Clemson won the national championship, so grading each team’s performance seems secondary for fans. Enjoying the moment comes first, then once the confetti blows away and the emotion normalizes, there is film to watch and correct for those players returning next season. Here are the grades given to each position group by The Clemson Insider following second-ranked Clemson’s 35-31 victory over top-ranked Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday.
FiveThirtyEight.com ranked the top quarterback performances in a national title game since 2000. Deshaun Watson’s 420-yard, three-touchdown gem against the Crimson Tide ranks at the top, just above Vince Young’s epic display in the Rose Bowl against USC and Watson’s own heroics last season. That’s how good the Tigers’ leader was in his final performance in a Clemson uniform. Even when his accuracy suffered a bit, he kept the ball out of the hands of the aggressive Alabama defense. His ability to throw the ball in the place most likely to result in a catch by one of his receivers allowed his playmakers to thrive, and his persistence in the running game eventually paid dividends by the end of the game. Watson truly saved his best for last.
Running Backs: B-
This wasn’t going to be a big game for Wayne Gallman on the ground, but he did impact the proceedings in critical ways. His willingness to take a bruising between the tackles helped Clemson maintain its advantage on the edges. His fumble at the line of scrimmage was costly, but the Crimson Tide only scored three points off of it. Gallman also caught three passes for 39 yards, an above average receiving day for him. Pass blocking was a bit of an issue for the tailbacks, too, but given the difficulty of the task, this grade is probably a little forgiving.
Wide Receivers: A+
It’s hard to imagine a better performance from this group. Three players ended up with between 92 and 95 yards receiving in the game against a vaunted secondary that had a lot to say coming into the contest. Mike Williams’ circus catches and general reliability gave the Tigers a security blanket they didn’t have a year ago in this matchup. Deon Cain broke the offense free from its shackles early and provided a solid deep threat. Then there was Hunter Renfrow, whose ten-catch performance made him a legend in Clemson lore and a favorite of observers around the country. The blocking on the perimeter got better as the game wore on, too, as an early weakness became more of an even battle down the stretch.
Tight Ends: A
Jordan Leggett’s day went about as well as one could expect for a player forgotten in the semifinal against Ohio State. He pushed 100 yards receiving in the contest and made some huge catches on throws from Watson. His most critical drop—a third-down play where he broke off his route and could not climb the ladder to snag the overthrow—was followed by his greatest triumph, a back-shoulder catch inside the 10 that set up Clemson’s championship-winning score. Once again, the tight end position could have been better helping the offensive line chip pass-rushers, but that was ultimately secondary.
Offensive Line: B-
It was not a pretty half for this bunch. The fact that the grade ended up this high is a minor miracle. Right tackle was a particular weakness, but that had as much to do with the opponent as any issues with Sean Pollard or Tremayne Anchrum—for the most part. The biggest surprise was how easily Bama was able to neutralize Jay Guillermo prior to halftime. No doubt that dynamic factored into Guillermo’s errant snap that led to a turnover. Beginning with the third quarter, though, the Tigers were much better up front. Credit is due all around for the adjustments made.
Defensive Line: B+
Alabama’s offensive front presented a stiff test to the Tigers, and a normally potent pass rushing unit went sackless in the game. That doesn’t mean there weren’t strong performances across the board. Clelin Ferrell jumped offsides a couple of times and got hurt, but his impact was felt. The rest of the crew was just disruptive enough to make Jalen Hurts uncomfortable and tentative taking off and running. Also, Alabama’s running game’s effectiveness seemed to wane as the game drew to a close. Even Christian Wilkins, who had no tackles, managed to break up a pair of passes in the game.
It was a tough task for the Tiger linebackers, and individual deficiencies notwithstanding, there wasn’t much that the second unit did that didn’t make life difficult for Alabama. In the first quarter, Ben Boulware and Kendall Joseph looked slow to react as the Crimson Tide took it to the Tigers with a physical running game. For the final three quarters, however, that dynamic changed. Dorian O’Daniel played a fine game, as well, and all three major contributors made a habit of attacking downhill and creating early contact on ball-carriers. There were no major coverage issues for this crew, either.
Defensive Backs: B-
If there was a disappointing unit on defense, it was this one. Really, the disappointment centers on one play—the long touchdown pass to O.J. Howard. Van Smith had the kind of coverage bust that cost Clemson the title a year ago, and he did it on the same play that was an issue back then. Hurts’ inability to complete passes with accuracy made the secondary’s job a little easier than the other two units, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of outstanding plays made by this group. One other note: In a shocking development, the Tigers were not whistled for pass interference on Monday.
Special Teams: B
Clemson’s special teams were not going to best Alabama’s for 60 minutes of football. Instead, the Tigers used their units efficiently and wisely. Andy Teasdall didn’t outpunt J.K. Scott, but he had no bad punts and pinned the Crimson Tide deep enough without allowing returns. Greg Huegel had no kickoffs, but he also didn’t allow any long returns, and the Tigers had a couple of solid kick returns of their own. In the end, special teams did not factor into the outcome, and that worked in Clemson’s favor.