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Seven-Step Drop: Dabo Swinney and Clemson Finally Reach the Mountain Top

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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.

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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?’

Related: Clemson Gets Revenge, Beats Alabama 35-31 to Claim College Football's 2016 National Championship

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.”