TAMPA – Maybe the College Football Playoff selection committee can make sure Alabama and Clemson meet for the national title every season.
In a game that actually topped the thriller that ended last season, Clemson scored with one second left Monday night to stun the Crimson Tide 35-31 and win its first national title since 1981.
That Clemson team was coached by Danny Ford, an Alabama alum. This Clemson team is coached by Dabo Swinney, also an Alabama alum.
“Tonight, at the top of the mountain, that Clemson flag is flying,” Swinney said during the on-field trophy presentation. His team outscored Alabama 21-7 in the fourth quarter.
The winning TD came on a 2-yard pass from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow, who for the second season in a row bedeviled the Tide. Renfrow had 10 receptions for 92 yards and two TDs; in last season’s title game, which the Tide won 45-40, Renfrow had seven catches for 88 yards and two TDs. That means that 22 percent of his career receptions, 18 percent of his career receiving yardage and 36 of his career TD receptions have come in two games against the Tide.
Watson finished 38-of-56 for 420 yards and three TDs in his final college game. He also rushed a season-high 21 times for 43 yards and a score. In two national title games against Alabama, Watson had 941 yards of total offense and accounted for eight TDs.
The Tide (14-1) was going for its fifth national title in eight seasons and the first 15-0 record in FBS history, but blew a 14-0 lead because its offense bogged down for most of the game. While the Tide finished with 376 yards of offense in the first game for coordinator Steve Sarkisian, it was just 2-of-15 on third down; it missed on its final 12 attempts.
That, in turn, meant the Tide’s vaunted defense was on the field for 99 plays, and it wore down in the second half. Clemson (14-1) scored TDs on its final two drives, with the winning drive covering 68 yards in nine plays.
Clemson rushed 42 times for just 91 yards, but the Tigers’ dedication to the run still paid off. The Tigers enjoyed a better than nine-minute time-of-possession advantage, and they made the Tide chase on numerous outside runs.
The Tigers finished with 511 total yards, the second-highest total this season against the Tide; Ole Miss had 522 yards on 101 plays in a 48-43 loss on September 17.
While Alabama’s offense struggled for most of the game, it did come alive in the final five minutes. After Clemson took its first lead at 28-24 with 4:38 left, the Tide responded with a six-play, 88-yard drive that finished with a 30-yard TD run by Jalen Hurts with 2:07 left. The drive included a 24-yard double-pass from Hurts to receiver ArDarius Stewart to tight end O.J. Howard.
While Hurts rushed for 63 yards, he was just 13-of-31 for 131 yards in the air; more than half of his yards — 68 — came on a TD pass to Howard that gave the Tide a 24-14 lead with 1:53 left in the third quarter.
Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough had 16 carries for 93 yards and two TDs, but he suffered a lower-leg injury late in the third quarter and didn’t return.
“Not to have him was probably a little bit of a disadvantage for us,” Tide coach Nick Saban said in his post-game news conference.
Alabama had 66 plays from scrimmage — 34 runs, 32 passes.
Clemson’s title is the seventh national championship for the ACC since the conference formed in 1953. Florida State (which became a full-fledged ACC member in 1992) has three championships during that span, while Clemson (1981 and ’16) has two and Georgia Tech (1990, shared with Colorado) and Maryland (1953) have one each since the league formed.
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