It took 59 minutes and 59 seconds to decide the winner of the CFP National Championship Game between Clemson and Alabama on Monday night.
Both teams left everything they had on the field in this rematch from a year ago. Unlike what we saw last year when the Tigers fell short of a surging comeback bid, they prevailed in this one, winning 35-31 thanks to a never-say-die attitude and resilient, valiant showing by quarterback Deshaun Watson.
It was the first national title for Dabo Swinney and just the second in school history. For Alabama, it was a disappointing end to what had previously been a perfect season.
It was a magnificent night for fans of college football, and we’ll get into the reasons why as we dive into the top takeaways from the action.
1. This was one for the books
It sure looked like this one was going to be yet another boring championship march for Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.
Jumping out to an early 14-0 lead, featuring their usual dominant rushing attack and stifling defense, the Tide appeared poised to win a second-straight title while we all yawned through the trophy presentation.
Then Clemson’s offense woke up, its defense stiffened up and at the half it was just a one-score game.
With outstanding individual performances for both teams on both sides of the ball, this game had more drama, more intrigue and more excitement in the second half than we’ve seen since Jameis Winston and Florida State beat Auburn in 2013.
There were six touchdowns scored in that second half, four by Clemson and two by Alabama, which also scored on a field goal early in the third quarter. What looked to be a snoozer of a defensive struggle turned into a game that featured 887 total yards and 66 points.
In the end, Deshaun Watson found Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning score with just one second left on the clock.
2. Deshaun Watson is one resilient young man
Alabama’s defense relentlessly pummeled Watson in this game. Starting on the game’s opening drive for the Tigers, they were intent on punishing him and making him skittish. They even went over the line at one point, which we’ll discuss a bit later.
And he did seem rattled for a while, at least until Deon Cain took a simple screen pass 44 yards with some outstanding running after the catch to finally get something going (watch here).
Three plays later, Watson made a gorgeous throw to Jordan Leggett for 26 yards in the middle of the field. Two plays later, he ran in the first score of the game for the Tigers.
— FanSportsClips (@FanSportsClips) January 10, 2017
That seemed to get the young passer going, and he ended up having quite a magnificent game apart from an early fumble.
Finishing with 420 yards on 36-of-56 passing with three touchdowns, a rushing score and no interceptions, he once again showed himself capable of taking on the best defense in college football.
Not surprisingly, Watson was named the Offensive MVP of the game.
Who else could it be?
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 10, 2017
This performance in a title game — the second impressive showing in as many years under the most intense pressure available in college football — will give NFL scouts and personnel people plenty to chew on in the coming months as he prepares for the 2017 NFL Draft.
3. Bo Scarbrough was unstoppable before knee injury
It didn’t take long for Bo Scarbrough to make a statement on Monday night. On the second offensive possession of the game for Alabama, Scarbrough finished off an impressive drive with an equally impressive run, going 25 yards to pay dirt.
A huge man (6-foot-2, 228 pounds) Scarbrough is also extremely fast and quite nifty with his feet. He’s a powerful back as well. All that was on display as he finished off this first touchdown run.
Then early in the second quarter, he was at it again with a 37-yard run to the house, barely touched as he got through an arm tackle early and took advantage of amazing blocking to the end zone.
Unfortunately, a knee injury in the third quarter kept Scarbrough from finishing the game. He ended up finishing with 93 yards and the two touchdowns on 16 carries. Without him acting as the battering ram, Alabama’s offense wasn’t the same.
4. Clemson defense put forth amazing effort
Despite the big runs that gashed the Tigers early, there wasn’t a lot they did wrong defensively.
Holding the Crimson Tide to 376 yards, allowing just 16 first downs and holding them to just 2-of-15 on third downs, Clemson’s defense was definitely not a liability.
In particular, they way the Tigers kept Jalen Hurts from making big plays on the ground was laudable. It’s not something many teams did all year long, and Hurts had just 33 yards on the ground until he finally broke loose near the two-minute mark with a ridiculous 30-yard touchdown run.
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) January 10, 2017
Combine that with Hurts’ inefficient passing performance and you see a very strong coordinated effort to keep him in check. In fact, if not for one instance of blown coverage in which O.J. Howard romped 68 yards untouched for a touchdown (watch here), Clemson’s pass defense was almost flawless.
