After losing in the national championship last season, Dabo Swinney made a promise to his players – a promise that he made good on.
“He promised they’d be back,” Clemson writer and author Larry Williams said on CBS Sports Radio’s After Hours with Amy Lawrence. “He promised the fans that it wouldn’t be another 34 years before they got an opportunity for another one. He told all the players he thought they could get back to Tampa and sort of redeem themselves and sort of redeem themselves for letting it slip away in Glendale last year.”
Swinney was right. Clemson beat Alabama, 35-31, to claim its first national championship since 1981.
“What I thought was so cool about what happened (Monday) is that Dabo Swinney’s story, his life story, it’s not about him succeeding the first time; it’s about him getting knocked down,” Williams said. “Whether it’s a really difficult childhood, dealing with an alcoholic father and sleeping on floors, or whether it’s going to Alabama and walking on as a football player, which is very difficult to do, or whether it’s becoming a scholarship player and then on into his coaching career. Back in 2008, he was given the interim job midway through the season. Nobody thought he had a chance to get the job. So he gets the job and still not many people thought he was capable of being a successful head coach and now here he is. So I just thought it was fitting that they lost to Alabama the first time and (were) given a second opportunity. And in that opportunity, they’re down double digits going into the fourth quarter. So really the game itself was an embodiment of that whole thing I was talking about.”
Clemson trailed 24-14 entering the fourth quarter but erupted for 21 points in the final 15 minutes. Deshaun Watson found Hunter Renfrow for the game-winning 2-yard touchdown pass with one second to go. It was Renfrow’s second touchdown of the evening. He finished with 10 catches for 92 yards.
“I think a really big key was wearing Alabama down – not just up front, but also on the back end with their defensive backs,” Williams said. “Clemson came in knowing that Alabama, on the defensive line, is not as deep as they were last year. They are frighteningly good on the defensive line – maybe the best defensive line in history – but they don’t rotate as much as they did last year. So Clemson, a tempo team, a team that likes to push it – even in the second quarter you could see Deshaun get more time to throw and you sort of suspected at halftime that maybe they were wearing them down some. And then sure enough in the fourth quarter was really the culmination of all that, and it wasn’t just the defensive line. Clemson receivers coach Jeff Scott was constantly rotating his receivers all game with the same sort of goal in mind of eventually wearing out those DBs who were playing every snap.’
Watson had a masterful game against Alabama for the second straight year. He followed last season’s 478-yard effort with 463 on Monday. He threw for 420 yards and had four touchdowns (three pass, one rush).
Williams believes that Watson will be a star at the next level.
“Obviously he has the talent, he’s 6-3, he’s got the arm and I think that he has what it takes between the ears,” Williams said. “I think he had some struggles this season with interceptions, but when the NFL folks sit down over the next couple of months and then really put him under the microscope, they’re going to be, I think, blown away by his ability to make clutch plays. It just happens time and time again. He rises to the occasion. He reminds me of the Tom Brady of college football – just the cold-blooded, totally unruffled way he is able to go about his business when the pressure is at its peak. I think that his leadership – he’s not the most vocal guy – but really the way he carries himself was really a form of leadership. Deshaun, especially this season, he knew this was probably going to be his final year. He started acting like in his demeanor, his mannerisms, just the way he carries himself around the field during games, acting like he’s the best player on the field, like he’s the best player in the country and acting like he knows. That’s pretty important. That sort of trickles down to the rest of the team. They can feel that and feed off of that as well. So I think those dynamics and those attributes will certainly be a long list of checkmarks in his favor as the NFL folks start to dig into him as a player and a person leading up to the draft.”