National title report card: Player grades for Clemson's win over Alabama

0:55 | College Football
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Tuesday January 10th, 2017

Grading out one of the best national title games in history is going to result in some serious inflation. Oh well. Here are your grades for Clemson’s stunning 35–31 win over Alabama in Tampa on Monday night. It’s a game that won’t soon be forgotten.

Deshaun Watson: A+

He threw the game-winning touchdown pass with one second left in the national title game. That secures an A grade.

Watson was spectacular in the second half despite taking a series of blistering hits over the first 30 minutes. Linebacker Reuben Foster clubbed Watson in the head on the game’s opening drive, the QB couldn’t find enough space to make a big play until a screen pass to wide receiver Deon Cain in the second quarter, and he had to evade a relentless Alabama pass rush that terrorized every offense it faced this season. Despite his limited first half, Watson finished 36 for 56 for 420 yards and three touchdowns.

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His rushing touchdown in the first half was an acrobatic tightrope maneuver aided by a huge block from running back Wayne Gallman. Once the second half arrived, Watson commandeered an offense that would finish with 98 total plays, exhausting an Alabama defense not used to so much lateral movement and so many plays. Watson’s versatility has long been his finest asset, but his composure was what ultimately carried Clemson on Monday night. With his army of receivers, a sturdy running back in Gallman and his own running and throwing abilities, Watson was able to spread the Alabama defense out and eventually exhaust it. The quarterback runs that were stuffed in the first half opened for bigger gains in the second half. He tested Alabama’s secondary in the second half and pinpointed several key throws (two to Mike Williams) to extend drives. He was the primary reason that Clemson ran as many plays as it did and tired out the game’s most invincible defense. His rollout and touchdown throw to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining was perfectly executed under maximum pressure.  

Head coach Dabo Swinney has said it several times before, but he re-emphasized on Monday night that Watson was unassailably the best player in college football. After beating Alabama, that fact was impossible to dispute.

Jalen Hurts: C- 

Hurts’s performance Monday was a fitting encapsulation of his true freshman season. He showed off advanced field awareness, he didn’t turn the ball over and he made an incredible play with his legs. What was most noticeable, and what ultimately haunted the Tide, was his lack of refinement passing the ball.

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Hurts finished the night 13 for 31 for 131 yards and one touchdown. Sixty-eight of those yards came on a touchdown pass to O.J. Howard; it was a nicely thrown ball, but it went to a player who exploited a blown coverage and had no defender within five yards of him. Remove that play, and Hurts’s line is an execrable 12 for 30 for 63 yards. He nearly erased any memory of his generally poor play with his 30-yard touchdown run to give Alabama a 31–28 lead with 2:07 remaining, but his struggles throwing the ball will linger in the memories of sad and embittered Bama fans. Hurts's frequent rollouts to the right side usually offered nothing, he struggled to get the ball into the hands of big-play threats ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley, and he didn’t see wide-open receivers over the middle of the field on a few occasions because his head was down. Alabama finished the night 2 for 15 on third down and 0 for 12 in the second half, largely because of Hurts’s inability to spread the Clemson defense. Once running back Bo Scarbrough exited the game in the second half with a lower leg injury, the Tide offense shrunk, and Hurts was unable to jumpstart it.

Hurts could be one of the great Alabama quarterbacks by the time his career concludes, but his youth was too present too often on the biggest stage.    

Mike Williams: A

Williams spent the first half getting roughed up by Alabama defensive backs and the second half making highlight-reel catches. After taking a huge hit to the head in the first quarter (it should have been called targeting on Alabama defensive back Tony Brown), Williams provided a dazzling second half to finish with eight catches for 94 yards and one touchdown. Williams’s two late grabs—one leaping effort with 5:32 remaining, another diving stab with under two minutes left—secured his role as the best big-play receiver in college football. He also drew two crucial pass interference penalties, the last of which set up Renfrow’s game-winning touchdown.

