Clemson beats the best and now the Tigers are at the top
TAMPA — The celebration was already swirling on the sidelines, but the selection committee member urged caution.
“We’ve got to get that one second,” Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said, to no one in particular but anyone within earshot. “One more second!”
A second stretched into several minutes during an official review. But then, finally, an instant classic was finished: Clemson 35, Alabama 31. And as the party really cranked up, it was time to pick your story line.
Dabo Swinney and the Tigers finally climbed all the way to the top, completing an eight-year building project, winning the school's first national championship since 1981.
“There was really only one lid left on the program,” Swinney said, “and that was to win the whole dadgum thing.”
The problem, for Clemson like so many others, was Alabama. But with Deshaun Watson’s touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left, they knocked off college football’s biggest dragon.
It was the ultimate ending for a program whose coach likes to say stuff like, “Bring Your Own Guts” — and whatever that means, no one doubts Swinney means it. No one doubts this, either.
“Clemson has arrived,” senior linebacker Ben Boulware said. “It took us 35 years, but we’re here now.”
Boulware jolted through a range of emotions after the final gun. He cried. He screamed. He hopped up and down. He sang We Are the Champions at the top of his lungs with a few teammates. And that’s only a partial snapshot of his postgame. But this was a quieter moment.
“We’re just resilient,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of fight in us. We battled and we battled and we battled. I don’t know how it happened — but we won.”
We’ll get to how they won in a moment. You might have heard, but Alabama has spent the last few seasons in relentless conquest of college football. The Crimson Tide went into the night looking for its fifth national championship in eight years.
Which brings us back to that College Football Playoff selection committee member. During their weekly meetings to put together the rankings, Radakovich was recused from voting on or even discussing Clemson — but not Alabama. All season, he watched the Tide and he saw, well, what we all saw. Alabama was unbeaten. Alabama seemed inevitable.
“Throughout the year, they were just so superior to everyone,” he said. “As we looked at it as a committee, it was Alabama and then we kind of moved on to everybody else. But everybody’s got to play between the lines. Everybody’s got to play the game.”
And as it turned out, Clemson could play Alabama’s game. The Tigers’ defense bottled up ’Bama (though the Tide left Tampa with serious concerns about quarterback Jalen Hurts’ inability to pass, and legitimate questions about coach Nick Saban’s decision a week earlier to dump Lane Kiffin as offensive coordinator, replacing him with Steve Sarkisian).
More startling, though — and this part took a while to develop — Clemson’s offense finally broke through against Alabama’s defense. Watson’s playmaking turned the second half into a different game.
“We worked ’em a little bit,” junior running back Wayne Gallman said.
It wasn’t just that they beat Alabama (“to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best,” the Tigers kept saying afterward, parroting their coach) — but how they did it. Trailing 14-0 in the first half and by 10 in the third quarter. Putting together an 88-yard drive for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. And then, after Alabama retook the lead with 2:07 left, Clemson drove again for the championship.
“That’s the best part about tonight,” Swinney said. “You beat Alabama. You did it on a two-minute drive, it wasn’t some fluky plays. You beat their defense, and that’s the best of their team. You left no doubt.”
Look at it another way. Clemson won despite doing the very things Swinney had warned all week that it could not afford to do. The Tigers lost two turnovers. And just like last year, they lost Alabama tight end O.J. Howard on a busted coverage. (“Same freaking play,” Swinney said. “Same play! How do we do that?”)
And they won, anyway. At halftime, Swinney told the Tigers they had taken Alabama’s best shot and trailed only 14-7.
“All we have to do is go out there and who we are,” Swinney said, as recounted by former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, who had practiced with the team, mimicking Hurts, and was in the locker room at halftime.
“That’s more than good enough,” Swinney told the Tigers.
The Tigers were more than good enough to complete a journey that began when Swinney was promoted in 2008 to replace Tommy Bowden. The program gradually morphed into a national power. A year ago, Clemson was 14-0, playing for the national title against Alabama, and lost 45-40. Swinney predicted then that the Tigers would win one soon.
This year seemed like their best shot, because of Watson’s dynamic skills. But for most of the season, the idea of any team other than Alabama winning seemed like a very long shot.
“What they’ve done the last seven years is absolutely incredible,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said of the Tide. “We wanted to change that. Somebody was gonna beat them at some point, and we wanted to be that group. I think there were probably a lot of people around the country pulling for us tonight, just because they wanted to see somebody new on top of college football. Hopefully we brought a lot of hope to a lot of those people around the country.”
He’s probably right — Clemson was America’s Team on Monday night — but no one is suggesting Alabama’s dynasty is done. The program didn’t topple; the Crimson Tide will return next season bristling with talent. Presumably it’ll be a pretty hungry bunch.
“What a run they’ve had,” Swinney said, “and I know they’ll be right back here next year.”
But Clemson might not be going anywhere anytime soon, either. The program had already demonstrated staying power. What does it say to finally reach the top — and to knock off ’Bama to get there?
“It says you’re the best,” Scott said.
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