“Our fans deserve this — 35 years since Clemson has been on top. … It’s been a heck of a ride.”
Trailing 24-14 after three quarters, Clemson moved within 24-21 one minute into the fourth quarter when Watson connected with wide receiver Mike Williams on a four-yard touchdown pass to complete a nine-play, 72-yard drive.
Then, with 4:38 to play, Clemson took the lead for the first time in the game at 28-24 when running back Wayne Gallman scored from the 1-yard line, capping a six-play, 88-yard drive that featured a key leaping catch by wide receiver Mike Williams of a Watson pass at the Alabama 31-yard line. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Alabama’s Da’Ron Payne moved the ball to the 16, and Watson then kept the ball for 15 yards to the 1, setting up Gallman’s score.
Alabama answered with a six-play, 68-yard drive capped by a 30-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jalen Hurts to reclaim the lead at 31-28, 2:07 to play.
Which was plenty of time for Clemson to score again.
Which it did, covering 68 yards in six plays.
Watson — the quarterback from Gainesvlle High playing his last college game — completed a 24-yard pass to Williams early in the drive, a 6-yard pass to Renfrow on third-and-3 and a 17-yard pass to tight end Jordan Leggett to the Alabama 9-yard line. Then, on his final collegiate pass, Watson won the national championship.
“That has to be one of the absolute best games of all time,” Swinney said.
“The last couple drives when they had the ball, we just didn’t make a play when we needed to,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We needed to get a sack. We needed to get a takeaway. We needed to get a stop in the red zone.
“And they made the plays, and we didn’t. Look, there’s not one play in the game that makes a difference in a game. We could have done a lot of things a lot better.”
Watson said afterward that the Tigers remained “calm” even after Alabama scored to go up 31-28 with just over two minutes to play.
“I walked up to my offensive line and my receivers and said, ‘Let’s be legendary. Let’s be great,’” Watson said.
When Alabama scored, Watson looked at the game clock, saw 2:07 remaining and “said to myself, ‘They left a little too much time on the clock.’”
Said Alabama tight end O.J. Howard: “Well, like Coach always says, it’s going to be a 60-minute game. So that’s basically what it was. … It was just an up-and-down game, but that’s football. Clemson is a great team, and we knew it was going to be a tough game.”
Watson completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns.
“This guy is the best player in the country,” Swinney said. “If anybody doubts that right now, it’s just ridiculous.”
Winning the national title — just the second in Clemson football history — is exactly how Watson envisioned ending his college career.
“I wanted to end it with an exclamation point,” he said, “and I think I did that.”
Hurts, Alabama’s quarterback, completed 13 of 31 passes for 131 yards and one touchdown. Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough had 93 yards rushing on 16 carries but didn’t play after a third-quarter injury.
As Alabama built an early 14-0 lead, Scarbrough scored the Crimson Tide’s first two touchdowns on runs of 25 and 37 yards.
Renfrow’s game-winning catch wasn’t his first touchdown of the night. He caught a 24-yard TD pass midway through the third quarter to pull Clemson within 17-14. A former walk-on, he finished the game with 10 catches for 92 yards.
“It has been such a journey for me,” Renfrow said afterward. “It’s like I got knocked out in the third quarter and this was all a dream.
“It’s crazy to think a year and a half ago I was a walk-on still and no one really knew about me.”
Both Clemson and Alabama finished the season with 14-1 records.
The win was Clemson’s first over Alabama in football since 1905. The Tigers had lost 13 games in a row to the Crimson Tide since then, although only two of those had been played since 1975.
Next season’s national championship game will be played in Atlanta at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8, 2018. The retractable-roof stadium, under construction next door to the destined-for-demolition Georgia Dome, is scheduled to open July 30 with an Atlanta United soccer game.