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After missing last year’s title game with a neck injury, Williams's ability to return from a first-half scare and turn into his usual dominant self should only elevate his NFL draft stock. His highlight catches will get the replays, but his ability to find seams and go over defensive backs was every bit as impressive. His technical skills were lost among his (admittedly awesome) big plays. Outside of Watson, Williams was the most entertaining offensive player to watch on Monday.

Hunter Renfrow: A 

He caught the game-winning touchdown pass with one second remaining. Like Watson, that secures an A grade. The irony is that was Renfrow’s easiest catch of the night. A breakout secret weapon during last year’s title game (he finished with seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns), Renfrow triumphantly returned to this year’s with another stellar performance. When Watson was being swarmed by the Alabama defense in the first half, Renfrow made several difficult catches—along the sideline, across his body and with his arms extended—to keep drives going. His tackle of Alabama defensive end Ryan Anderson, who had a clear path to the end zone after recovering Gallman’s fumble, was one of the game’s most crucial plays for those who believe in momentum.

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In a receiving corps with star power (Williams), speed (Cain and Artavis Scott) and size (Jordan Leggett), Renfrow’s sure hands and crisp routes often leave him in single coverage. He might be known for his hands, but his strong running abilities after the catch helped bring Clemson back into the game—his 24-yard touchdown catch and run brought Clemson to within three in the third quarter—and his seamless route on the game’s final offensive play etched his legacy into Clemson lore.

Bo Scarbrough: A-

Oh, what could have been. In a game loaded with future NFL talent, Scarbrough was one of the most physically dominant players. Unfortunately, he suffered a lower leg injury in the third quarter that knocked him out of the game. The redshirt sophomore logged two ferocious TD runs, carrying defensive back Ryan Carter on the first, sprinting past defensive MVP Ben Boulware on the second and stiff-arming Boulware to the ground in the third quarter before leaving with the injury. Backup running back Damien Harris filled in adequately after Scarbrough was knocked out, but the Tide were less daunting without him in the backfield and the offense lost its key dimension. Scarbrough may enter the draft after his incredible two-game stretch (the title game was just his second start of the year), but if he returns, he’ll likely receive much of the Heisman hype that accompanied his former teammate, Derrick Henry, in 2015.

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Deon Cain: A-

Cain’s final line (five receptions for 94 yards) is a good one, but his 43-yard second-quarter scamper on an inside screen pass was Clemson’s first “chunk” play of the game and one that relaxed a struggling offense. The Tigers may have the deepest receiving corps in the nation, but none of them are as fast as Cain, who juked two Alabama defenders to turn what appeared to be a four-yard gain into 43 and help set up Clemson’s first touchdown.

While Williams proved his big-play abilities and Renfrow showed why he’s the nation’s most surehanded safety valve, Cain showcased his ability to swing crucial drives. All five of his catches were four double digits and went for first downs, and his speed helped spread out an Alabama defense that was fatigued by the game’s conclusion. For a player who missed last year’s title game due to suspension, Cain was pivotal to the Tigers’ success on the most memorable night in program history.

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Jordan Leggett: A- 

If I asked you who Clemson’s best receiver was in the national title game, your answer would have likely been Williams or Renfrow. He only had one more yard than Williams (and three more than Renfrow), but tight end Jordan Leggett finished atop the Clemson receivers column with a seven-catch, 95-yard performance. Despite a tough drop in the fourth quarter that would have extended a key Clemson drive, Leggett returned to make one of the game’s crucial and most acrobatic plays.

A big-bodied tight end who likely has an NFL career ahead of him, Leggett impressed with a couple of early double moves to separate himself from Alabama’s suffocating coverage, a key catch deep in Alabama territory toward the end of the third quarter to set up a touchdown, and an ability to stretch the field for a player of his (generous) size. Alabama succeeded in defending Clemson’s loaded receiving unit in the first half, but Leggett’s ability to separate was yet another example of how deep and talented that group is.

• Read about Clemson's excellent season in SI's special commemorative issue

Ben Boulware: A- 

He’s a maniac who offered some questionable opinions on locker room behavior, but his motor and ability to bounce back from missed tackles were crucial to Clemson’s defensive success. Scarbrough punked him on two different occasions (one with speed, the other with strength), but Boulware returned to make a key pass breakup and an outstanding read on a screen in the fourth quarter. He also delivered an impassioned postgame speech that will be replayed for decades. Boulware won the game’s defensive MVP, so it’s pretty hard to grade him poorly.

