Bob Holliday

A game to remember, a season to remember

Posted January 10

Championship seasons. They have become commonplace in Alabama, but rather rare in the Atlantic Coast Conference, where until a few years ago one could count football titles for the entire league on one hand.

Yes, the ACC did win a national championship in its very first season. But that was won by Maryland, which of course later bolted for the Big Ten. Nearly 30 years passed before the ACC captured its second national championship, Clemson putting up that banner in 1981. Georgia Tech, against all odds, won the national championship in 1990. That was a shared title, however, in the days when pollsters for the Associated Press and United Press International chose champions-AP picked Colorado, UPI went for GT.

Expansion brought Florida State into the ACC and Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles won championships in 1993 and 1999. But even with the addition of perennial power Miami to the league in 2004, the ACC’s collective championship count held at five for nearly a decade and a half. By contrast, Bear Bryant won five titles just at Alabama. And Nick Saban has also won five championships, though one of his came at LSU.

Jimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston took ACC football up at least one notch, when in the final year of the Bowl Championship Series, the Seminoles defeated Auburn for the national title. FSU followed that by earning a spot in the Final Four in the first year of the new College Football Playoffs. Dabo Swinney and Deshaun Watson then overtook FSU, winning the ACC and advancing all the way to the national championship game against Alabama. Clemson, of course lost the first time around, but won the rematch with the Crimson Tide Monday night. To reinforce the point about the rarity of ACC teams winning national championships: Clemson had not captured the nation’s top prize since the days of Homer Jordan, Perry Tuttle, Terry Kinard and Jeff Davis 35 years ago.

All of Those Clemson Receivers

Coming into this second meeting with Alabama, I felt like Clemson had a good chance to win because of Deshaun Watson’s ability to throw accurately to five different receivers, all the while keeping the defense even more off balance because of his skill running the football. Even though Alabama has the World’s Best Defense (WBD), I wondered how Nick Saban and his staff and players would defend the Tiger offense, not knowing whether Watson would run or pass and then not knowing which of his five receivers might get the ball. It turns out, Alabama denied Watson running room -- he gained only 43 yards on 21 carries and many of those came on one spectacular burst. But it turns out, Bama and the WBD still couldn’t cover all of Watson’s playmakers. Hunter Renfrow caught 10 balls. Big Mike Williams hauled in nine. Jordan Leggett, although he had one notable drop, made eight catches. Deon Cain caught five and Artavis Scott three. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Bama Blocks and Bama Tackles

The fact is, the best blockers and best tacklers matriculated at Alabama. And they were on full display in the first half. The Crimson Tide offensive line moved Clemson off the ball in ways not commonly seen this season. Big Bo Scarborough was quick to take advantage, barreling 25 yards for the game’s first touchdown and charging 37 yards for the second. Bama and the WBD made some fierce hits, once drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty and I thought the Tide could have been called for targeting once or twice as well. But to be clear, Alabama’s physicality forced Clemson into two potentially lethal turnovers in its own territory.

Clemson’s Defense vs. Alabama Offense

Other than surrendering those two early touchdown drives, Clemson’s defense stood tall. In fact, without the work of boisterous Ben Boulware (did you hear him roaring after the game?) and his mates, Watson and his five receivers would not have had the chance to work their magic in the fourth quarter. When the score reached 14-0, Clemson dug in, forcing Alabama to kick seven straight times. One of the kicks was a field goal, but the Tigers’ holding Bama to three points after the Tide took custody of the ball at the Clemson 16-yard line proved to be a game-saving stand. And remember, when Wayne Gallman first coughed it up, Bama’s Ryan Anderson nearly got himself a scoop and score -- tackling him from behind and preventing a defensive touchdown proved to be another game changing moment.

During ACC play, Clemson competed against offenses that were more dynamic than Alabama’s and that probably helped as the game went along. Though no ACC team blocks and runs like the Crimson Tide, there are plenty that have more explosive passing games. And don’t misunderstand me when I say this, but while Jalen Hurts is a great young talent, if you look strictly at his passing accuracy in Alabama’s schemes, he would not make the ACC’s top ten. So, when Bo Scarborough left the game with an injury, Hurts had to start trying to make plays with his arm, as well as his feet. Though he is a fantastic runner, he missed receivers 18 times on 31 throws. And so, Alabama was unable to build on its lead. Moreover, Alabama’s offense had difficulty staying on the field. And that allowed Clemson to control the football.

The Most Plays Ever

In the game’s first two and a half quarters, Alabama’s defense dominated Clemson. In fact, had Deon Cain not scooted 44 yards with a second period screen pass leading to the Tigers’ first touchdown, who knows if Clemson would have ever gotten untracked.

