Deshaun Watson’s final pass of the Orange Bowl was a punctuation mark.
Never mind that Watson was charged with an incompletion. With victory secure for Clemson, Watson heaved a bomb over the Oklahoma sideline and into a throng of delirious Tigers fans — his intended target.
It capped a convincing 37-17 victory for Clemson.
Now comes an even greater challenge for Watson and Clemson, the nation’s only unbeaten team.
The Tigers and Crimson Tide won their semifinal contests in the College Football Playoff, setting up a title bout in the Jan. 11 national championship game in Glendale, Arizona.
If the oddsmakers are to be believed, Clemson — no matter its No. 1 national ranking and perfect 14-0 record — is second fiddle to an Alabama team that dusted Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl. Vegas has made the Crimson Tide a touchdown favorite.
“We’ll enjoy this,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said in the immediate afterglow of Thursday’s Orange Bowl win at Sun Life Stadium. “Then we’ll fix our eyes on what’s next. It shouldn’t be real hard to get guys ready to play for the national championship.”
The challenge for Clemson will be getting past Alabama, which Nick Saban has turned into a perennial title contender. While Clemson has gone 34 years since its one and only national championship, Alabama will be seeking its fourth national title in seven years.
Since losing to Mississippi in the third week of the season, Alabama has reeled off 11 consecutive wins, none more impressive than its Cotton Bowl waltz in which the Tide manhandled the Big Ten champions. A year ago, then-No. 1 Alabama was taken down in the semifinals by Ohio State.
“I think the players learned a lot from what happened in the game last year,” Saban said after Thursday’s convincing win over the outmatched Spartans. “Maybe we were a little bit too complacent, and I take responsibility for that. I think this year we sort of wanted to take the game.”
Saban will be bidding for his fifth national title, which would put him on a pedestal with the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Clemson would appear to have its work cut out. Then again, the Tigers were underdogs to Oklahoma and took a bulldozer to the Sooners with a 21-0 second-half surge in the Orange Bowl. They also own the nation’s longest winning streak at 17.
“It’s tough to beat us when we’re all on the same page and have each other’s back,” said Watson, who gives Clemson a double-edged threat.
Watson ran for 149 yards and passed for another 187 on Thursday. Throw in Wayne Gallman, who gained 150 yards on the ground, and Clemson has weapons that could — just maybe — cause problems for Alabama.
Heck, Clemson showed it even has a few tricks up its sleeve, pulling off a fake punt that led to its first touchdown against the Sooners.
Even though Alabama owns a 12-3 all-time series edge over Clemson, the two southern powers have met only once since 1975.
Clemson shouldn’t be in awe of Alabama. The Tigers have gone a respectable 7-7 against Southeastern Conference foes under Swinney.
“Certainly would be neat to play Alabama,” Swinney said before learning of Clemson’s title game opponent. “But we’re really not worried about it.”