Clemson gets second shot at Alabama looking more than up for the challenge

Deshaun Watson (center) threw for 259 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions and ran for another 57 yards and two scores as Clemson racked up 470 yards vs. Ohio State.
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, after a season of waiting and wondering when, if ever, Clemson was going to put together a truly dominating performance on both sides of the ball, it delivered.

Now comes the hard part.

After the No. 2 Tigers dismantled third-ranked Ohio State 31-0 in Saturday’s Fiesta Bowl, looms the task of denying No. 1 Alabama’s seemingly inevitable coronation.

“Play the best team in the country in Alabama,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said of that Jan. 9 date in Tampa. “They’ve earned that. But you can best believe we’re going to show up. And we’re going to lay it all on the line and see if we can find a way to finish.”

It’s a rematch of last season’s 45-40 epic won by the Crimson Tide, one that, with so much returning for Clemson this season seemed a lock to happen once again. But the Tigers’ inconsistencies created doubt.

They opened with a six-point win at Auburn, followed it with a narrow win over Troy and by the time Clemson edged No. 12 Florida State 37-34 on Oct. 29, had played five games decided by seven points or less.

The Tigers were living on the edge as the defense proved more bend their break, and it put even more pressure on quarterback Deshaun Watson and the star-studded offense.

An ACC-record 580 passing yards wasn’t enough to survive unranked Pitt in a 43-42 loss at home on Nov. 12. Granted, Watson threw three interceptions in that game and on the season has 17, four more than a year ago, but Brent Venables’ remade defense was giving up yardage in bunches.

The Panthers piled up 464, coming after allowing 386 (Tory), 568 (Louisville), 397 (NC State) and 449 (Florida State) in those aforementioned narrow wins.

But since that loss we’ve largely seen a Tigers team that quit hitting the snooze button. Granted, No. 18 Virginia Tech gave it fits in the ACC Championship Game, but with an opportunity to finish the job it couldn’t last season, Clemson stepped up.

The Buckeyes were shutout for the first time in a bowl since 1920, and it was the only time coach Urban Meyer was blanked in his entire coaching career.

“We didn’t really have any illusions they wouldn’t score a point,” Swinney said. “We just wanted to have one more than them.”

It was a group that helped make up for Watson’s mistakes, as he threw an interception on the Tiger’s first possession — one helped as wide receiver Mike Williams slipped — and then limited Ohio State to three yards as Tyler Durbin missed a 47-yard field goal.

When he tossed another later in the quarter, Clemson denied the Buckeyes on 2nd-and-2 and 3rd-and-3 to force the punt — and Watson showed his appreciation with a 30-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Fuller for a 10-0 lead.

“I just go out there and play ball and don’t worry about mistakes,” Watson said. “The great ones make mistakes, too.”

Watson threw for 259 yards and a pair of touchdowns and ran for another 57 yards and two scores as Clemson racked up 470 yards. That was more than the Buckeyes’ fifth-ranked defense had allowed all season.

“Anytime we can have the balance that we had — 200-plus run and pass — we’re a hard team to handle, especially when you’ve got the best player in the country in Deshaun Watson making decisions out there for you,” Swinney said.

As he’s done nearly the entire season, Watson made up for his miscues. He did so backed by the Tigers’ best defensive effort of the season vs. a ranked opponent, holding the Buckeyes to 215 yards after the last three Top 25 teams averaged 467.

But against, Alabama, though, those mistakes could prove costly.

With 1:13 remaining in the first half of the Peach Bowl, the Ryan Anderson picked off Washington’s Jake Browning and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown and a 10-point Crimson Tide lead.

That was Alabama’s 11th defensive TD of the season, this one blowing open what would be a 24-7 win over the fourth-ranked Huskies.

The Crimson Tide’s top-ranked D — which has allowed a paltry 244 yards per game and given up more than 194 just twice since Nov. 5 — will be a daunting task, even for the two-time Davey O’Brien Award-winning Watson.

But a year ago, Alabama didn’t have to contend with Williams, Watson’s top target, who missed nearly the entire season with a neck injury. His 96 yards on six catches vs. the Buckeyes gave him 90 receptions for 1,267 on the season.

And if there’s any doubts swirling around the Crimson Tide, they center on their QB, Jalen Hurts. The true freshman looked every bit his age for much of the win over Washington, hitting on seven of his 14 attempts for just 57 yards.

On eight of Alabama’s 13 possessions, it punted, and take away the MVP performance by running back Bo Scarbrough (180 yards on 19 carries), the Tide averaged 3.2 yards on 45 plays.

Should Clemson be as stifling in Tampa as it was in the desert — forcing three Buckeyes turnovers and limiting them to 3-of-14 on third downs — Hurts could have more troubles on the biggest stage of his young career.

“If we play to the Clemson standard and play at a high level and focused and prepared and having a great mind-set and mentality, we can beat anybody in the country,” linebacker Ben Boulware told reporters.

But it isn’t just anybody. It’s Alabama, and the season has been defined by the perceived chasm between Nick Saban’s crew and everyone else.

Swinney has delivered so many breakthroughs at Clemson in establishing it as one of the nation’s premier programs, except for one: a national title.

“We Want Bama” has become a battle cry, and a decidedly unfortunate one at that. As Washington’s Chris Petersen said in response to fans holding up signs with the plea, “Sometimes, you’ve go to be careful what you wish for.”

That same challenge was chanted in the final seconds in the Fiesta Bowl, but for Clemson, it’s something different. It’s the culmination of a year’s wait, and the final hurdle.

“Alabama has been the standard. There’s really no argument to that,” Swinney said. “So sooner or later if you’re going to be the best, you’ve got to beat them.”

The Tigers got Bama, and they’ve got them looking like a team ready for the moment.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney and Facebook. His books, ‘Tales from the Atlanta Braves Dugout: A Collection of the Greatest Braves Stories Ever Told,’ and ‘The Heisman Trophy: The Story of an American Icon and Its Winners.’ are now available.