Linda Robertson

Clemson’s epic upset of Alabama was worth staying up for

Clemson's Deshaun Watson celebrates a last second touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow (13) during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama Tues., Jan. 10, 2017, in Tampa, Fla.
Clemson's Deshaun Watson celebrates a last second touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow (13) during the second half of the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama Tues., Jan. 10, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. AP

Forget lightning. Better to bottle the last five frenetic minutes of Clemson’s 35-31 victory over Alabama for the national championship.

The engineers behind the College Football Playoff are as joyous as the folks in Death Valley following the instant classic that kept fans wide-eyed awake until 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.

The two teams crammed an epic plot into the final 4:38, scoring three touchdowns and trading the lead three times. This was the rare sequel that was superior to the original — last year’s 45-40 comeback by Alabama.

Coming on the heels of an underwhelming NFL Wild Card Weekend, the game proved that college football still beats the pros on old-fashioned emotion, goose-pimpled drama and Hollywood heroics.

Six seconds left, Clemson down by three, the vaunted Alabama defense poised to make a goal-line stand.

“Before the final play, we called a timeout,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I told everybody to take a breath. I said, ‘Man, ain’t this fun? Is this not fun? Are you kidding me? This is what it’s all about.’ They all smiled.”

Assistant offensive coordinator Jeff Scott called a pass play. He insisted on it despite sideline dissent. When Alabama lined up in man coverage, quarterback Deshaun Watson felt a sense of calm.

“I just slowed down the moment,” he said. “I smiled to myself. I knew before I even snapped the ball it would be a touchdown.”

Sure enough, hewing to the irresistible script, Watson rolled right, put a touch as soft as a baby’s backside on the ball and found his target in the end zone with one second on the clock. That would be none other than Hunter Renfrow, a former walk-on who honed his skills as a kid playing pick-up games with 60 cousins and has made four of his career 11 touchdown receptions against Alabama in two championship games.

“Keep believing,” was Renfrow’s message.

That’s the same message Swinney — a former walk-on receiver himself, at Alabama, where he was on the 1992 title team — has been delivering at Clemson for eight years. The loquacious preacher-coach uses the football field as his pulpit.

The victory validated Swinney’s belief that two-time Heisman Trophy loser Watson is the best player in the country, that the much-disrespected Atlantic Coast Conference is as good at football as it is at basketball and that dynasties can be shaken.

Swinney never believed that beating Bama, the undefeated powerhouse pursuing its fifth title in eight years, would be an upset.

“The last thing I told them was, ‘I don’t want to hear one word that this is an upset.’ Before we took the field I said, ‘When we win the game, this was not an upset, it was an expectation,’ ” Swinney said.

“This is not a surprise. We beat the last seven national champions this season alone. You know, we weren’t exactly chopped liver. I hope that we have inspired other teams out there. Greatness isn’t just for the Alabamas and Ohio States. It’s for anyone.”

Yet an examination of data by the website FiveThirtyEight shows that Clemson’s victory over an Alabama team that was ranked as the best in modern college football history rates as the fifth greatest upset for a championship since 1975. The greatest was Ohio State’s win over Miami in 2002, followed by Miami’s upset of Nebraska in 1983, followed by Florida over Ohio State in 2006, followed by Alabama over Miami in 1992.

Watson led the Tigers to a 21-point output in the fourth quarter against defensive mastermind Nick Saban, who was 97-0 at Alabama when leading by double digits after three quarters.

In the final 14 minutes, 59 seconds, against a defense with four projected first-round NFL Draft picks, Watson completed 12 of 18 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns, plus ran for 22 yards. It was the best performance by a quarterback in a title game since 2000 — surpassing even Vince Young’s performance against Southern Cal in the 2006 Rose Bowl, which Watson cited as his inspiration.

“I remember Vince running to the corner of the end zone and the all the confetti coming down,” Watson said of his childhood memory.

Watson has demonstrated he is a big-game winner, an artist in the clutch deserving of an upgrade in his NFL Draft status to potential franchise quarterback. He was 14-1 running Clemson’s smash-spread offense in a season during which the Tigers won six games by seven points or less. He’s athletic and resilient. In the title games against Alabama, he completed 66 of 103 passes for 825 yards and seven touchdowns with one interception. On Monday night, his goal was to run 80 plays and wear down the Tide defense. He ran 99.

Said receiver Mike Williams of Clemson’s fourth quarter: “The offense put its foot on the gas.”

Clemson elevated respect for the ACC, which finished 9-3 in bowls, the best of the Power Five conferences. The ACC was 10-4 against the SEC and 6-2 against the Big Ten this season.

“This is the best conference in college football,” Swinney said. “It’s the most competitive. That’s why we’re ready to go play Oklahoma two years in a row. That’s why we’re ready to go play Ohio State two out of the last four years.”

Thank you, college football, for another game for the ages, one full of grace, suspense and memorable characters — including Saban, the personification of migraine on the sideline, and Mike Defree, the bodybuilder referee who earned his 15 minutes with those biceps bulging from skintight striped shirt.

Jan. 9 is too late on the calendar and 8 p.m. is too late in the evening for a four-and-a-half-hour game, but it was worth staying up for.

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