They’ll be talking about Monday night’s heavyweight bout in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium for years and decades to come. How a quarterback hounding a destiny that deemed dubious and pair of misfits KO’ed juggernaut Alabama.
How Dabo Swinney, with a childhood from the slums and a path that nearly veered down real estate rather than coaching, outdueled Nick Saban, a man widely considered as the greatest college football coach to ever walk on the face of the Earth.
They’ll relish the story and unsung heroics of Hunter Renfrow, a former quarterback-turned-wide-receiver-walk-on with zero FBS offers, who burned the heralded Alabama secondary with 92 yards and two touchdowns on 10 receptions and emphatically capped the fairytale with the game-winning touchdown grab with one second remaining.
They’ll ramble about the legend of quarterback Deshaun Watson — turned away by the indomitable Crimson Tide a year ago, 45-40 — who avenged the crushing loss in 2016 by crusading 88 and 68 yard drives facing three-point deficits in the final six and a half minutes to cap one of the most epic comebacks in the history of sports.
Clemson fans, especially ones who have waited 34 years between titles, will retell every little detail that went down on Monday, January 9, 2017, for however long it reels in their collective minds.
No. 3 Clemson tussled with juggernaut No. 1 Alabama, a program gunning for five national championships in eight years, and walked away with with their first football title since 1981 in the dramatic 35-31 come-from-behind win.
“It’s indescribable,” Swinney said. “I mean, you can’t make it up, man. Only God can do this. Take a guy like me, from Pelham, [play at] Alabama, win the national championship; come to Clemson, and have a chance to win the national championship against the best team in the country up until the last second of this game. And to see my guys fight, just believe.”
That’s all it really took throughout the palpitating season, the innocent word “believe.” The mantra of truly believing started in the opening weeks when the Tigers staved off Auburn (19-13), Troy (30-24) and title-contending Louisville (42-36). Then they gutted out wins over N.C. State (24-17 in overtime) and Florida State (37-34) before being handed their lone loss to Pittsburgh (43-42).
And they believed even more when their backs were against the wall. A little less than two weeks ago, the Tigers clobbered Urbana Meyer’s loaded Ohio State team, 31-0, to set up Monday night’s dramatic finish.
Everything was in line for Saban to tie Paul “Bear” Bryant for most national championships by a head coach.
Alabama trampled over Clemson in the first quarter and a half, taking a 14-0 lead. Bruising back Bo Scarbrough gashed the Tigers with a 25-yard touchdown run at the 9:23 mark in the first and then a 37-yard scoring jaunt minutes into the second.
Saban’s dynamic run game was averaging nearly 10 yards per clip, while Clemson sputtered in the wake of an Alabama defense that doled its will with punishing physicality.
Clemson trailed 14-7 at halftime and 24-14 going into the fourth quarter, but even so, they pressed forward.
“Just keep believing,” Renfrow said. “That’s what Coach Swinney tells us all the time.”
Watson, who finished with 463 total yards of offense, kick-started the fourth quarter crusade with a 4-yard pass and score to Mike Williams with 14 minutes left in regulation. Then came the tedious 88-yard scoring drive, where Williams somehow — with two defenders draped over him — hauled in a 26-yard reception that plugged between his legs, and the Superman-esque 15-yard run by Watson, diving head-first into the endzone, to set up a 1-yard touchdown run.
After Clemson took a 28-24 lead with 4:38 to go, Alabama freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts dashed 30 yards into the end zone to cap a 68-yard drive pushing the Crimson Tide ahead once more, 31-28.
There was still time, 2:07 to be exact. And Clemson couldn’t afford to waste a single second of it.
“We had to be great,” Watson said, who ushered his Tigers out for one final time.
Clemson started at their own 32-yard-line, then inched to the 37 with under two to go. Watson tightroped a laser across the left sideline to Williams, who tip-toed before the white chalk to receive a 24-yard pass that put the Tigers at the Crimson Tide 39.
They got down to the 33, then the 32 before facing at a 3rd-and-3 with less than 40 seconds left. Watson connected with Renfrow on a six-yard hookup that got the Tigers down to the 26.
Watson stood poised and found tight end Jordan Leggett to get inside the 10-yard-line. After a defensive pass interference, the Tigers were at the doorstep, and, without knocking, all they had to do was bombard right through and into the history books forever.
With six seconds remaining, Watson took the snap, rolled right, and let it fly. Renfrow, tucked in the back right corner of the end zone, secured Watson’s final collegiate pass into his chest with one second to spare.
In that sequence, with orange and chrome confetti engulfing the celebration scene, there was a new king of college football.
“Eight years ago, my goal was to put Clemson back on the top,” Swinney began. “And tonight, that’s a reality.”