Three-Point Stance: Deshaun Watson 's legacy secure in ending Clemson's title drought
Confetti, tears and an unforgettable rematch.
An era of Clemson football -- already most successful in its history -- got its crowning moment, with the No. 2 Tigers dethroning No. 1 Alabama 35-31 Monday night in Tampa for the program's first national championship since 1981.
"This game wasn't just for me," Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson said. "It's for all the alumni, the fans ... this is bigger than just me."
An all-time kind of defense was tamed, Watson leading the Tigers on a nine-play, 68-yard drive in the final two minutes, culminating with a 2-yard scoring strike to Hunter Renfrow to complete an epic comeback.
A season that had seemed a coronation was exactly that. But not for a Crimson Tide team led by a defense that came in with a penchant for demoralizing offenses, but for a program that rose up along with Dabo Swinney.
This collection of Tigers -- backed by the program's most decorated player and a 2013 recruiting class that may stand as the greatest in its history -- had accomplished so much. They won consecutive ACC titles, and came in with 27 wins in the last 29 games, including five in the last six postseason games.
But for all the hurdles Dabo Swinney has cleared, first with Tajh Boyd at the controls, and then Watson, in taking down powers like Ohio State (twice), Oklahoma (twice) and LSU along the way, the Crimson Tide were the one hurdle they hadn't cleared.
Now the Tigers and their coach have reached that proverbial summit, that moment -- fittingly -- coming behind Watson, who led Clemson to four touchdowns in their last seven possessions.
"We set out to put Clemson back on top," Swinney said. "We came a little short last year, but tonight, on the top of the mountain, that Clemson flag is flying."
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1. If he hadn't already, Deshaun Watson cemented his place as Clemson's greatest
He wears No. 4, a digit that before him belonged to another Tigers great in Steve Fuller. That reminder is there each time Deshaun Watson puts it on, that Fuller patch affixed to his right shoulder.
But if anyone ever wants to wear it again -- Fuller included -- it's only right that it be adorned with a Watson patch.
A two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, who has rewritten nearly all of the program's passing records, Watson did something against the Crimson Tide that's never been done before.
He threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns, to go along with 43 rushing yards and a score. Those passing yards, combined with his 405 in last year's loss, give Watson 825 vs. the Tide, more than any player has ever totaled in multiple games against Alabama in Nick Saban's tenure. Only Ole Miss' Chad Kelly (762) and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel (717) come close.
But it wasn't just about the numbers. Down 24-14, after Jalen Hurts hit O.J. Howard for a 68-yard TD pass, Watson simply put Clemson and a fan base on his back.
He led the Tigers 72 yards on nine plays over 2:47, connecting with Mike Williams for a 4-yard TD. Then, saying he wanted to channel Texas' Vince Young, nearly provided a replay of his diving score vs. USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, but was stopped a yard short.
It provided the setup for Wayne Gallman for a 1-yard score and then, after Alabama responded with a 30-yard TD run from Hurts, Watson hit four different receivers in a drive that ended with Renfrow's decisive score.
In beating USC 11 years ago to the day, Young racked up 467 yards and three scores in forging his legend. Watson had four less yard and one more TD, and the result was the same, a transcendent player owning the moment and derailing a dynasty.
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2. Hunter Renfrow, Alabama Slayer
It's easy to get lost in the shuffle in Clemson's offense, what with Mike Williams and his 90-something receptions and 1,300-plus yards and the likes of Jordan Leggett, Deon Cain and Artavis Scott all vying for receptions.
That's long played to Hunter Renfrow's advantage, and he made Alabama pay for it.
With Williams and Cain, neither of whom played in the title game a year ago, drawing attention, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound former walk-on was targeted a team-high 14 times had 10 receptions for 92 yards, a 24-yard touchdown and the game-winner.
All that coming a year after he had seven catches for 88 yards and a pair of scores. That two-year stat line vs. the Crimson Tide -- 17 catches for 180 yards and four TDs -- put Renfrow in elite company.
Since 2007, the start of the Saban era, only three players have more receiving yards in two games vs. Alabama: Texas A&M's Mike Evans (319 yards), South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery (210) and LSU's Demetrius Byrd (195).
Of course, none of them delivered those numbers at a bigger stage than Renfrow, and none delivered a bigger moment than when he hauled in that final 2-yard reception.
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3. ACC flexes its muscle this postseason
The title is the punctuation mark as the ACC put the finishing touch on an unequaled postseason in the bowl era.
The conference improved to 9-3, breaking a tie with the SEC last season for the most victories of any conference in a single year.
That includes wins over No. 2 Ohio State (by Clemson), No. 6 Michigan (Florida State), 10-win West Virginia (Miami) and AAC champion Temple (Wake Forest). Those were three more victories than the next-closest conference, the SEC, while the Big Ten and its week's-long narrative of pushing for multiple teams in the College Football Playoff, had just three wins.
Then there's this nugget: with Clemson's win over Alabama, this is the fifth time in history that a league has had a champion and a Heisman on different teams in the same season. Alabama owned the regular-season polls, and the Big Ten most of the playoff ranking chatter.
But the postseason? That, unequivocally belonged to the ACC.