by: RALPH D. RUSSO, AP College Football Writer Updated:
TAMPA, Fla. - Deshaun Watson took the snap, rolled right and with one of the easiest throws he had to make all night, completed Clemson's journey to the top of college football.
A frantic fourth quarter and a championship rematch between Clemson and Alabama was decided with 1 second left on a 2-yard touchdown toss to Hunter Renfrow.
"I couldn't hear the crowd," Watson said. "I just felt at peace."
Watson and the Tigers dethroned the defending champs and became the first team to beat Nick Saban's Alabama dynasty in a national title game, taking down the top-ranked Crimson Tide 35-31 Monday night in the College Football Playoff.
A 35-year title drought for Clemson is over. The Tigers are national champions for the first time since 1981.
A year after Alabama won its fourth title under Saban with a classic 45-40 win in Arizona, Clemson (14-1) denied the Tide (14-1) an unprecedented fifth championship in eight seasons.
"That has to be one of the greatest games of all time," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Hard to argue.
The new champions have a process of their own that includes a loquacious coach who can turn a postgame interview into a fiery sermon, a spectacular quarterback who did not need a Heisman Trophy to show he was the best player in the country and a fun-loving team that plays with a chip on its shoulder.
"There was no upset tonight," Swinney said. "That's the last thing I told them when we left the locker room. I said, 'When we win the game tonight I don't want to hear one word about this being an upset. The only upset is going to be if we don't win the dadgum game.'"
The lead changed hands three times in the fourth quarter, but Watson got the ball last. Playing in his final college game, the junior quarterback threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns. In two games against Alabama and the most ferocious defense in college football, Watson has thrown for 825 yards and accounted for eight touchdowns. He was sacked four times Monday night and took some cringe-inducing shots from All-Americans Jonathan Allen and Reuben Foster.
"You know, I never got the sense that he was rattled," Allen said about Watson.
Swinney, the native Alabaman and former Crimson Tide walk-on receiver, has built an elite program at Clemson that was missing only one thing. Now the Tigers can check that box, too.
"Eight years ago we set out to put Clemson back on top," Swinney said. "We came up a little short last year, but today on top of the mountain, the Clemson flag is flying."
After three quarters of body slams and tight defense, Tigers-Tide II ended up looking a lot like the first meeting when the teams combined for 40 points in the fourth quarter.
Watson found Mike Williams for a 4-yard touchdown a minute into the fourth quarter to make it 24-21 Alabama.
The Tigers took their first lead, 28-24, with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter when Wayne Gallman surged in from a yard out.
The Tide's offense, which had gone dormant for most of the second half, came to life with the help of a sweet call from newly promoted offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Receiver ArDarius Stewart took a backward pass from Jalen Hurts and fired a strike to O.J. Howard for 24 yards.
On the next play, Hurts broke free from a collapsing pocket and weaved through defenders for a 30-yard touchdown run to make it 31-28 with 2:07 left.
More than enough time for Watson.
"I was calm," Watson said. He said he thought about Vince Young's last-second touchdown for Texas that derailed the Southern California's championship run in the 2005 championship game at the Rose Bowl. He told his team: "Let's go be great."
Watson hooked up with Williams and Jordan Leggett, who made great catches for big gains to get to first-and-goal with 14 seconds left.
A pass interference on Alabama made it first-and-goal at the 2 with six seconds left. Time for one more play to avoid a game-tying kick and overtime. Renfrow slipped away from the defense at the goal line with the help of some traffic created by Artavis Scott - or maybe it was an illegal pick? - and was alone for an easy toss.
"If you watch the ending, the slot receiver actually cut Minkah," Alabama linebacker Tim Williams said. "Usually, on a pick route, you're not supposed to chop somebody. You're supposed to pick them. The guy there just chopped Minkah down, but it's football."
For the former walk-on Renfrow, it was his second TD catch of the game. He had two last season against Alabama.
Alabama was 4-0 in national championship games under Saban. It was 106-6 in games it led at half and 96-0 when entering the fourth quarter with a double-digit lead as the Tide did Monday night. Clemson overcame all those odds.
The Tide jumped out to a 14-0 lead behind two long touchdown runs by Bo Scarbrough in the first half. The 230-pound sophomore back was pretty much Alabama's whole offense for a while, running for 93 yards on 16 carries while Hurts and the passing game struggle. Scarbrough left in the third quarter with a leg injury, but the Tide finally found some other help. Hurts hooked up with O.J. Howard, one of last year's heroes for 'Bama, for a 68-yard touchdown pass to make it 24-14 late in the third quarter.
"Look, there's not one play in the game that makes a difference in a game," Saban said. "We could have done a lot of things a lot better."
