Alabama was one second away from adding to their national championship trophy case; Nick Saban, one second away from tying Alabama legend Bear Bryant for the most national titles as a head coach with his sixth. Clemson was one second away from being the best man instead of the groom in college football's big wedding for the second straight year.
But... DeShaun Watson, the forgotten man in the Heisman race, connected with former walk-on Hunter Renfrow for a 2-yard touchdown with one second remaining to give Clemson a 35-31 win over Alabama. The Tigers overcame a 24-14 deficit in the fourth quarter, making last night's game the first in 98 games that a Nick Saban-coached Crimson Tide team lost a game in which they led by double digits in the fourth quarter.
Alabama, with new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian calling the plays for the first time after the ouster of Lane Kiffin last week, grabbed a 14-0 second quarter lead after Bo Scarbrough's second impressive touchdown gallop. The Bama' bruiser's 37 yard jaunt with 10:50 remaining in the second quarter complemented his 25 yard score midway through the opening stanza. Watson and Clemson cut the lead in half on an 8-yard scamper by the Clemson QB that topped off an 87 yard drive.
Clemson received the ball in the third quarter but promptly turned it over to Alabama on a fumble. The Tigers defense kept 'Bama off the board in the first quarter after coughing it up on their own 35-yard line, and this time held the Tide to a field goal to remain within hollering distance at 17-7. The two teams exchanged punts before Watson and company took advantage of great field position, covering 42 yards in just four plays to make it 17-14.
The teams took turns punting on the next two drives before Alabama freshman Jalan Hurts delivered a 68-yard touchdown pass to tight end O.J. Howard to reestablish a 10-point advantage for the Tide heading into the fourth quarter.
If someone had told Nick Saban before the game that it would take Clemson scoring 21 fourth quarter points to wrest away the championship from Tuscaloosa, he would have liked his chances. But that's exactly what the ACC champs did, beginning with Watson's 4-yard connection to Mike Williams to wrap up a long drive that started in the third and finished a minute deep into the fourth to make it 24-21 Alabama.
Both teams held serve until Clemson took possession at their own 12-yard line with 6:33 to play. Watson accounted for 87 yards on the 88 yard drive, saving the final piece of real estate for Wayne Gallman to give Clemson their first lead, 28-24. Hurts, the freshman quarterback named the top offensive player in the SEC, brought his Crimson crew downfield, covering the final 30 yards of a 68-yard drive on a nimble run reminiscent of his game-winning jaunt against LSU. Hurt's touchdown with just over two minutes to play gave the Tide a 31-28 advantage.
Watson's group began the game-winning drive at their own 32-yard line and navigated rather cleanly downfield with only one third down conversion needed before setting up shop at the Alabama 9-yard line with less than 10 seconds to play. A penalty on the Tide gave Clemson a first down at the 2-yard line with six seconds to play. On the ensuing play, Watson rolled right and found Renfrow facing him in the end zone, awaiting the throw that would fell the champs and deliver Clemson their first national championship since 1981.
The Crimson Tide defense couldn't keep Clemson from driving in the fourth quarter, perhaps a testament to the 99 offensive plays run by Clemson. The 21 points surrendered in the fourth quarter is unnatural in the Nick Saban universe... almost as strange as losing a championship game. The loss to Clemson was Saban's first as the head coach in a winner-takes-the-title game. "Around here, we rarely lose," Alabama's Tim Williams said afterward. "When we do lose, it's a shock. It's a shock to everybody."