In the end, the Tigers featured the best defense in this game, not the mighty Crimson Tide.
5. Steve Sarkisian’s debut was less than impressive
In his first game replacing Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian’s play calling can only be described as confused.
An offense that had a clear identity all year long, ‘Bama struggled to find any consistency or rhythm. Now, as we just discussed on our previous point, Clemson’s defense had a lot to do with this. But the Crimson Tide were just lost for much of the night offensively.
Clemson’s defense couldn’t do anything early against Alabama’s power-running game. As we’ve already documented, Scarbrough was unstoppable, and Hurts struggled to find open receivers down the field. Not surprisingly, the offense fell into some serious lulls at times.
The biggest issue was how inept the passing game was, especially on passes thrown beyond the line of scrimmage. At halftime, Jalen Hurts had completed just 2-of-7 for 24 yards on non-screen passes and was 7-of-16 for 40 yards total. Clemson’s defense was keyed in on those screens, which were completely ineffective.
Things didn’t improve for him in the second half, and Hurts finished with just 131 yards on 13-of-31 passing with the one big touchdown to Howard and not much else.
Throughout the long season, one of the things Lane Kiffin did so well was set up play-action passes, which we saw very few of in this game. Hurts didn’t lose his composure but he was getting overwhelmed by Clemson’s defensive line more often than not.
In the end, it was a pretty ugly game for Alabama’s offense, barring a few big plays.
6. Hunter Renfrow is ‘Bama D Kryptonite
Alabama fan:"Hunter Renfro" pic.twitter.com/8CSMV0D6KT
— Wes McElroy (@YoWes910TheFan) January 10, 2017
Among all the elite athletes, among all the freaks of nature in the National Championship Game, one man you almost certainly wouldn’t assume is a college football legend if you saw him on the street stood tall on Monday night.
Hunter Renfrow isn’t an imposing man, coming in at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. But he was a veritable giant in Clemson’s victory over mighty Alabama.
For the second year in a row, Renfrow caught two touchdown passes against ‘Bama in the national title game. This time around, it helped the Tigers pull out a win. Making it all the sweeter, he caught the game-winner with one second left on the clock in the fourth quarter.
Last year, he finished with seven catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns.
This year, Renfrow one-upped himself, catching 10 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns. When Watson needed a first down, he looked for Renfrow. When he needed a clutch score, he looked for Renfrow.
And Renfrow delivered.
7. Dabo Swinney’s legacy is just getting started
As Jim Harbaugh is fond of saying, the arrow is pointing up for Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers. It may sound crazy after they just won a national title, but it’s true nonetheless.
A guy who has taken a program that hadn’t posted double-digit wins since 1990 before he showed up, Swinney has now led the Tigers to six straight such seasons. In the process, Swinney has won six of his last seven bowl games, the lone loss coming last year in the national title tilt against the same Alabama team he just vanquished on Monday night.
One of the best recruiters in the nation (No. 13 in the nation for 2017, per 247 Sports), he has built a program that thrives on community, love and respect. The players clearly have a strong relationship with him and each other, which matters just as much as talent.
Now with a championship under his belt, expect the recruits to come clocking to Clemson in the years to come. And expect the wins to keep piling up.
8. What is targeting, anyway?
On the first offensive drive of the game for Clemson, ‘Bama’s defense set a brutal tone with a ridiculous dirty clothesline hit by linebacker Reuben Foster on Deshaun Watson. In all honesty, Foster should have been hit with a targeting call in addition to his 15-yard personal foul, which would have resulted in his ejection. He went for Watson’s head and almost appeared to be swinging right at it (watch here).
Then a little while later, Alabama defensive back Tony Brown decked Clemson receiver Mike Williams, who was already being held by his feet. It was a clear helmet-to-helmet hit that should have been called targeting, resulting in Brown’s ejection.
— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) January 10, 2017
These two non-calls had a humongous impact on this game, as Alabama’s defense was able to keep two starters in the game. They ended up losing anyway, but the inability of referees to correctly call targeting is just a continuation of a problem that has been a huge issue for a few years now.
Thankfully neither Watson or Williams were injured on these hits. And in the end, both had a big part to play in Clemson’s big win.