Clemson’s second touchdown did not come until well into the third quarter, and it was as much a defensive score as an offensive score, the Tigers getting the short field (41 yards) after Alabama’s offense was pinned inside its own 10. But, again, the tremendous success Clemson had holding Alabama’s offense to one first down-or no first downs, tilted the playing field. And while Alabama too often ran a few plays and had to punt, Clemson was driving the length of the field. The Tigers marched 72 yards on ten plays for one score; 88 yards on six plays for another. On Clemson’s final drive, the Tigers took it 68 yards in nine plays. By the time Deshaun Watson took the night’s final snap, Clemson had run an incredible 99 plays. No Alabama defense has ever had to answer the bell that many times in one game. Bama and the WBD simply wore down.

Bama Found Ways to Score

Alabama’s offense, while not prolific proved to be resourceful. Clemson outgained the Tide 511 to 376, outpassing the guys in Crimson 420 to 155. And yet Bama posted two scores with its offense in the second half. The first came right after Scarborough left the game. Big Bo battered the Tigers for twelve yards on his 15th and 16th carries of the night, but then two plays after Scarborough departed, O.J. Howard found himself completely overlooked by the Clemson defense. Jalen Hurts threw his best pass of the night, and Bama scored a 68 yard touchdown. How Clemson could lose track of Howard, who torched the Tigers twice for touchdowns last year, is a question that would have been asked (several times probably) had the game turned out differently. But that defensive lapse was long forgotten after Clemson answered with two of its own touchdowns to go up 28-24.

I must say this about Hurts, he is a dangerous runner, and can really extend plays with his feet. Clemson led 28-24 with maybe five minutes left in the game and forced Bama into a 3rd and 16 after Boulware totally blew up a screen pass for a six yard loss. On that third and long, Hurts ran all around the field, looking for a receiver. Clemson nearly got to him a couple of times. But running toward the right sideline he saw ArDarius Stewart open. Hurts lofted a perfect rainbow that Stewart hauled in for a 15 yard gain. Without that play, Nick Saban probably has to punt. Instead, Bama goes for the 4th and 1 from its 41 and gets it. Moments later, the Tide executed a perfect double pass, with Stewart throwing downfield to (who else?) O.J. Howard. Before the stunned Tigers could recover, Hurts broke contain and powered his way into the end zone. Given the limited production by the Crimson Tide attack most of the night, it was a truly stunning turn of events. But the 31-28 go ahead touchdown came too early, as it turned out. For Clemson still had two minutes. And that’s an eternity for Deshaun Watson.

The Drive and the Gamble

Clemson’s game winning drive did not happen all at once. The Tigers did get 24 yards on the drive’s second play, with Mike Williams making yet one more big catch. But there were also short gains-Jordan Leggett getting five yards with one catch, Wayne Gallman willing his way amid Bama’s bruising defenders for an important six yard gain from the Tide’s 45. Clemson faced a 3rd and 2 at the Bama 37. Watson of course looked for the ever reliable Hunter Renfrow on that play and gained 11 to the 26. Without that gain, Clemson is probably not even in field goal range. But suddenly Clemson was no longer thinking field goal. Watson found Leggett for 17 yards to the nine. Following an incompletion, Alabama got flagged for pass interference in the end zone. So Clemson got the ball first and goal at the Alabama two!

But by now, only six seconds remained. Think about this, Clemson has a chip shot field goal-like an extra point; although come to think about it, Greg Huegel, while one of the ACC’s best kickers did miss six PAT’s in 2015, missed a couple this year as well. Anyway, Dabo Swinney decides to risk it all for one shot at the end zone. If the clock in Deshaun Watson’s head measures time accurately, Clemson might still get a chance to kick should the final pass fall incomplete. The Tigers had a time out remaining-but still! As it turned out, Clemson’s timing was perfect. Renfrow got separation quickly, thanks to traffic from a teammate in the Alabama secondary. Watson threw it where only Renfrow could get it and he did. One second remained. And it must have been a long second, because even after Clemson recovered an onside kick (executed to prevent any kind of long runback), the Tigers still had one second! The point is, had Clemson’s six second gamble resulted in a six second non-touchdown, Dabo Swinney would be hearing about his decision on every ESPN Sports Center and every talk radio outlet in the Carolinas. Instead, Swinney, who praised his team for their fight and their belief in one another, earned the opportunity to speak to the Clemson nation about ending the school’s 35 year national championship drought.

Best Year Bar None

So look at the numbers. Clemson wins the national championship against mighty Alabama, which went wire to wire as the nation’s number one team. The Tigers’ victory capped the ACC’s best ever bowl season, 9-3. Clemson’s win gave the ACC its best ever record (by far) against the SEC, 10-4. Nine ACC quarterbacks passed for at least 2500 yards, six of them passed for more than 3000 yards. Increasingly, the ACC has seen better quarterback play, but it has never seen a season like this, which ended with a pass and a championship.

But football, fundamentally, is still about blocking and tackling. So many of the best blockers and tacklers play their football in the SEC. Moreover, several of the ACC’s best quarterbacks-Watson, Mitch Trubisky, Jerome Evans, Nathan Peterman, and Brad Kaaya, will not return. ACC fans should enjoy this incredible season just completed. It will be very difficult to duplicate.

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