The game was a long slog that morphed into a shootout in the fourth quarter, when two touchdowns gave Clemson (14-1) its first lead, with less than five minutes remaining. But Streeter sensed that there was more to be done.
“I knew there was a good chance we were going to have to go back out there — that’s just how these games are,” Streeter said. “We talked to everybody about calming them down.”
Sure enough, Alabama (14-1) responded with its best drive of the game, taking back the lead and leaving Clemson 2 minutes 7 seconds to make up a 3-point deficit.
On the next drive, Watson went 6 for 8, for 50 yards, culminating in a two-yard touchdown to receiver Hunter Renfrow with one second left.
Watson threw for 420 yards and three touchdowns, and he ran for another score against college football’s best defense. He was picked off 17 times this season, but he threw no interceptions on Monday night.
“I never got the sense that he was rattled,” the Alabama senior Jonathan Allen said of Watson. “He’s such a great competitor.”
The game concluded only after a review of a Clemson onside kick — a mirror of last year’s virtuosic game-changer for Alabama — with Clemson players storming the field, only to be ordered back to the sideline by the referees so the offense could run one final play.
It was as if, in a larger sense, everyone had to make sure that Clemson, a lovably goofy team with a lovably goofy head coach named Dabo Swinney, had really won.
College football has become inured to the established programs winning. For the past two decades, even as relative upstarts like Texas Christian and Oregon made their marks in the national title conversation, the ultimate champions have been the likeliest of teams, the ones that seemed to come over on the Mayflower.
Southern California. Florida. Ohio State. Auburn. Oklahoma. Miami. Louisiana State. Florida State. Texas. And, of course, Alabama, college football’s bell cow, claimant of 16 national titles.
In the current dynasty, under Coach Nick Saban — that ultimate champion of order over chaos — Alabama has, even after losing Monday night, won four of the last eight national championships.
“We wanted to play Alabama, because now y’all got to change your stories,” Swinney said after the game. “You got to change the narrative. Y’all got to mix it up.”
Clemson’s only other national title came after the 1981 season, long before the introduction of a playoff, when five other teams also had some claim to the crown. Monday night was the first time Clemson had beaten a No. 1-ranked team.
The university is in many ways hidden in the college football landscape, on the outskirts of the Blue Ridge Mountains, tucked into some part of South Carolina you would swear wasn’t even in South Carolina.
Its color scheme is a garish purple and orange. Its stadium is nicknamed Death Valley, but the atmosphere there manages to be intense without the mean edge found elsewhere; some Clemson fans affix little tiger tails to the backs of their cars.
It is the cutest team in college sports.
Only by understanding this legacy, history and ethos can one imagine how most observers had pegged the Tigers, a repeat Atlantic Coast Conference champion that entered the game with a 13-1 record after blowing up Ohio State, 31-0, in the semifinals, as the underdog.
Both Clemson and Alabama had ample skill on both sides of the ball and a proven track record. Clemson, however, had Watson, while Alabama relied on a talented but green freshman, Jalen Hurts. Was that not enough of a hint? When in doubt, don’t you close your eyes and pick the team with the better quarterback?
“That’s the last thing I told them when we left the locker room,” Swinney said. “I said: ‘When we win the game tonight, I don’t want to hear one word about this being an upset. The only upset is going to be if we don’t win the dadgum game.’ ”
This is what Swinney, who really does say things like “dadgum,” has been selling his whole tenure in the Upstate.
“Eight years ago, our goal was to work our tails off and eventually get Clemson back on top,” he said. “And tonight that’s a reality. It truly is. The paw is flying on top of that mountain tonight.”
To repeat: “The paw” — in the sport of Bear Bryant and Bo Schembechler — “is flying” — Tom Osborne wants to know what’s going on, Barry Switzer wants his money back — “on top of that mountain tonight.”
Try to imagine Nick Saban saying that.
Tajh Boyd, Clemson’s starting quarterback from 2011 to 2013, wound up practicing with the team this year, playing the role of Watson in practices with the defense, and he said he had seen a national championship coming.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Boyd, who played briefly in the N.F.L. and other professional leagues, said after the game. “Honestly. I knew it was going to happen at some point.”
Streeter knew something was up for Clemson on New Year’s Eve 2012. At the time, he was Richmond’s offensive coordinator. He watched on television as his alma mater, led by Boyd, came from behind to beat Louisiana State, not a year removed from an appearance in the national title game, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (now known as the Peach Bowl).
“We won a lot of games back in the ’90s, had some good teams,” Streeter said, “but we took it to the next level since Coach Swinney got here.”
The biggest difference, the quarterbacks coach added, began at quarterback.
“Deshaun Watson,” he said, “is a lot better player than I was, I can tell you that.”
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