The Godfather, Part II, a sequel, ended up even better than an original classic. So a year after falling 45-40 in the championship game, Clemson defeated Alabama 35-31 in a heart stopping rematch to win the 2017 CFP National Championship presented by AT&T in Tampa.
Alabama was attempting to become the first to ever go 15-0 in FBS/D-I history. They were vying for their fifth national championship in eight years, but it was not to be. This super team found their ‘kryptonite,’ and it was the Clemson Tigers winning their first national championship in 35 years, their second overall. Both in last year’s championship game and in this one, Clemson was just able to do things no one else could against the mighty Crimson Tide.
Deshaun Watson was the Most Outstanding Player of the game passing for 420 yards a year after throwing for 407, the top-two totals in championship game history. Watson passed for 267 in the second half alone as the Tigers ran 99 plays on the night, totaling 511 yards. It was Clemson who controlled the clock, not Alabama. The vaunted Tide defense was exhausted down the stretch as Clemson scored 21 in the fourth quarter, scored on their last two possessions—and when Watson found receiver Hunter Renfrow in the corner of the end zone with 0:01 left, Clemson had slayed the dragon.
Alabama could find little consistency on offense, dooming their defense. Jalen Hurts, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year, played like the true freshman quarterback he was going only 13-for-31 passing. Once RB Bo Scarbrough went down with a leg injury after rushing for two touchdowns, the Tide had no go-to player. Alabama was but two-of-15 on third down leaving their defense on the field too long. Chasing after Watson all night likewise took its toll.
Much will be made of Coach Nick Saban’s decision last week to fire the already quitting offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, replacing the new Florida Atlantic head coach with Steve Sarkisian. It was an overly conservative game plan until late. More daring calls throughout may have given Hurts more confidence, properly diversified the offense as a whole, and taken pressure off the defense. It is a move that will be debated for years.
But nothing can take away from Clemson’s victory. They took the title away from the champs. Scarbrough’s two touchdowns, 25 and 37 yards, put Alabama up 14-0 and Watson looked rattled in the first half. Watson pulled Clemson within 14-7 at the half on an eight-yard TD run. Clemson was -two in turnovers but Alabama managed only three points off those miscues. After only a field goal off a Clemson fumble, Watson hit Renfrow over the middle—Renfrow with a dazzling run to pull the Tigers within 17-14 on the 24-yard play midway through the third.
Hurts connected with 2016 hero O.J. Howard for a 68-yard TD, the longest TD pass play in Alabama postseason history to make it 24-14. Clemson came right back with Watson finding Mike Williams on a fade from the four, and it was 24-21 with 14:00 left in the fourth. Wayne Gallman plunged from the one to give Clemson a 28-24 lead with 4:38 remaining. A fourth down conversion set up Hurts for heroics, a winding 30-yard run up the middle to put Alabama in front 31-28 with 2:07 left—leading into Clemson’s march to glory. The winning touchdown scored on a ‘Rub Route,’ one Alabama fans will forever contend was illegal but the contact was minimal.