When you walk into Clemson’s Poe Indoor Facility, you cannot avoid the biggest sign in the building. Twenty yards in width and five yards in height, it simply states, “BEST IS THE STANDARD.”
When the facility opened in time for practice for the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl and Clemson’s last-second win over Louisiana State, head coach Dabo Swinney had already incorporated that mantra into his program’s heart. And it stood for everything about the program, not just winning football games. It is a way of life for the program in terms of academics, community service and on-the-field excellence.
The third category came to fruition in the fall of 2016 and the early winter of 2017, as his Tigers won the national championship in a storybook finish that even Swinney would be challenged to dream.
First of all, what a two years it has been. Well, really what a six years it has been.
Seventy wins in six years, with at least 10 wins every year, is something only Alabama has done. After not winning an ACC title in 20 years, Clemson won the championship in 2011 with a 28-point victory over No. 3 Virginia Tech. League titles followed in 2015 and 2016, the first time in 28 years the program won consecutive ACC championships.
Not only did Clemson total 70 wins from 2011-16, Swinney’s team did so against the best programs in the nation. Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, Louisiana State, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Oklahoma all are among the top 20 in FBS history in terms of winning percentage or total wins, and all have fallen to the Tigers (many of them multiple times) since 2012.
The Playoff Era
The 2014 season began a new era of college football with the dawn of the College Football Playoff. How many of you thought Clemson would be a player so early in the playoff’s history?
For one, just look at what would have been a four-team playoff from 1936-13 based on the top-four teams in the AP rankings entering the bowl season. Clemson would have been to just one Final Four in 78 years.
That would have been the 1981 season, when Clemson was ranked No. 1 entering the bowl season and then defeated Nebraska 22-15 to win the national championship, the only one in its history prior to 2016.
Now, three years into the playoff format, Clemson has been selected twice, and the program’s 75.0 winning percentage (3-1 record) in those games is the best in the nation (yes, even better than Alabama’s 3-2 mark).
2015 Led To 2016
We had to go through 2015 to get to the championship.
Clemson won its first 14 games of 2015 to rank as the top seed entering the “tournament.” It was a season of gaining incredible confidence thanks to four wins over top-20 teams, including top-10 victories over Notre Dame and Oklahoma.
Attempting to become the first 15-0 team in FBS history, the Tigers held a 24-21 lead entering the final quarter against Alabama. There was the stat staring us in the face on national television…Clemson was 51-0 over the last five years when leading entering the fourth quarter.
Fifteen minutes, an onside kick and a kickoff return for touchdown later, Alabama was celebrating a 45-40 victory. It was heartbreaking in many ways, because the Tiger coaches and players believed they had the better team. They had scored 40 points and gained 550 yards against the nation’s top defense.
It had been an especially remarkable performance by Deshaun Watson, who passed for 405 yards and rushed for 78 yards, a performance that led to high praise from Alabama head coach Nick Saban.
It was tough to stomach, but the pain of that Jan. 11, 2016 defeat in Glendale led to the euphoria 364 days later.
That was the case because of the resolve, the heart of this 2016 team. After the initial sting of that night, the team came back for offseason workouts even more motivated than before. That loss served as a reminder that just a little tougher offseason workout could lead to one more catch, one more sack, one more forced turnover and one more touchdown during 2016 that could make the difference in winning a championship.
Winning The Close Ones
That might not have looked to be the case early in the season when there were some struggles. The national media took notice of a six-point win over a Troy team that had won just four games the previous year. (In the end, that 2016 Troy squad was pretty good, winning 10 games). The Tigers were frustrated at times on offense and allowing two fourth-quarter touchdowns that made the final score closer than it was.
Many times the team had heard stories from Swinney about his own journey as a player to a national championship in 1992 when the Crimson Tide narrowly escaped with a victory against Louisiana Tech 13-0 thanks to a late punt return by All-American David Palmer.
