The way I see it, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney didn’t need to dethrone Alabama and win a national championship Monday night to prove that he’s an elite head coach, deserving of a place on a short list of names.
Swinney was already there.
Over the past six seasons, since 2011, only Alabama has won more games than Clemson.
And only Alabama has a higher winning percentage than Clemson over that time.
I don’t think Swinney required validation, but if skeptics were still holding out on him, Clemson and their coach came through and shut down any doubters with an inspirational display of skill and resilience for a 35-31 victory over Alabama.
With the victory, Swinney and Clemson finished the season with five wins against the most recent national champions: Alabama (2015, 2012, 2011), Ohio State (2014), Florida State (2013) and Auburn (2010.)
Clemson fought back from an early 14-0 deficit, and became the first team to hang a loss on a Nick Saban Alabama team that took a double-digit lead into the fourth quarter. Saban was 57-0 in those situations until Clemson cracked through late Monday, early Tuesday — prevailing on Deshaun Watson’s touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow on this scintillating game’s final play from scrimmage.
Watson, the best player in college football, executed a two-minute drive to perfection to answer a late Alabama touchdown that had the Tide on the verge of its fifth national title in the last eight seasons. Saban was denied his sixth national championship overall, and blocked from winning his fifth national title at ‘Bama.
There’s been a tendency to underestimate Swinney.
I’m not sure why, exactly.
Is it the aw-shucks demeanor? Is it his humble background that included a difficult and poor childhood in a broken home near Birmingham Ala.? Is it because he was a a hungry, scrappy walk-on wide receiver at Alabama, who won a roster spot by impressing coach Gene Stallings? Is it because South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier — then in a superior position — used to pick on the young and unproven Swinney with public insults when Dabo took over a messy Clemson program?
It’s strange. But in the last five seasons, Clemson has been the underdog in all seven of their postseason/bowl games. They’ve gone 6-1 in those contests.
And after being the runner-up a year ago after losing a heart-breaker to Swinney has his first national championship.
I’d put Saban and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer ahead of Swinney — because of the overall body of work — but then again, Swinney just defeated both esteemed coaches in consecutive games to win the national title.
It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better coaching job than Swinney did in toppling Alabama.
Swinney’s offense tired the vaunted Alabama defense by running 99 plays. Saban has coached 138 games at Alabama, and the Tide’s time of possession in Monday’s loss to Clemson (25 minutes, 16 seconds) was the seventh-lowest in a game during the Saban era.
After a slow start, Watson shredded the Alabama defense in the second half, completing 23 of 33 passes for 267 yards and three touchdowns. He expertly distributed the ball, with four Clemson wideouts accumulating 90+ yards receiving. In the fourth quarter, Watson destroyed the Alabama blitz or 187 yards and two touchdowns.
In Saban’s 138 games, his ‘Bama defense has allowed 400 yards passing in a game only six times. Watson owns two of those 400+ games — both in the last two national championship games. In these two compelling matches against the most acclaimed defense in college football, Watson passed for a combined 825 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception — and rushed for 116 yards. Two games vs. Bama, 941 yards of total offense, eight touchdowns. Bravo.
From a coaching standpoint, Clemson delivered on a check list of things to do going into this game:
— Contain Alabama’s running game, put freshman QB Jalen Hurts in must-pass situations (where he’s weak) and get the Tide offense off the field as quickly as possible. After two early TD runs by Bo Scarbrough, the Alabama rushing attack slowed considerably. For example, Alabama had only 47 yards rushing in the second half on designed runs. Scarbrough’s departure (injury) in the third quarter made a difference. Bottom line: Hurts completed only 13 of 31 passes and the Tide converted only two of 15 third-down plays. This is exactly what Clemson hoped to do.
— And by ushering ‘Bama’s offense to the sideline and limiting possession time, Clemson rolled up a huge advantage in number of plays; the Tigers offense ran an astonishing 99 plays from scrimmage (compared to 66 by Alabama.) The margin was more lopsided in the second half, when Clemson ran 54 plays to Alabama’s 29. The time of possession edge was a huge factor in this game.
— Take advantage of outside matchups with Mike Williams and other Clemson receivers going one-on-one against smaller Alabama defensive backs, and trusting Watson to make the connections. He did.
— I would throw this one in: Clemson’s coaching staff was astute in understanding that a Big 12 officiating crew generally lets teams play, and takes a looser approach in calling penalties, especially in the passing game. Accordingly, Clemson ran a couple of obvious pick plays on two of Watson’s touchdown passes, including the game winner. No flag. Smart coaches also know it’s valuable to scout officiating crews.
We know that Alabama is a great team. All of these positive factors worked in Clemson’s favor — especially the quarterback position — and Clemson had to go to down to the final seconds to pull out a win. It was a classic game. And the sequel was even better than last season’s Clemson-Alabama original championship bout. College football is the best.
Thanks for reading …