• Clemson's thrilling win over Alabama marked the second classic title game the two teams have played. Don't be surprised if they square off for the same prize next year.
By Andy Staples
January 10, 2017

TAMPA — As Clemson’s coaches discussed what to do with the ball at Alabama’s 2-yard line with six seconds remaining, head Tiger Dabo Swinney’s voice crackled through the headsets. They trailed by three. Would they try a field goal? Heck no. “Hey boys,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott recalled Swinney saying. “If you want to be a champ, you’ve got to go win it.” This dovetailed with something else Swinney had told his team and his staff as Clemson marched toward the national title game. “Coach Swinney says all the time that the tie goes to the champ,” said Jeff Scott, the other co-OC. “You’ve got to knock them out.”

So after some discussion, the coaches opted to go with Scott’s idea to run a play designed to spring slot receiver Hunter Renfrow open in the corner of the end zone. The result will live on highlight reels and officiating clinic videos forever. As quarterback Deshaun Watson caught the snap, outside receiver Artavis Scott plowed into Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Renfrow dipped under the wreckage, leaving Crimson Tide corner Tony Brown to run around it. That provided the opening Watson needed. He flipped the ball toward the former walk-on, who caught the knockout blow with one second remaining.

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How you view the final play depends on what color you wore Monday night. If it’s orange, it’s a touchdown pass for the ages. If it’s crimson, it’s an illegal pick play that should have been flagged and pushed Clemson back away from the goal line. The truth is such plays happen all the time and don’t get flagged. An official actually calling the pick is so rare that when it is called—as it was against Notre Dame in its loss at Florida State in 2014—it’s a huge deal. But like the holding that gets missed on nearly every play, this one didn’t draw a flag. History will remember it as a touchdown that lifted Clemson to a 35–31 win—even though Alabama’s fanbase probably will consider it the play that cheated the Tide out of their fifth national title in eight seasons.

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Instead, Clemson claimed its first national title since the 1981 season. To do it, the Tigers had to beat every program that has won a national title since 2009 (Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State). The first drops of the foundation for this title were poured in a tiny high school gym in Lake Butler, Fla., in February 2006. It was there that a Union County High tailback named C.J. Spiller silenced the crowd by placing a Clemson hat on his head. Explaining his decision to reporters a few minutes later, Spiller cited a young receivers coach named Dabo Swinney as the main reason he chose the Tigers. Two years later, Spiller returned a kickoff 64 yards to set up a touchdown to beat Boston College. That win kept alive the slim chance that interim coach Swinney—who had taken over when Tommy Bowden was fired weeks earlier—would get the job full time. Without that return, someone else probably coaches the Tigers in 2009. Quarterback Tajh Boyd may not have come. Receiver Sammy Watkins may not have come. Defensive end Vic Beasley may not have come. Linebacker Ben Boulware may not have come. Quarterback Deshaun Watson may not have come. A 155-pound former triple option quarterback may never have been accepted as a walk-on, and then who would have caught that final touchdown? That’s why Scott ran through the confetti, found Spiller on the field at Raymond James Stadium and thanked him.

And even though Watson, who followed an epic performance (405 passing yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions) in a losing effort in last season’s title game against Alabama with an epic performance (420 passing yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions) in a winning effort, is likely headed to the NFL, Clemson is built to be in this game again next year. Defensive end Christian Wilkins is a sophomore. Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is a freshman. Offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt is a sophomore. Receiver Deon Cain is a sophomore. Scott is a junior. “We’re here to stay,” said Clelin Ferrell, a redshirt freshman defensive end who also will be back next year. “We’ve modeled our program after Alabama,” Elliott said. “Each year, you just reload.”

Al Tielemans/SI

And after two classic national title games between the Tigers and Tide, a rubber match isn’t out of the question. Alabama also is built to reach this game when it moves to Atlanta next year.

