National title report card: Grades for Alabama's thrilling win over Clemson

Handing out grades for Alabama’s 45–40 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff national championship game.
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Alabama claimed its 16th national championship Monday night with a 45–40 win over Clemson in Glendale, Ariz. While the back-and-forth game itself was an instant classic, the matchup still offered plenty of good and bad. So what were the highs and lows from the Crimson Tide’s title victory? We offer a few grades from the epic final contest of the college football season.

O.J. Howard: A

Alabama wins national title thanks to Nick Saban's savvy, historic decision

Alabama’s tight end was a true game-changer as part of the Crimson Tide’s passing game. The former five-star signee came into the title game averaging just 28.1 receiving yards per game, but he turned in a performance for the ages at just the right time. Howard led all players with 208 receiving yards alongside two touchdowns on just five catches, becoming the first Alabama tight end to record 200 receiving yards in a single game. Howard’s 51-yard scoring catch with 9:45 left in the fourth quarter gave the Crimson Tide a 31–24 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Despite his immense talent, Howard had never emerged as a key part of Alabama’s offense. But the Crimson Tide might not have left Arizona victorious without his efforts against Clemson.

Deshaun Watson: A

Clemson’s quarterback reminded why he earned a spot in New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist. Watson rang up 478 yards of total offense, completing 30 of 47 passes with four touchdowns and one interception. He consistently picked apart Alabama’s secondary and remained mobile against its front seven, running for 73 yards on 20 carries. As Watson found success against the Tide, many on Twitter started comparing his outing to that of Vince Young, the former Texas quarterback who famously helped upset USC in the 2005 title game. Watson’s day actually surpassed the Longhorns’ legendary passer, who reeled off 467 yards of offense against the Trojans, including the game-winning score. The difference, of course, is that Watson’s production wasn’t enough to win the game. But he did manage to still deliver on a prediction he made nearly four years ago on Twitter.

Nick Saban’s magic tricks: A

Watch: Alabama recovers surprise onside kick, scores TD on drive

It’s always a treat when a coach as outwardly conservative as Saban pulls a rabbit out of his hat. After Alabama hit a field goal to tie the game 24–24 early in the fourth quarter, Saban called for kicker Adam Griffith to boot an onside attempt. The ball sailed away from an unsuspecting Clemson return team and perfectly into the hands of cornerback Marlon Humphrey as he scampered out of bounds. The Crimson Tide offense quickly turned the conversion into a go-ahead touchdown on a Jake Coker pass to Howard two plays into the ensuing drive. The onside kicked provided the biggest momentum shift of the game.

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Hunter Renfrow: A

Walk-ons aren’t supposed to impact national championship games. Evidently Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow didn’t get the memo. The redshirt freshman caught the Tigers’ first two touchdown passes of the night to help his team build an early 14–7 lead. In the end Renfrow finished as Clemson’s second-leading receiver with 88 yards and two scores on seven catches, all against one of the tougher defenses in college football. He came through for an offense missing its top 2014 receiver in Mike Williams, who went down with a neck fracture in Week 1, as well as reliable pass-catcher Deon Cain, who was suspended for the playoff for violating team rules.

Derrick Henry: A

Derrick Henry becomes 17th player to win Heisman and national title

Henry was slightly less efficient than his usual self, settling for 4.4 yards per carry. But touchdowns ultimately win ballgames, and the Heisman Trophy winner delivered in that category. Henry recorded a hat trick of scores for the Tide to finish the season with a whopping 28 touchdowns. His title-game tally included the first score of the contest on a 50-yard scamper midway through the first quarter.

The junior closed Monday night—possibly the last game of his college career—with 158 yards on 36 carries against a stellar Clemson defensive front.

Jake Coker: A-

Coker saved perhaps his best performance for last, finishing the night 16 of 25 for a career-high 335 yards along with two touchdowns. His 51-yard scoring pass to Howard early in the fourth quarter pushed Alabama ahead for good. Plus, with the Tide looking to retain possession late in the game, his first-down scramble on third-and-three from inside the Clemson five-yard line set up Henry’s third touchdown to put the game out of reach. Coker wasn’t perfect, as he missed several throws in the first half that stalled Alabama’s offense and held on to the ball too long at times. But the redshirt senior ended his college career on the highest note possible by helping bring another title to Tuscaloosa.

Lane Kiffin’s TD celebration: B+

Watch: Lane Kiffin celebrates TD before O.J. Howard even catches ball

O.K., we get it, Lane. You’re pretty good at predicting touchdowns before they happen, like right before Howard hauled in a pass from Coker and took it 53 yards to the house during the third quarter. But the Alabama offensive coordinator isn’t fooling anyone with his antics anymore. We’ve seen this movie from him before.

So while he deserve props for his delivery, we’re docking points for originality.

Alabama’s defense: C+

This might seem harsh, given that Alabama did just win a national championship. But this time the Crimson Tide found a way to survive a shootout instead of a defensive battle. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart struggled all night to limit Watson’s impact on the game, and Clemson ultimately reeled off 550 yards of offense (6.5 per play), more than double the number regularly allowed by the Tide (256.8). And while the Tigers didn’t run the ball down Alabama’s throat, they did find more success than most teams by averaging 3.8 yards per carry. Throw in a Crimson Tide front seven that only managed to sack Watson twice, and this wasn’t the vintage Alabama defensive performance many expected.

Clemson’s defense: C-

The Tigers’ normally stingy defense showed flashes of greatness against Alabama, but overall it gave up far too many big plays Monday night. Clemson came in giving up just 4.71 yards per play and 20 points per game but allowed 6.7 yards per play and 45 points to the Crimson Tide (though that total includes Drake’s kickoff return TD as well). Of course, it didn’t help that key contributors like defensive lineman Shaq Lawson and cornerback Mackenzie Alexander entered the contest banged up, with Alexander eventually sitting out the entire second half with a hamstring injury. The Tigers did notch five sacks and nine tackles for loss, better marks than that of the Tide. But coordinator Brent Venables’s defense simply didn’t do enough to limit Alabama, giving up too many big plays.

Pac-12 refs’ clock management: F

Watch: Referees mismanage clock before halftime of title game

Pac-12 refs have authored their fair share of gaffes in recent years, and they didn’t leave us disappointed on Monday. Late in the first half, Clemson converted a first down in Alabama territory as it drove for one last score before the break. The play ended near the 27-yard line with about 15 seconds left, but the clock continued to run before stopping at 12 seconds, only to start again well before the ball was set. Dabo Swinney finally called a timeout with six seconds left and argued with the referees to put time back on the clock. They eventually reset the clock to nine seconds, but the timeout, Clemson’s last of the half, left the Tigers with no choice but to attempt a long field goal. Greg Huegel’s 44-yard try was tipped by D.J Pettway and missed, concluding a momentum-killing sequence for the Tigers to end the half.