Ryan Anderson: A 

One of college football’s best big-play defenders, Anderson had two fumble recoveries—an impressive strip of Gallman that he nearly returned for a TD and a punishing sack in the third quarter. It was his last game in a Tide uniform, but Anderson has proven his nose for the ball and ability to hit the quarterback hard.

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Jonathan Allen: B- 

He entered the game as the most vaunted defensive player Alabama had, yet didn’t dominate the way he usually does. We’ll have to use the world’s most famous coach excuse—I’ll have to go take a look at the tape—but unless Clemson was triple-teaming Allen to open up plays for his fellow defensive linemen, he was not a notable presence in the season's marquee game. It’s ludicrous to suggest that a player who finished with seven tackles and a sack didn’t make an effect on the game, but Allen didn't meet his absurdly high standard.

Reuben Foster: A 

The best defensive player for either team. He finished with seven first half tackles, almost all of which left the audience feeling the effects of the respective collisions. He sent Watson flying and stopped him short of an important first down, and stopped another potential touchdown run by tackling Watson at his ankles. After losing over 30 pounds in the off-season, Foster was simply flying all over the field (even if he risked a targeting ejection after he hit Watson in the head in the first quarter). If you want an NFL-ready player, Foster is him.

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Da’Ron Payne: C 

The Alabama defensive tackle bowled over center Jay Guillermo in the first half in one of the game’s best displays of raw physicality. He routinely entered the backfield and blew up nearly every run that came inside. But he ended the game with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that added 15 yards to a 26-yard Mike Williams catch, which set up Gallman’s touchdown to put the Tigers up 28–24. That’ll hurt your grade.

O.J. Howard: A- 

For the second straight year, Howard saved his best performance for the national title game. He mauled a Clemson defender on Scarbrough’s first touchdown run before catching a 68-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter by fooling free safety Van Smith. In the fourth quarter, he caught ArDarius Stewart’s 24-yard bullet that would set up Hurts’s 30-yard TD run.

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Unfortunately, he strangely intercepted a screen pass designed for running back Damien Harris that, after replay, looked like it could have gone for a long gain. Howard’s usage remains one of the great mysteries of Alabama football, but for the second straight year, it used him perfectly in the title game.

ArDarius Stewart and Calvin Ridley: D+

Stewart uncorked a beautiful throw on a fourth-quarter trick play to Howard, but the two star receivers were (again) non-factors. Whether that is the fault of Hurts or Sarkisian, the fact remains that two of the Tide’s most dangerous weapons were ultimately forgettable throughout the College Football Playoff.   

Steve Sarkisian: B 

He was fine. The pressure was on Sarkisian, and the offense still compiled 31 points against a top-10 defense. It’s hard to pin Hurts’s methodical development on a guy who wasn’t allowed to coach players until this week. Sarkisian offers plenty of promise for the future, even if he couldn’t win his first game as the new offensive coordinator.

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Jay Guillermo: B

He started the game struggling to snap the ball, lacked communication with Watson, and was run over by Payne deep in his own territory. In the fourth quarter, he piledrove Payne into Foster to open up Gallman’s TD run. That’s a great way to bounce back, Jay.

Wayne Gallman: B+ 

The running back has spent most of his Clemson career unheralded, but he was crucial to the Tigers staying in the game in the first half. He ran hard against the nation’s most fearsome defense, chipping away 3 to 5 yards at a time. His second-quarter fumble didn’t appear to affect his confidence, and he plunged into the end zone for a one-yard TD to give Clemson a 28–24 lead in the fourth quarter. He’s a great player and he delivered a solid performance.

Lane Kiffin: INC

He tweeted during the game and then liked his own tweet.

JK Scott: A 

I would watch a 20-minute mixtape of this guy’s punts.

The game: A+ 

Pretty awesome, didn’t you think?

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