin the season, they were in dogfight after dogfight as the year went on. Clemson needed a missed field goal against NC State to survive one week, and needed a loss to Pitt to jumpstart it in the second half of the year.
In the end though, the Tigers caught fire and truly developed into the team they thought they could become.
“The theme of the playoffs was chasing greatness, right? That's what it was. And when I came to Clemson as an assistant, I truly saw the greatness and the potential of Clemson University,” said Swinney. “There was no upset tonight. 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. I don't want to hear one word about it. This is an expectation.”
An expectation that Swinney has had from the first day he stepped on campus and one he can finally say he’s delivered to the Clemson family.
Stat of the Week
Dabo Swinney joins Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Jimbo Fisher and Bob Stoops as the only active coaches to have won the national title. Swinney is 5-1 against that group the past two seasons, including a 3-0 run this year that includes wins over the four programs who have combined to win the past seven national championships.
Tweet of the Semifinals
Superlatives of the Week
Title game’s best player: Deshaun Watson
Revised Heisman five: 1. Watson, 2. Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), 3. Jonathan Allen (Alabama), 4. Lamar Jackson (Louisville), 5. Sam Darnold (USC)
Team of the postseason: Clemson
Honorary Les Miles Goat of the postseason: Mike Leach, Washington State
Play of the Week
I was a voter in the FWAA/National Football Foundation Super 16 Poll this season and voted on the best teams in the country every single week. This is my final ballot of the 2016 season.
5. Penn State
7. Florida State
8. Ohio State
11. Oklahoma State
12. Western Michigan
14. Virginia Tech
Best of the rest: South Florida, West Virginia, Colorado, Tulsa, Utah, Temple, San Diego State, Kansas State, Western Kentucky
My way too early Top 25 for 2017 after the national championship game, before National Signing Day, and without knowing every departure for the NFL Draft.
2. Ohio State
3. Florida State
5. Penn State
9. Oklahoma State
15. Kansas State
19. South Florida
20. Washington State
21. Boise State
23. Notre Dame
25. West Virginia
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)