When people tell tales about mythical heroes, they don’t say, “Well, he was pretty strong.” They describe the world’s most fearsome monsters — hydras, minotaurs, and dragons — and then rave about the guy who came along and slayed them.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson became a legend Monday night, leading the Tigers to their first national title in 35 years with a 35–31 win over Alabama. He had 420 passing yards and three second-half touchdown throws, including the game-winner to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow with a second remaining. But to celebrate Watson, we must first talk about the beast that he beat: the Crimson Tide.
We already knew Watson was one of the game’s best quarterbacks. Last season, he was a Heisman Trophy finalist; this year, he was the Heisman runner-up. His greatest performance before Monday came in last January’s national championship matchup with Alabama, a night on which he racked up 478 yards of total offense. It still wasn’t enough, as Bama won that game, 45–40.
If the Tide had secured another victory Monday in Tampa, they would have become the first college football team to go 15–0 since the 1800s, before the forward pass was invented, and before a 100-year stretch in which it was widely believed that 15 was too many games for college kids to play in a single season. Bama won its average contest this fall by 28 points. It won the SEC title game by 38. It beat eventual Rose Bowl champion USC by 46 back in September. It beat great teams by a lot, and it beat good teams by more.
Much like sharks have rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth to replace any that break from biting stuff too hard, Alabama has rows upon rows of the premier players in college football. If your body somehow survives the first barrage of bites, there’s a second barrage coming. Only this time, against all odds, Watson and Clemson stayed alive.
For all of the terrifying things about Alabama, its front seven is the most terrifying. If you don’t believe me, listen to the coaches in ESPN’s film room explode in collective laughter at its vicious destruction of a Clemson offensive lineman.
The Tide defense features three linebackers and linemen — defensive end Jonathan Allen, linebacker Reuben Foster, and edge rusher Tim Williams — who are potential top-10 picks in April’s NFL draft. Monday night, their task was to destroy Watson.
On Clemson’s second play from scrimmage, Allen and nose guard Da’Ron Payne sacked Watson. On the next play, Williams dragged Watson down by the legs, while Foster’s forearm clotheslined Watson’s upper body into the ground. The Tigers’ first five drives ended with three punts, a fumble, and a turnover on downs. Bama’s viciousness continued into the second half; for example, there was the play in which Foster and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick combined to turn Watson into a human helicopter.
Violence awaited Watson behind every door. He totaled 21 carries on Monday, more than any other player on either team. His pass attempts often culminated in him scrambling. On one play, Watson sprinted toward one end of the field, broke free from the grasp of linebacker Ryan Anderson to avoid a sack, and then ran back to the middle of the field before hurling the ball downfield. His reward for about 45 yards of running was an incompletion and this hit from Allen.
Even if your team manages to stay close for a few quarters, this is how Alabama beats you. Its brutality eventually wears you down. These aren’t just hits. They’re the meanest players in college football slamming into you with as much strength and speed as they can, sending your extremities flying in different directions.
But somehow, it wasn’t Watson who wilted.
He owes some thanks to Alabama’s offense. Of the Tide’s 17 drives, 15 lasted two minutes or less. Even their touchdowns came on big plays that forced the defense to get back to work. Their most time-consuming drive took up 3:56 of game time in the first quarter and resulted in a punt. Bama true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts went 13-for-31 passing, throwing more incompletions than any Tide running back got carries, which helped Alabama go nowhere fast.
That allowed Clemson to run 99 plays — 57 passes and 42 runs. In head coach Nick Saban’s decade in charge of Alabama, the Tide had faced only one opponent who ran 90 offensive plays in a game. It was Auburn in 2014, who ran exactly 90. This year, Arkansas ran 84 plays against the Tide; everybody else managed less than 80.
The Tigers’ early plays rarely worked, as Alabama jumped out to a 14–0 lead. But so many of them made Bama work. They were pass plays that the Tide covered flawlessly. They were horizontal runs that forced Alabama’s defenders to traverse the length of the field, from sideline to sideline. By the end of the game, things that had seemed impossible against Alabama for most of the 2016 campaign happened with regularity. In the second quarter, Clemson mounted an 87-yard touchdown drive, only the third touchdown drive of 80-plus yards that the Tide had allowed all season. In the fourth quarter, the Tigers did it again with an 88-yard drive that gave them the lead with less than five minutes to go. When Alabama answered with the go-ahead score on a possession that featured a wide receiver pass and a long Hurts rushing touchdown, it seemed like Clemson was done.
But Watson found it within him to lead the Tigers down the field on the drive that won them the title. He registered 165 passing yards on his last three touchdown marches, more than nine Alabama opponents recorded in entire games. We knew that Watson could be brilliant. But Monday night was different. He combined his dynamism with otherworldly endurance, remaining incredible after football’s finest physical freaks got gassed.
He was breathtaking. Some of the breath was ours; some of it belonged to the supposed superhumans he outlasted.
The future is weird for all parties involved here. Watson instantly declared for the NFL draft after the game, meaning we’ll next see him playing for a professional team that likely won fewer than four games this season. Clemson could repeat its success of the past few years. Head coach Dabo Swinney could sell water to a well, and now his job will be to sell a national-championship program to high schoolers really interested in winning national championships. He’ll need somebody to fill Watson’s shoes, though, and after Monday night we know those are size 100s.
Even Alabama’s loss is fleeting. Within a few hours, Saban will be back to his old routines, frowning the same frown that he frowns even after the Tide win. The Process will get back underway, and a future chapter of college football will begin.
But legends aren’t about the future. They’re about telling a seemingly impossible tale from the past, about the time the hero withstood fire and claws and jaws and won. We know too well about the Bama monster, the one that dominated football all year long and for the better part of the last decade. And Monday night, we saw Watson kill it.