They say “history is written by the victors” and when we look back at the 2016 college football season, what we’ll remember above all is that Clemson was the national champion. We’ll remember an unforgettable title game appearance, where Deshaun Watson went from star to icon with a 420-yard passing, four-touchdown performance against Alabama.
But while the victory was incredible – arguably the best title game ever – it doesn’t hide one, simple fact: Clemson was somewhat lucky to be here. Not that it matters now, but the Tigers had a lot of close calls on the way to the title game.
How many? Here is a recap of all the ways Clemson avoided disaster on its way to the title.
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Clemson 19, Auburn 13 (Week 1)
The Tigers won six games by seven points or fewer this season, and it all started in Week 1 on the Plains against Auburn. In that game, however, it looked like Dabo Swinney’s club would cruise to victory. The Tigers took a seemingly comfortable 19-6 lead midway through the fourth quarter before a three-and-out and an Auburn score made it a one-possession game.
After Clemson was unable to get points on its final drive, it set up one final push from the “other” Tigers. Sean White’s Hail Mary attempt fell short as time expired, and Clemson held on for its first victory of what became a title season.
Clemson 30, Troy 24 (Week 2)
This one has been a bit overplayed by the national media throughout the season. Yes, the score was close, but Clemson held a double-digit lead the final two minutes, when Troy scored with less than a minute left to make it a one-possession game.
Regardless, the Tigers held on for a narrow win -- the second time in two weeks they won by a touchdown or less.
Clemson 42, Louisville 36 (Week 5)
After a couple of easy wins over South Carolina State and Georgia Tech, Clemson almost lost its shot at a title before its run even began. Against Louisville, the Tigers took a comfortable 28-10 lead into the break, only to give up 26 straight points at one point to fall behind 36-28.
The Tigers eventually wrestled the lead back, but needed a minor miracle to hold on for victory. Tariling 42-36, Louisville moved the ball 60 yards over 11 plays to set up a 4th-and-7 on the Clemson 9-yard line with just seconds remaining. A false start by Louisville made it 4th-and-12, and on the following play Lamar Jackson hit James Quick for a 11-yard gain -- one-yard short of the first-down marker.
Clemson 24, NC State 17 (Week 7)
This was the most notable close call of Clemson's season. NC State had things tied up with the Tigers, and drove the length of the field to set up a game-winning 33-yard field goal with just seconds left.
Thankfully for the Tigers, NC State’s kicker missed a relatively easy field goal and Clemson went on to win in overtime.
Clemson 37, Florida State 34 (Week 8)
The ACC’s best rivalry took its best – and most controversial – turn to date in Tallahassee this year. With the Seminoles up 28-26 midway through the fourth quarter, Dalvin Cook ripped off what appeared to a 41-yard touchdown run, which would have given Florida State a 35-26 lead. Instead, it was called back on a highly questionable penalty, the Seminoles settled for a field goal -- and never recovered as Clemson rallied to win the game.
After the game, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher didn’t want to talk about the final score, but instead the refereeing. He called the penalty call that negated Cook’s touchdown “gutless,” but it held up nonetheless. And Clemson held on for the win.
Pittsburgh 43, Clemson 42 (Week 10)
Just a few weeks after Clemson survived on a missed field goal by NC State, it wasn't as lucky against Pitt. The Panthers nailed a 48-yarder as time expired to give Pat Narduzzi’s club a shocking victory in Death Valley.
At the time, it appeared to be a potential death knell for the Tigers and immediately caused us to debate whether a one-loss Clemson could sneak into the College Football Playoff. But by the end of the day, Michigan and Washington also had lost, and the Tigers were back.
It was just one of many big breaks Clemson got throughout the season, but ultimately was the last one. The Tigers went on to win their final five games of the season – including against Ohio State and Alabama in the playoff – on their way to the school’s first national title in 35 years.