Clemson had its own Houdini moment against NC State, when the Wolfpack placekicker missed a potential game-winner on the last play of regulation from 33 yards. The Tigers then won in overtime thanks to an Artavis Scott touchdown catch in traffic and a Marcus Edmond walkoff interception in the endzone.
The Pittsburgh Game
Unlike Swinney’s Alabama team of 1992, Clemson actually lost a game in 2016. Clemson gained 630 yards, including a school-record 580 yards in the air, but Pittsburgh’s offense proved to be even more efficient in a 43-42 win at Death Valley in the 10th game of the season. The Panthers made a 48-yard field goal with six seconds left in the game.
I always meet with Swinney after the game before he speaks with the team and media. In that meeting, I reminded him that the last two national champions had lost a game at home during their title run.
At the time, I really didn’t have my heart in that note, but he said it to the team in a “keep the chin up” moment. Later that night, Michigan and Washington also lost, leaving Clemson in the top four of the College Football Playoff ranking.
There was still a path to the playoff.
The leadership of the 2016 team was at the crossroads after the loss to Pittsburgh. But those leaders stepped up and it resulted in a convincing win at Wake Forest that clinched the ACC Atlantic Division title and a 56-7 slaughter of South Carolina, the largest margin of victory ever by an ACC team over an SEC team.
The ACC Championship Game in Orlando was similar to the 2015 title clincher when the Tigers offense was at its best. That included Watson, who was the offensive MVP of the game for the second straight year in Clemson’s 42-35 win.
Perhaps the loss to Pittsburgh was the best thing for the Tigers, because the pressure of having a perfect 15-0 season had been lifted.
The Return to Arizona
Clemson returned to the scene of its Alabama heartbreak, Glendale, Ariz., for its Fiesta Bowl semifinal playoff game with Ohio State. The Buckeyes were the first program to reach the playoff without winning their conference. They were the No. 3 seed in the playoff, but AP and the coaches polls both had them ranked No. 2 in the nation.
The Tigers had Ohio State just where they wanted them from an intangible standpoint, and it never was a contest. Clemson’s 31-0 shutout was so dominant that Swinney pulled his offensive starters for the last two drives. The Tigers gained 205 rushing yards and 265 passing yards against the nation’s third-best defense that had allowed just 282 yards per game.
The shutout was the first for the Buckeyes since 1993 and the first suffered by Urban Meyer, the third winningest coach in college football history in terms of percentage, in his 194 games as head coach.
On the same day, Alabama defeated Washington 24-7 in the other semifinal game in Atlanta, setting up the first rematch of a national championship deciding game in college football history.
The roles would be reversed this time. Alabama entered with the perfect 14-0 record and a chance to be the first 15-0 team in FBS history. Alabama had the No. 1 ranking.
The Tide had won 26 games in a row, the longest winning streak by an SEC team since 1980, and had won 16 games in row over top-25 teams, tied for the longest streak since the poll began in 1936.
While Alabama was noted for its defense in winning the national championship in 2015, its numbers were even better in 2016. The Crimson Tide allowed just two yards per carry and 244 total yards per game, 40 yards per game better than any other team.
Swinney bristled when he was asked by some media members if they could move the ball at all against the Crimson Tide, who had five first-team All-Americans on defense, including national defensive player-of-the-year Jonathan Allen.
Both teams were in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense entering the game, and it appeared it would be a game dominated by defense in the first half. Alabama led 14-7 at halftime, the first time all year Clemson did not have the halftime lead.
Clemson had just 46 yards in the first quarter, but gained 156 in the second quarter. Watson scored on an eight-yard run, the team’s only score before intermission, but the ability to move the ball gave the Tigers hope. And, they had totaled 45 plays without taking the opening kickoff, an indication that they could wear down the Crimson Tide defense late.
The Key Play
Alabama could have taken a 21-7 lead early in the third quarter when the ball was stripped from Wayne Gallman and recovered by Ryan Anderson.
The Crimson tide had scored 12 defensive touchdowns on the season and they had been momentum backbreakers throughout the season. But Hunter Renfrow hustled on the play and stopped the Alabama linebacker at the 16 and the Clemson defense held the Crimson Tide to merely a field goal.
In retrospect, it was the single most important tackle of the game. Alabama actually increased its lead to 24-14 through three quarters.
The Fourth Quarter
Just as Clemson had won 51 games in a row when leading entering the fourth quarter prior to last year’s game, Saban had won 97 games in a row with a double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter.
The cumulative effect of the Clemson offense took its toll on Alabama in the fourth quarter. First, The Tigers drove 72 yards in nine plays to cut the margin to 24-21 when Watson connected with Mike Williams on a four-yard scoring pass.
After a trade of punts, Clemson drove 88 yards in six plays to take a 28-24 lead with 4:38 left. Eighty-eight yards…how fitting because that was the uniform number Swinney wore when he played at Alabama.
But Alabama drove right back. It was faced with a third-and-16 and a fourth-and-one, but converted. One trick play later and a 30-yard run by precocious quarterback Jalen Hurts, and Alabama had a 31-28 lead with just 2:07 left. Just 2:07 until a fifth national championship in eight years for Alabama, something no one had ever done.
What followed was the “drive for the ages” for the Tiger program.
The Final Drive
Sixty-eight yards away with 121 seconds on the clock after C.J. Fuller’s kickoff return was the challenge. The drive started innocently enough with a five-yard pass from Watson to tight end Jordan Leggett.
Williams then made one of his spectacular catches for a 24-yard gain, giving Clemson the ball at the Alabama 39 with still 90 seconds left.
Two plays later and facing third-and-three, Watson connected with Renfrow for six yards and a first down.
Clemson then killed the clock with just 19 seconds left. Tiger fans wondered if there was still time.
On second down, Watson hit Leggett again, this time for 17 yards down the left side. Leggett used his entire wingspan on the final catch of his career with 14 seconds left.
After an incomplete pass to the endzone, Williams was interfered with in the endzone, giving Clemson first-and-goal at the two with just six seconds left.
Knowing this could be the final play of the game and his career, Watson rolled to his right and found Renfrow in the right corner of the endzone two yards inside the endline. After being hit, Renfrow went to the ground with the ball in his stomach. There was just one second left on the clock.
“I think Alabama thought we were going to run the ball,” Watson told me in the locker room after the game. “We still had a timeout, so we could have. But that play was set up perfectly against their defense and I had complete faith it would work. We just had to execute.”
The catch, Renfrow’s 10th of the game and the most against Alabama in four years, gave Clemson a 34-31 lead. The ensuing extra point made the score 35-31. How fitting Clemson had scored 35 points when it had been 35 years since it had won its only other national championship.
After recovering an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, just the fourth onside kick recovery for the Tigers in the last 39 years, all Clemson had to do was kneel down. Fittingly, Watson had the ball in his hands on the last play.
So just think about what had occurred. Clemson had defeated Alabama, the program with the most national championships in history, on a touchdown pass with just one second left in the game. The winning play came on a pass from a five-star quarterback to a wide receiver who had come to Clemson as a walk-on.
The Clemson coach had won a national championship as a player at Alabama 24 years earlier and had become the first coach in history to beat his alma mater to win the national title. And, Swinney, a walk-on at Alabama, became just the second person in history to win an AP national championship as a player and coach (Bud Wilkinson was the only other).
The Clemson quarterback had thrown a touchdown on the last pass of his career to win the national championship. He had led an offense that gained 511 yards and scored 35 points, including 28 in the last 22 minutes of the game, against the nation’s top scoring and total defense. Prior to the game, some media members had called it the best defense in college football history.
Anderson, S.C., native Ben Boulware summed it all up when he was given the microphone on the stage during the trophy ceremony. In his most passionate voice, he talked about the players of recent years who had come before him and set the foundation for this night. I told him a few days later how proud I was of him that he thought to thank the C.J. Spillers, Tajh Boyds, DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
They had brought the bar a little bit higher every year to the point where the 2016 Tigers could set it at the top, at that final rung.
BEST IS THE STANDARD.