By Steve Williams
Clemson and Alabama literally put the 2016 college football season to bed last Monday night. Actually it was Tuesday morning, a few minutes past midnight, when Deshaun Watson threw the game-winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with only one second left on the clock in the Tigers’ 35-31 come-from-behind victory.
As I started watching the rematch of the 2015 title game won 45-40 by the Crimson Tide, I thought college football should play its finale on a Saturday. Traditionally, that’s college football’s day. Monday Night Football has always been a NFL thing.
But I can’t complain too much. At least television provides us the opportunity to see the game at a very small cost.
I may be from SEC country, but I really wasn’t pulling for either team. I just wanted to see a good game, like we did last season, and the two teams once again didn’t disappoint us.
I did pick Clemson in the bowl contest I was in, because I felt the Tigers had the better quarterback. The results of the game backed up my feelings too. I felt Watson should have won the Heisman Trophy this year, particularly after Lamar Jackson’s poor Citrus Bowl showing in the 29-9 loss to LSU, and I also felt Tennessee senior Joshua Dobbs should have been the choice for All-SEC quarterback instead of Alabama freshman Jalen Hurts.
Peyton Manning and Coach Steve Spurrier, new inductees to the College Football Hall of Fame, were introduced to the crowd at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa before the game and I can only imagine that the two may have heard some boos as they walked out on the field in front of the Alabama and Clemson fans.
After all, longtime Crimson Tide followers probably still wince when they think back to what Peyton and the Vols did to them in Birmingham in 1995. The 80-yard bomb to Joey Kent on Play No. 1, followed by a TD strike to Marcus Nash and Manning’s naked bootleg run into the end zone gave Tennessee a 21-0 lead with 5:04 to go in the opening quarter that night.
As for Spurrier, he was 6-4 against Clemson as head coach at state rival South Carolina. The Tigers lead that all-time series 68-42-4, but they lost five in a row to Steve.
Bo Scarbrough ran for two touchdowns to stake Alabama to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter and it looked like Nick Saban might be on his way to tying Bear Bryant’s record six national championships. The Crimson Tide also was averaging 9.9 yards per rush attempt at that point in the game.
Soon afterward, however, Watson hit Deon Cain and Jordan Leggett with big passes to put Clemson in scoring range and Deshaun ran it in from the 8 to make it 14-7. That’s the way the first half ended.
Alabama fans were still feeling pretty good, considering they were 107-6 in games they were leading at halftime under Saban.
Outside backer Ryan Anderson, maybe the most impressive player on Alabama’s impressive defense, had a strip and recovery to set up a field goal to make it 17-7. Watson countered with a third down 24-yard pass over the middle to Renfrow to trim the deficit to 17-14 midway through the third quarter. But Hurts found tight end O.J. Howard wide open for a 68-yard scoring play to make it 24-14 as the end of the quarter neared.
Some folks in the Eastern Standard time zone may have turned off the lights and locked the doors at this point. Six o’clock comes early, and after all, Alabama was 97-0 under Saban when it led by 10 or more points heading into the fourth quarter.
Some folks also would wake up Tuesday morning to find out Alabama didn’t win.
Watson tossed a 4-yard fade pass to Mike Williams for six points. Wayne Gallman dove over the goal line to give Clemson its first lead, 28-24, with 4:38 left.
Alabama’s offense had one more touchdown in it as Hurts broke loose up the middle to score, putting the Tide back ahead, 31-28.
The heralded Alabama defense, however, didn’t have one more stop in it.
With 2:01 showing, Watson led a 68-yard drive. Williams had a 24-yard catch, despite being well defended, to get it rolling. Leggett made a diving catch for a gain of 17 to the Alabama 9. A pass interference foul put the ball at the 2.
Six seconds were on the clock. A chip-shot field goal would have sent the game into overtime. Dabo Swinney went for the win. Had Renfrow not made the game-winning catch, time might have run out.
Do you think Butch Jones, Tennessee head coach, would have thrown the ball in that situation? Based on his previous decisions at crunch time, I doubt it.
With one second left on the clock, the TV camera showed Watson looking on with tears in his eyes as Clemson elected to on-side kick the ball and recovered it.
In victory formation, Watson took a knee after center Jay Guillermo, former Maryville High standout, made the final snap.
Not only did Clemson finish No. 1, but the ACC proved to be the nation’s top conference this season with a 10-4 record against the SEC.
Only one thing left to do … pipe in Dandy Don Meredith singing “Turn out the lights, the party’s over” like he used to do for years at the end of each Monday Night Football game.