When it ended, Clemson's 315-pound defensive lineman Christian Wilkins did a split and a cartwheel and Ben Boulware, one of the toughest linebackers in the country, was in tears.
The Tigers had snapped Alabama's 26-game winning streak and beaten a No. 1 team for the first time ever.
"It's been 35 long years!" Boulware screamed. "It's coming home baby! It's coming home!"
Last season Alabama met its match in Clemson, but prevailed. This time, Clemson made sure the sequel had a different ending.
Tigers-Tide II gets a place in the history of great games
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - You thought last year's College Football Playoff championship game was great?
The rematch was even better. And it will take a place in the history books.
Clemson won its first national title since 1981 with its 35-31 victory over top-ranked Alabama on Monday night, avenging its 45-40 loss in last year's championship game.
Heisman Trophy runner-up Deshaun Watson delivered as he has so many times in his career, throwing a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with a second remaining to finish a night when the Tigers amassed 511 yards against college football's most vaunted defense.
Oh, and Clemson denied Alabama a fifth national title in eight years.
Here are a few other epic games that belong in the club:
ALABAMA 45, CLEMSON 40 (2015)
With one big play after another - by both teams - Alabama beat Clemson in a thrill-a-minute game. Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry ran for three touchdowns, including a 50-yarder to open the scoring. A daring onside kick with the score tied 24-all led to an Alabama points explosion, with quarterback Jake Coker throwing for two long touchdowns to tight end O.J Howard. Oh, and Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards for another score. Clemson didn't flinch. Clemson's Watson threw four touchdown and had 478 total yards - 403 passing.
NOTRE DAME 10, MICHIGAN STATE 10 (1966)
A tie is an epic? When it comes to this one, it tops the list. Ara Parseghian's Notre Dame team came into the game unbeaten and ranked No. 1. Duffy Daugherty's Michigan State team also was unbeaten and ranked No. 2. The game, sometimes referred to as the "Game of the Century," ended in controversy as Notre Dame, playing at Spartan Stadium, elected not to try for a score on the final series. The not-so-Fighting Irish ended up No. 1 in the final AP poll. The game featured Terry Hanratty getting knocked out of the game after a sack by Michigan State's Bubba Smith. The Irish had the ball with 1:01 left after rallying to tie the score, and needed about 40 yards to get into Joe Azzaro's field goal range. Parseghian chose to run out the clock. Alabama finished the same season 11-0-0.
MIAMI 31, NEBRASKA 30 (1984 ORANGE BOWL)
Miami, which considered shutting down its program due to lack of interest several years earlier, pulled off one of the greatest upsets to win its first national title. Led by gawky yet efficient quarterback Bernie Kosar, Miami built an early lead and the hometown crowd rocked the Orange Bowl. The potent Cornhuskers needed a trick play - a "fumblerooski" TD by lineman Dean Steinkuhler - to stay in the game. They pulled within a point with less than a minute left, but instead of kicking the extra point that would have assured a championship, coach Tom Osborne decided to go for the win with a 2-point try. Turner Gill's pass was swatted away by Ken Calhoun, and Miami benefited when higher ranked teams lost in earlier bowl games and rose from fifth to No. 1 in the final AP poll.
OHIO STATE 31, MIAMI 24, 2 OT (2003 FIESTA BOWL)
Miami was poised for another perfect season. They were a unanimous No. 1 choice riding a 34-game winning streak. Ohio State also was unbeaten, ranked No. 2, but appeared to be no match for the speedy 'Canes. Led by freshman running back Maurice Clarett, though, Ohio State outplayed Miami for much of the game. But it was a still debated pass interference call in overtime that gave the Buckeyes another chance, and they won 31-24 in double OT. With his team down 24-17 and facing fourth down in OT, Craig Krenzel's pass into the end zone was called incomplete by one official, but another ruled interference against Miami. Ohio State then tied it, and won it in the second OT for its first national crown in 34 years.
TEXAS 41, SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA 38 (2006 ROSE BOWL)
This game was like Alabama-Clemson for excitement, but had an even wilder finish. It was a No. 1 vs. No. 2 game, and USC was loaded - with two Heisman winners in running back Reggie Bush and quarterback Matt Leinart. Like Clemson's Deshaun Watson, Texas QB Vince Young piled up over 400 total yards, but his Longhorns came out a winner when he scored on fourth down in the closing seconds.
FLORIDA STATE 34, AUBURN 31 (2014 ROSE BOWL)
The Tigers stormed to a 21-3 lead before Heisman winner Jameis Winston led the Seminoles back. The lead went back and forth with the Tigers going ahead 31-27 with 1:19 left. But Winston led them to victory - and the national title - with a short TD pass to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds to go.
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