Just a Bit Outside: Tearing Up the Playbook

by Sam Stockton | 1/17/17 1:55am

The call from ESPN’s Chris Fowler was simple: “Watson … TOUCHDOWN!” What good would babbling do at a moment like that? Sometimes a play speaks for itself. Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow from the two on a sprint-out pick route is one of those plays college football fans will talk about for a long time. Last year’s matchup between Clemson University and the University of Alabama for the title was so good we dared to compare it to the epic 2006 Rose Bowl between the University of Southern California and the University of Texas. However, the rematch on Jan. 9, 363 days later, was so good it eclipsed the 41-38 battle royale between the undefeated Longhorns and Trojans.

Going into the game, Clemson versus Alabama: Part Two had everything college football fans could possibly want in a single matchup. Let’s start with the head coaches — the stoic, calculated excellence of Alabama head coach Nick Saban against the chip-on-the-shoulder bearing fire of Clemson’s Dabo Swinney. One with five national championships to his credit and a cemented status as the greatest coach college football has ever seen; the other a former walk-on receiver, at Alabama of all places, who ground his way up the coaching ladder to Clemson, where he has had the reputation of never quite winning the big one. Saban has been known to chew his team out with a 28-point lead. Swinney is so passionate when talking about his players’ performances that he often appears on the verge of tears.

Coaching matchup aside, these two teams were college football heavyweights — something people have been overlooking on both sides.

Since the Crimson Tide lost, it’s easy to dismiss how good the team really was. This was as good a team as Nick Saban has had at Alabama. It had all the ingredients of a Saban Tide team: a front seven that projects as NFL starters to a man, a stable of supremely talented running backs, five-star recruits backing up other five-star recruits at seemingly every position and a game breaking talent at receiver. On top of that, the Tide had a legitimate running threat in quarterback Jalen Hurts as well as O.J. Howard, the nation’s top tight end, who is excellent in the run game and as a receiver. Those who sought to make a case for Clemson to beat the Tide often pointed to the Alabama secondary as a weakness. The unit lost stud safety Eddie Jackson to a broken leg earlier in the season, becoming a “weakness” only because it was not quite as good as Alabama’s otherworldly run defense. But Tide critics failed to point out that this “weak” secondary boasts two potential first-round draft picks in Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick.

On the other side, the narrative heading into the game was all about whether Clemson could match up with Alabama’s army of blue-chip-recruits-turned-touted NFL draft prospects. Could the Tigers contain all of the Tide playmakers? When the game actually unfolded, it was Alabama that struggled to deal with Clemson’s athletes on both sides of the ball. Clemson’s dominating front seven, led by Ben Boulware, quickly established that ’Bama’s only consistent offense would come from Hurts’ scrambling and superhuman efforts by Bo Scarbrough at tailback. When Clemson had the ball, its receiving corps of Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow and tight end Jordan Leggett gave Alabama fits. Deshaun Watson found all of his targets with relative ease throughout the second half, and whenever the Tide did get a stop, the Clemson defense countered with a stop of its own to keep the Tigers in the game. Make no mistake, this Clemson team was loaded. It didn’t grind its way to a victory on heart and grit — its talented playmakers were better than Alabama’s talented playmakers.

What made this game so special wasn’t just the talent on the field. It was the fact that Alabama and Clemson did the impossible for a sequel: they took all of the hype, nearly a year in the making, and exceeded it, making the original version, a 45-40 classic, seem boring. Early on, Clemson’s offense struggled to find its footing, and the Tigers fell behind 14-0. It seemed like they might be on the verge of getting quietly steamrolled à la University of Washington in the Peach Bowl. The realization started to set in: there was no way the Tide and Tigers could live up to their 2016 classic. Until they did.

They were two heavyweight fighters trading blows in the second half. Clemson rallied furiously and finally took the lead late, but Hurts would get one last shot a season-defining drive. Hurts eventually scrambled through the Clemson defense for a 30-yard score to put the Tide up three with two and a half minutes on the clock. The Hurts touchdown felt like one last reminder of how good the Tide is. You can play great against the team and still fall short. The only mistake Alabama made was leaving a little too much time for Watson, who took the team down to the two-yard line with six seconds left. And then as Fowler said, “Watson … TOUCHDOWN!”, Renfrow was mobbed by his teammates, and the game was Clemson’s.

Musings of the Week:

1) I think there is a not-so-insignificant part of Saban that is happy his team lost. We’re talking about a guy who made up quotes from the “national media” about how the media doubted his team due to its cockiness going into its semifinal matchup with Washington. This was in spite of the fact that every single writer for ESPN, CBS, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and Bleacher Report picked the Tide in that game. Everyone reveling in Saban’s defeat will have to accept the fact that more likely than not, the Tide will be back. Saban almost needs to suffer the occasional setback to keep his team from complacency. If you think this loss will kill Saban’s Tuscaloosa, Alabama empire, you’re going to be disappointed come next season.

2) I absolutely love that the Seattle Seahawks added Devin Hester for its playoff run. I have long believed that there are certain players who should just be in the playoffs every year regardless of the team they played for in the regular season. Hester showed flashes in Seattle’s blowout loss to the Atlanta Falcons that indicated that he may be on that list for the next couple years. The other guy that always comes to mind in this category is Jaromir Jagr. He should be traded to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender every single year. The playoffs would be better with him in them.