This season’s national champion in college football will be decided Monday in a rematch between Georgia and Alabama, but Sunday marks the anniversary of an important championship at Clemson.
Dabo Swinney’s vision of taking the Tigers to the top of the mountain in the sport became reality on Jan. 9, 2017. Clemson knocked off Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide in an instant classic inside Raymond James Stadium to claim the first national championship in the Swinney era and just the second in school history.
It was doubly sweet for the Tigers after how bitter the ending to the previous season turned out to be.
Clemson laid the foundation of what was to come in 2015 when it started its run of six straight College Football Playoff appearances. With an emerging star at quarterback in sophomore Deshaun Watson, the top-seeded Tigers went into their first-ever CFP title game undefeated that season, which included a blowout win over Oklahoma in one national semifinal.
Alabama won the other in a romp over Michigan State to set up the first national title matchup between Clemson and Swinney’s alma mater. Yet despite a record-setting performance by Watson, whose 478 total yards of offense are still the most in national title game history, Clemson came up just short in a shootout, 45-40.
Watson, Swinney and the rest of the Tigers exacted their revenge a year later in Tampa.
Clemson-Alabama, Part II, was another heart-pounder with the teams going back and forth after the Tigers rallied from a 10-point deficit entering the fourth quarter. Clemson took its first lead on Wayne Gallman’s touchdown plunge with just 4 minutes, 38 seconds left.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts put the Crimson Tide back in front, 31-28, with a 30-yard touchdown scramble. Clemson got the ball back one last time with 2:01 remaining, needing at least a few first downs to set up a tying field-goal attempt and 68 yards for a winning touchdown.
On the Tigers’ collective mind, there was only one option.
“We were not playing for overtime,” Swinney said afterward. “We were going for the win. That’s our mentality.”
The Tigers quickly moved into Alabama territory thanks to a long completion from Watson to Mike Williams. Clemson eventually got inside the 10-yard line on an acrobatic 17-yard reception by tight end Jordan Leggett, but only 14 seconds remained.
Watson threw incomplete on first-and-goal. He looked for Williams on second-and-goal, but the Tigers’ junior receiver, who caught a touchdown earlier in the game, was interfered with, giving Clemson a fresh set of downs at the 2 with just 6 seconds on the clock.
That was enough time for the Tigers to win it on the next play when Watson rolled out and found Hunter Renfrow in the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown with just 1 tick left, giving Clemson its first national championship since 1981.
“Never in a million years did I think I would catch the game-winning pass,” Renfrow said then.
Watson went 36 of 56 passing for 420 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in the win to earn offensive MVP honors. Linebacker Ben Boulware was named defensive MVP. The Tigers have won another national championship since, again beating Alabama in the teams’ third title matchup to cap the 2018 season.
But five years ago today marked the Tigers’ national breakthrough under Swinney.
“(Alabama has) been the standard for a long time, but not anymore,” Boulware said then. “Clemson has arrived. Clemson is here. We are back on top.”
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