TAMPA — That audacious tyke, the College Football Playoff, had reached its third year and its ninth game without staging a humdinger. It had held three duds, three half-duds and two near-thrillers (Ohio State vs. Alabama, 2015; Alabama vs. Clemson, 2016). This happens in life. The Super Bowl once spat out clunkers with such regularity that the AFC almost fell into the Pacific Ocean, and the country almost wished it would.
Now the nouveau playoff concept has its first masterpiece. How do we know Clemson’s 35-31 win over Alabama was a masterpiece? For one, we know because it has stuck its head out above others and looked down the years to find, for one thing, Texas vs. Southern California.
In that game at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 4, 2006, Texas quarterback Vince Young somehow looked like the kid in the back yard who’s too big for the other kids, rushing for 200 yards, passing for 267 and leading the Longhorns on fourth-quarter drives of 69 and 56 yards to clamber out of a 38-26 deficit.
He orchestrated two touchdowns in the final 4:21.
He scored the winner on the last chance, a fourth down with 19 seconds left.
Similarly, Deshaun Watson passed for 420 yards, rushed for 43 and steered Clemson on drives 88 and 68 yards to quell deficits of 24-21 and 31-28.
He orchestrated two touchdowns in the final 4:38.
He threw for the winner on the last chance, a play that began two yards from happiness with six seconds left.
“Just remember that night and sitting in my mom’s room,” said Watson, who was 10 and watching Young, “because I always have the football on, and just seeing him really running to the corner of the end zone [to win the game] and kind of jumping up, and then at the end just seeing all of the confetti come down. It’s one of those games like [Monday] night, where it just came down to the very end, and he pulled it out, and I did the same thing for my team.”
In two trips to the Rose Bowl, two wins in consecutive Januarys, Young amassed 839 total yards against Michigan and Southern California. In two trips to the College Football Playoff national championship game, a near-win and a win in consecutive Januarys, Watson amassed 941 total yards, all against the defensive giant Alabama.
Further, we know Clemson-Alabama was a masterpiece because it proved so full of goodies that you could spend weeks making room for them in your brain. Some people will spend years. Good for them.
There were so many meaningful plays that meaningful plays got hidden. Those included the one where the pipsqueak former walk-on ambushed the mighty linebacker, the one where the expert five-star quarterback punted expertly and, going way back, the one where the wide receiver who is not the great Mike Williams took an innocuous little pass and hauled Clemson into relevance.
For the first, a season-long Alabama chorus repeated itself. The Crimson Tide pried a turnover for the 29th time in 15 games. Clemson running back Wayne Gallman got stuck in a thicket of muscular horror. Linebacker Ryan Anderson ripped out the ball. It spilled to the grass and rolled along. Anderson collected it like it belonged to him at the Clemson 28-yard line and made off toward what would be Alabama’s 12th defensive touchdown of the season and a 21-7 lead.
He didn’t get there. As he moved his 253 pounds into which you would not want to run, an intruder popped in from the left. It was Hunter Renfrow, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Clemson wide receiver from Myrtle Beach, S.C., who walked on at first and caught seven passes against Alabama in the 2016 championship game. Renfrow would catch 10 passes Monday night. He would knife through two Alabama defenders for a 24-yard, third-quarter touchdown, and catch that winning score with one second left.
Here, though, he did something just as pivotal, hurling himself toward Anderson’s left hip so that the surprised linebacker toppled at the 16-yard line. That enabled Clemson’s defense to make the stop and save four points, the eventual margin of victory.
“That’s a hidden play in the game,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday.
Another came next. Clemson reached a fourth and one at the Alabama 43-yard line, down 17-7 almost midway through the third quarter. The ball was snapped to Watson per usual, and the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist negotiated the prettiest little pooch punt of this side of the Gulf of Mexico. It obeyed and came to rest at the 5-yard line, hemming in Alabama and enabling both Renfrow’s ensuing 24-yard touchdown and Alabama Coach Nick Saban’s ensuing ire.
“That play and the tackle by Renfrow were just kind of two plays mixed in a bunch of plays, but man, those were monsters,” Swinney said.
Look further. Way back in the second quarter, Alabama led 14-0, with running back Bo Scarbrough ransacking the Clemson defense for touchdown runs of 25 and 37 yards. Clemson had second and five at its own 18-yard line with a plausible chance of getting mulched. Watson flipped one to the right to Deon Cain, a wide receiver who missed the postseason last year for failing a drug test, and who now began angling his way leftward.
By the time he finished, he was 43 yards upfield and Clemson had joined the ballgame.
“Unbelievable, incredible spark that he gave us [toward] that first touchdown with the screen,” Swinney said.
Even atop all that, the masterpiece had its eternal questions the way masterpieces do, subjects that people will discuss well into nights, the answers unattainable. How ideal.
How much did it matter that Alabama endured hubbub with its offensive coordinator position, that Lane Kiffin had accepted the Florida Atlantic job in early December, that Saban had replaced Kiffin with Steve Sarkisian seven days before the game? “I think we scored 31 points in the game, which I think was pretty good against a pretty good defense that actually shut out Ohio State last week,” Saban said.
On one side of it, 31 points should be enough with a world-class college defense. On the other, the offense’s brevity on the field toward five second-half punts helped the defense tire. On another side, Alabama gained 376 yards, about 80 below its season average but 50 more than against Washington in the national semifinal, which Kiffin coordinated.
On another comes another question: What if Scarbrough hadn’t left injured in the third quarter? “Not to have him was probably a little bit of a disadvantage for us, but I was pleased with the way the other backs that had an opportunity in the game, Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris, played,” Saban said, “We always miss a guy that’s Bo Scarbrough’s size, especially when you want to run the ball and take some time off the clock.”
And then, this: Would Swinney have gone ahead and ordered a game-tying field goal had there been five seconds left rather than six?
No, he said, but he would have at four.
Finally, what kind of team takes Alabama’s 97-0 record under Saban with a double-digit lead going into the fourth quarter and turns it to 97-1?
That would be the winner of both a national title and a masterpiece.