• Crimson Tide players experienced the agony of defeat after their close loss to Clemson in the national championship game on Monday night.
By Bruce Feldman
January 10, 2017

This story originally appeared on FoxSports.com.

TAMPA — Eddie Jackson saw it coming. One of the leaders of the Alabama team who has been sidelined by a broken leg since September, stood just a few feet away from Nick Saban and his defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt. Six seconds remained in Monday’s College Football Playoff championship game. Alabama led underdog Clemson 31-28, but the Tigers were driving. Deshaun Watson, just like last year, had torched the Tide’s vaunted defense. He’d led Clemson down to the Alabama 2-yard-line.

“WATCH THE PICK! WATCH THE PICK!” Jackson yelled out to his teammates.

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Sure enough, Clemson’s Artavis Scott, lined up out wide, burst off the line and slanted inside colliding with Tide corner man Marlon Humphrey, forcing slot cornerback Tony Brown to run around the pile up, leaving slot receiver Hunter Renfrow to dart into the flat and catch Watson’s toss and score the game-winning touchdown to give Clemson the 35-31 victory and its first national title in 35 years.

• Get your copy of SI's exclusive Clemson national championship commemorative

For Alabama, it snapped the Tide’s 26-game winning streak and snuffed out its bid to win an unprecedented fifth national title in eight years. Alabama had been 97-0 under Saban entering Monday night when leading a game by double digits after three quarters, but that streak went down hard too as the Tigers overcame a 24-14 deficit to score three fourth-quarter TDs on the nation’s toughest defense.

Jackson clinched a small towel twisted into a band and pulled it across his shoulders as he just shook his head in disbelief. Next to him, linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, another Tide starter sidelined by injury, fired the small radio he’d been holding into the ground.

A half hour later, inside a cramped Alabama locker room, Tide players sat staring at the floor. Several refused comment. Some were still shaking their heads. The last time I’ve seen a locker room this crushed by a game was 14 years ago after Ohio State knocked off another defending national champion that many saw as invincible, the Miami Hurricanes. This locker room felt a lot like that one. Just like this game felt like that Fiesta Bowl where it had a sluggish first half and a riveting, wild final chapter that led to some amazing drama.

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Humphrey said he thought the pick play was illegal, but also offered praise for Clemson’s team, calling the Tigers huge wideout Mike Williams “a phenomenal player. There’s a reason why he’s gonna be a top-10 pick.”

• Get your Clemson national championship gear

Senior pass-rushing star Tim Williams consoled junior linebacker Rashaan Evans, putting his arm around him and reminding him that he still has a year left at Alabama and has nothing to hang his head about. After all, Evans piled up 11 tackles on the night. Williams preached leadership and brotherhood to his young teammate and told him how proud he was of him, but also he implored Evans to “remember this feeling,” so he can use it just like so many others who have made Alabama what it is now once did. It was similar to the way former ‘Bama star C.J. Mosley had talked to him after ‘Bama last lost like this, when Ohio State upset the Tide in the playoff semifinals two years ago.

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Williams said that usually on a pick play, the offensive player isn’t supposed to chip somebody. That you’re just supposed to pick them and go onto your route. “But that guy literally chopped (Marlon) down, but hey, that’s football.” But Williams added that he didn’t think the refs should’ve flagged it.

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“I’m not gonna lie,” Williams said. “It hurts. It’s in my soul. I love this game. We had an awesome season. Went undefeated in the SEC. Went back-to-back-to-back as SEC champs. Our resume, man. We’re all right.”

Sometimes, the other team has great players too. And Alabama knew that coming into Monday night. The Tide also got a good reminder of what they were in for as they eye-balled their opponent in warm-ups before the game, as one ‘Bama staffer remarked to FOX Sports that “this is the only team besides LSU that looks like us.”

One thing the Tide didn’t have that Clemson does is Watson, the best player in college football. Watson’s arm and legs and resilience have made him an all-time great. And his performance against the No. 1 defense only added to his legacy.

“The guy is remarkable,” Williams said. “He’s a great guy and a great competitor. He’s also a respectful competitor. He’s spectacular. There was a play where I had a blitz stunt and I was in his grill and he got it off.

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“He is Clemson.”

Williams answered every question, alternating between trying to explain the hurt and reminding people, including his teammates, of all it took to even get to this point, where they are college football’s goliath. That didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t get undone in one night. That was the message and the mantra Nick Saban has planted in his head.

“I don’t think one game defines who you are as a person, as a competitor or as a team, and it certainly doesn’t define what this group of young men was able to accomplish this year,” Saban said. “It was a hard-fought game out there today. It was very disappointing to lose a game like that, and I wish there was something else that I could (have done) for the players to help them be more successful in the game.

“To win three straight SEC championships, to be in the playoffs three straight years and to win a national championship last year, these guys have really done a fantastic job of representing the university, and I’m really proud of these guys. And they’re winners in every way.”

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