TAMPA, Fla. – It was a mix of relief and disbelief, mind-boggling joy and tears and spine-cracking hugs. On the Clemson sideline, sure. Also in the stands at Raymond James Stadium and across Clemson Nation.
Dabo and Deshaun’s destiny darlings did it.
The Tigers not only beat No. 1 Alabama, 35-31, in the College Football Playoff national championship game Monday night, they avenged a loss to the Tide in the 2016 national title game.
And did it with Instant Classic dramatics, a Deshaun Watson touchdown pass to Myrtle Beach native Hunter Renfrow with one second left.
A Clemson team that saved its best for last – late in the season and late in the title game – is a team for the ages.
A team that rallied twice in the fourth quarter against an Alabama defense many experts considered one of the best in college football history has its own permanent place in sports lore.
“You all saw their heart, and it’s been there all year,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “And our fans deserve this: 35 years since Clemson’s been back on top.”
Tiger fans are partying like it’s 1981. That first national title is always sweet, but championship No. 2 is great, too, when No. 2 upsets No. 1.
Alabama was favored.
Clemson was better.
The Tide led.
The Tigers kept coming back.
“I’m so happy for our family,” senior linebacker Ben Boulware said after kissing the national championship trophy on the field. “This is not for just us. This is for (former Clemson players) Tajh Boyd, Stephone Anthony, Grady Jarrett, Nuk Hopkins, Sammy Watkins. You all built this. You all started this foundation. And all we did was build on it. And we finished it. And it’s been 35 long years. It’s finally coming home, baby.”
Watson, the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, came up big again and again.
With two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter after Alabama went up by 10.
On third down, with a 26-yard pass to tight end Jordan Leggett to set up one touchdown and a 24-yard touchdown pass to Renfrow in the third quarter.
And after taking a third-quarter helicopter spin with a double hit by Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and linebacker Reuben Foster.
Swinney, the former Alabama walk-on wide receiver – “More like crawl-on,” he said before the game – wouldn’t have it any other way.
“To be the best, you have to beat the best,” Swinney kept repeating in Tampa.
A Crimson Tide victory would have kick-started a coronation. Alabama under Nick Saban, perhaps the greatest college football coach ever, had won five of the previous eight national championships.
But this is a 14-1 Clemson team that finished with a 56-7 rout of South Carolina (largest margin of victory in the series since 1900), an ACC Championship Game win over Virginia Tech, a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl dismantling of Ohio State (first shutout of an Urban Meyer-coached team).
Setting the tone
Clemson was fighting for redemption, glory that would add palatable context to the 45-40 loss to Alabama last year in Arizona.
Boulware’s final off-season tweet, accompanied with a 45-40 photo and unleashed on Clemson Nation last Aug. 1: “I didn't come this far to only come this far. Still think about this everyday. One last ride. See y’all in Tampa.”
It got 1.6 million retweets.
Again, Alabama (14-1) was favored. But Crimson Tide players were well aware of Clemson momentum following the Tigers’ unexpectedly easy victory over Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and Lane Kiffin’s sudden departure after he tried juggling roles as Alabama offensive coordinator and Florida Atlantic head coach.
They invented an underdog role.
The Tide might have been a true underdog once running back Bo Scarbrough went out in the third quarter after scoring two touchdowns.
Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts didn’t blink. The same guy who as an early college enrollee played the Watson role on the Alabama scout team a year ago, did a nice Watson impression with a 20-yard run on the Tide’s first touchdown drive.
He scored what looked like the game-winning touchdown, a 30-yard run with 2:07 that gave Alabama a 31-28 lead.
So safe against anyone.
Anyone but these special Tigers.
Clemson lost the turnover battle (2-0) against the most opportunistic defense known to man, and lived to brag about it.
That happens only because an unusually close-knit team with remarkable leadership never flinched. A defense led by Boulware, Carlos Watkins, Kendall Joseph and Cordrea Tankersley allowed the Tigers to hang around.
Every tackle, every forced punt, each first down – all precious against the team formerly known as “the best.”
Clemson’s place in college football history is secure: national champ/Alabama-beater.
There should be two separate trophies for that.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff