The National Championship Game Between Alabama and Clemson was a Sportswriter’s dream, a game of a thousand story lines.
The angles were everywhere, all you had to do is pick one.
There were the pre-game angles. Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, the ‘Bama boy who played for Gene Stallings in 1992 as the Crimson Tide beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl to win a National Championship.
Swinney would now face off against his alma mater to try and win one as a coach. The Dabo backstory, of hardship, determination and triumph certainly got plenty of play in the lead up to the game.
So did the contrast in styles. Dabo the rah rah let’s dance after every win and B.Y.O.G. vs. the buttoned up, all business, ruthless football monster that is Nick Saban.
There was also potential symmetry.
Many people point to Bama’s 34-10 beat down of Clemson in 2008 as the beginning of the Saban dynasty. That game probably cost former Clemson coach Tommy Bowden his job and led to Dabo becoming interim, then full time head coach at Clemson. Would the Alabama dynasty end against the same team?
Once the game started, pre-game story lines faded to the background and the in game story lines and angles started to take shape.
Early on it was Derrick Henry, Alabama’s Heisman winner, bursting through the Clemson line on 3rd and short for a 50 yard TD run. The ‘Bama ground game dominates story line started to take shape. But it was quickly erased after Clemson QB Deshaun Watson promptly lead two TD drives capped off by incredible passes thrown into super tight windows.
New story: Electric mobile quarterback, Alabama’s kryptonite, takes over in biggest game. (Did you know that Nick Saban struggles with great mobile QB’s? Unlike other teams, which apparently just shut down great college quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel and Deshaun Watson.)
Or maybe the story was going to be that former Clemson walk on WR Hunter Renfrow dominated his match-up with 5 star, all-everything freshman Minkah Fitzpatrick.
I don’t see color so I’m not sure what race Renfrow is but let’s just say he has a ton of grit, is heady, plucky and has sneaky athleticism (might remind you of Wes Welker or Steve Largent).
As the game progressed the story line seemed to be that Alabama, who has built a dynasty chiefly on dominating the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, is not dominating on either side of the ball.
The Tide defense wasn’t exactly playing bad, but the Clemson O-line held up reasonably well and Deshaun Watson covered up for any mistakes with breathtaking play making that hearkened back to Texas QB Vince Young vs Southern Cal – a comparison that was only made a few hundred times during the night. Nevertheless, the similarities were definitely there.
Side note: If you don’t remember the 2005 National Championship Game between Texas and Southern Cal, it’s literally the only thing that is ever broadcast on the Longhorn Network. Check it out sometime, they just show it over there on a continual, never ending loop.
Anyway, Watson seemed to glide out of trouble and had a great sense for when to take off and run and when to scramble and throw – eerily reminiscent of Vince, whose team was also an underdog to a dynastic College Football team.
Furthermore, the ‘Bama offensive line was getting destroyed by the Clemson D-line, especially on the right side. The Tide running game was completely ineffective in the second half.
Just when the narrative was taking shape in your mind, something new happened. Nick Saban happened. The old school, traditional conservative football man called for an on-sides kick in the 4th quarter of a National Championship game with the score tied.
Most importantly, it worked.
A legendary gamble that will be talked about forever, it was the perfect on-sides kick.
‘Bama cashed in immediately. A long TD pass to O.J.Howard, his second of the game. Howard was yet another potential story line: a ballyhooed (have always wanted to work ballyhooed into a column) 5-star recruit disappoints for three years then has the game of his life in the biggest game of his life.
The story lines refused to stop there.
Back down the field comes Watson, this time settling for a field goal. It was now a 4-point Alabama lead.
Kenyan Drake then took the ensuing kick off 95-yards for a touchdown.
Ahhh, the redemption story line is here. Yes! Kenyan Drake broke his leg last year, came back this year then broke his arm two months ago. Due to the injuries, his career never got on track the way many thought it would. Then he makes the biggest play of the game and of his life. That’s a great story.
But the game still wasn’t done yet.
Watson and Gallman, the Clemson running back, lead a quick drive back down the field for a touchdown. At this point, the ‘Bama defense seemed basically helpless against the Clemson offense.
The vaunted depth of the ‘Bama defense didn’t seem to be helping. The Tide defenders were gassed and started missing tackles you rarely see missed from a Saban coached unit.
‘Bama got the ball back with about 4 minutes left needing to secure a few first downs to put the game away. On first down, Henry lost two yards.
Every ‘Bama fan in the world was cursing – because they know that the Tide doesn’t convert first downs after a negative play. Alabama was near the bottom in the country on 3rd and long conversions. So this second down call would be the biggest of Lane Kiffin’s tenure at Alabama.
This was the same Lane Kiffin who, at Southern Cal, called the 4th and 1 run to Lendale White in the 2006 BCS game versus Texas (and Vince Young). The score of that game was 41-38. The score of this game was 38-33 and if ‘Bama didn’t convert they’d have to punt it back to Deshaun Watson.
You see where this is going?
Kiffin had been quoted saying he’s been waiting ten years for a shot at redemption. And here it was, in eerily similar circumstances.
Kiffin called a play I’m certain was not run all year: a Tight End screen that initially looked doomed, but that was perfectly blocked on the edge allowing O.J. Howard to get around the corner and take off for a huge gain. It set Alabama up in the Clemson Red Zone.
Lane Kiffin came up huge in the biggest moment of his tenure at Alabama.
The game wasn’t over yet though, Jake Coker wanted his story line too.
This game was a mirror of Coker’s entire year at Alabama. Early in the game he was shaky and fairly awful. He doesn’t have a great clock in his head or innate feel for the rush the way someone like Watson does and he ends up taking sacks when he could throw the ball away. His throws were off target early.
Coker eventually settled in after a huge third and long pick up on a pass down the sideline to Ardarius Stewart. That seemed to get his confidence up. He made several great reads and throws after that. On 3rd and 3 near the goal line, with Clemson desperate to hold ‘Bama to a field goal to keep it a one score game, Coker came up with one of his now trademark ugly, improbable, man on a segway scrambles. He somehow juked the defensive end, Dodd, who had harassed him all day and dove for the first down.
Maligned Quarterback proves haters wrong and comes up big when his team needs him the most!
The game finally ended, but not before another Watson TD and an on-sides kick attempt that could have led to a Hail Mary for the win. Hey, stranger things have happened.
Alabama wins another title, and now the post game story lines started. Is Nick Saban the greatest College Football Coach of all time?
So there were a myriad of stories and they’ve probably all been written. Yet the real, true story of the night was the game itself. How great, how unpredictable, how tense, how spectacular the performances, how legendary it was.
Story lines are great, but the game, the game’s the thing.
And when the game rises to that level, it transcends everything. And that’s what we want out of sports, that’s what sports gives us that nothing else can. Real, live, unpredictable ecstatic drama, and no sport does it better than College Football.