On Monday, January 11, 2016, the Clemson Tigers watched the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrate a college football national championship. The confetti was falling down on them with their heads hung low. It wasn’t the trip they were expecting when they went to Glendale, Arizona. They played a great game but came up short 40-45. This entire season there was only one goal, get to Tampa and win the title.
They started the season against an Auburn Tiger team that showed some preseason promise. Clemson pulled out a 19-13 road victory, and seemed prime to take on all challengers. The next game was Troy of Alabama. They weren’t impressed with Clemson because they were only down 10-13 at halftime, thanks to a missed field goal. Clemson dodged a bullet with a 30-24 victory by recovering the onside kick at the end of the game. Maybe this team wasn’t as good as advertised. They struggled against Georgia Tech in their conference opener. The match up with Louisville and their Heisman Trophy quarterback Lamar Jackson was next. When the bright lights were on, Clemson responded with a 42-36 victory. This gave credence that they might deserve to be a top four team. Then doubt gave way to fear in the North Carolina State game. The Wolfpack missed an easy 33-yard field goal that sent the game into overtime. Clemson got an interception in the end zone to seal the game 24-17. This Jekyll and Hyde team was not going to survive the season undefeated. Or would they? The next big challenge was top ranked Florida State. The winner would be in the driver’s seat for the ACC title and a shot at the College Football Playoff championship. Clemson was down 20-28 going into the fourth quarter. They won a thriller 37-34 on the road. It looked like “Hyde” was going to run the table and be one of the top four teams to play for the national championship. The Pittsburgh Panthers had other plans on Clemson’s Senior Day. The Panthers kicked a 48-yard field goal with six seconds left to win 43-42. The “Jekyll” Tigers stood their stunned in disbelief. They took their frustrations out on the next two teams, Wake Forest and South Carolina. In the ACC title game, they played an underrated Virginia Tech team. Clemson jumped out to a 35-14 fourth quarter lead and hung on to win 42-35. They would be headed to the semifinal playoff game against Ohio State. It was a great match up on paper. It would showcase two outstanding quarterbacks in DeShaun Watson verse J.T. Barrett. Both defenses featured players you would see on the next level. The only thing that Ohio State didn’t count on was where the game was played. It was in Glendale, Arizona. This was the same place that Clemson had just lost the championship a year ago. I’m sure they remembered the feeling before the game and after the game. They remembered the cold unfulfilled feeling being in that same locker room. That’s why they destroyed Ohio State 31-0 and setup a rematch with Alabama for the title game.
Most teams give you the politically correct statement, “We are just glad we made it to the title game, it didn’t matter who we played.” Blah. Blah. Blah. Clemson was glad they made it but they wanted Alabama. As the saying goes, “revenge is best served cold”. It was rather cold conditions in Tampa for the title game, but the question was which Clemson team would show up? Did they play such a perfect game the week before verses Ohio State that they didn’t have anything left for the title game? Alabama came into the game undefeated and riding a tide of confidence. So confident was Alabama, that head coach Nick Saban fired his offensive coordinator (Lane Kiffin) the week of the championship game. Alabama’s defense was better than last year, which is a scary thought. They were averaging a touchdown a game this season, yes the defense. This was the main reason why Alabama was a seven point favorite coming into the game. Clemson definitely had their work cut out for them, and it showed early. They were down 7-0 thanks to Alabama’s rushing attack and massive offensive line. Then in the second quarter, sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough scored another rushing touchdown. The fat lady could be heard warming up her voice. You give an Alabama defense a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, it’s all but over. That’s when Watson and Clemson showed their fortitude. They answered back with a touchdown to prevent a shutout. In the third quarter, Alabama would build on their seven-point halftime lead. They would score 10 points, for a 24-14 lead. You could see and hear the Alabama fans with their championship tweets, text messages, and Instagram posts in draft mode. That was until Clemson remembered they had some unfinished business to take care of. The fourth quarter was electric with Clemson scoring 21 points in the quarter. They took their first lead of the game with 4:38 left in the game. Alabama showed the heart of champion by scoring a touchdown on the next drive and reclaiming the lead. With two minutes left in the game, Watson completed six of his eight passes for 50 yards, culminating in a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left. With one second left, Clemson recovered an onside kick to win the game. It’s ironic because it was the same play last year that Alabama used to change the game around. After setting up in victory formation for a final kneel down, the Clemson Tigers were National Champions.
Watson was spectacular just like Texas quarterback Vince Young against then defending national champions USC in the Rose Bowl 11 years ago. Just like Young, Watson finished second in the Heisman Trophy while leading a game winning drive for a title. A year ago, Watson threw for four touchdowns and gained 478 yards of total offense against Alabama. This time he threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns and added a rushing score against college football’s best defense. Coach Dabo Swinney said, “I’ll say it again. He didn’t lose out on the Heisman. The Heisman lost out on him. They lost out on an opportunity to be attached to this guy forever.” Swinney went on to say, “We wanted to play Alabama because now y’all got to change your stories. You got to change the narrative. Y’all got to mix it up. The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight. We saw the top of it last year, didn’t get quite there. Tonight we took that next step.” Unfinished business is now completed.