Defensive end Jonathan Allen and linebackers Tim Williams and Reuben Foster are gone, but Alabama has replaced stars every year with barely a dip. The Tide haven’t lost more than two games since 2010, and until they do, anyone who declares their time in the sport’s elite over is a fool. Alabama brings back safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, receiver Calvin Ridley, offensive tackle Jonah Williams and a host of young stars. According to Scout.com, Alabama has the best recruiting class in 2017. The Tide also will bring back the freshman quarterback who was their biggest offensive liability for most of Monday and yet nearly still led them to a national title with a fourth-quarter drive for the ages.

It probably wouldn’t have mattered whether Steve Sarkisian or Lane Kiffin called plays for the Tide. Jalen Hurts is clearly limited as a downfield passer at the moment. He should get better in his first off-season as the Tide’s starter, and he’ll certainly look better when he doesn’t have the monsters from Clemson’s defensive line chasing him. But the way Hurts came alive on Alabama’s final offensive possession should give the Tide reason to believe that he can take them back here as long as he keeps improving. Sure, ArDarius Stewart had the longest completion of the drive on a Bubble Double (a double pass that began with a bubble screen), but Hurts led the eight-play, 66-yard touchdown drive in the waning minutes of a national title game that Alabama trailed with the Tide’s best offensive player (tailback Bo Scarbrough) sidelined with an injured knee. Hurts found Stewart for 15 yards on third-and-16 to set up the Damien Harris fourth-down conversion that preceded the double pass. Hurts then capped the drive with a 30-yard touchdown run that would have brought Alabama another title had Watson not marched the Tigers down the field with the help of clutch catches from Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett and Renfrow.

It seems fitting that since last year’s Alabama-Clemson title game turned on an onside kick, this one effectively ended with one. Clemson kicker Greg Huegel recovered his own kick, allowing the game to end with Watson taking a knee and confetti falling. “Last year,” Leggett said, “confetti fell for all the wrong reasons.” Again, this is a matter of perspective. A few minutes before Leggett said that in a locker room that smelled of cigar smoke, Alabama defensive end Dalvin Tomlinson sat with a towel over his head in a dead silent locker room. The quiet was broken when someone asked Harris how the loss felt. “How would you feel?” Harris asked back. “Don’t have an answer either?”

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Ferrell had one in the Clemson locker room. “The reality,” he said, “is waaaay better than the dream.”

It took everything Clemson had. Alabama didn’t score its 16th non-offensive touchdown of the season only because Renfrow tackled linebacker Ryan Anderson by his shoelaces as Anderson cradled a fumbled ball and raced toward the end zone early in the third quarter. That gave Clemson’s defense the opportunity to hold Alabama to a field goal. For nine days, Scott and Elliott had told the receivers they had the best chance to make the tackle if a Tide player stole the ball. Renfrow made that tackle. Clemson won by four points. “That probably was just as big a play as the final [touchdown],” Scott said.

Nick Saban’s knowing grin following last year’s successful onside kick gave way to Clemson’s Wilkins boogeying shirtless as he kissed the national title trophy. The Tigers and Tide have played two national title games in two seasons. They’ve played two classics, and they’re separated by one aggregate point. Now the names will change and Alabama and Clemson will try to fight their way back for a third round. But in the places where they paint Tiger paws on the road, they’ll always remember this one most fondly.

Before the game, Clemson coaches showed their players a clip from Rocky II. After a brutal fight, Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed land punches simultaneously and fall to the canvas. An exhausted Rocky rises just ahead of a 10-count and claims the title. “That’s kind of how it was tonight,” Swinney said.

As confetti rained on the field, linebacker Boulware put it more emphatically. “IF YOU WANT TO BE THE BEST, YOU’VE GOT TO BEAT THE BEST!” he screamed. “AND WE’RE BACK! AND WE’RE THE BEST NOW! WE’VE GOT THAT BELT!”

If we’re lucky, these two will play for that belt again in Atlanta next year.

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