TAMPA — As Clemson’s coaches discussed what to do with the ball at Alabama’s 2-yard line with six seconds remaining, head Tiger Dabo Swinney’s voice crackled through the headsets. They trailed by three. Would they try a field goal? Heck no. “Hey boys,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott recalled Swinney saying. “If you want to be a champ, you’ve got to go win it.” This dovetailed with something else Swinney had told his team and his staff as Clemson marched toward the national title game. “Coach Swinney says all the time that the tie goes to the champ,” said Jeff Scott, the other co-OC. “You’ve got to knock them out.”
So after some discussion, the coaches opted to go with Scott’s idea to run a play designed to spring slot receiver Hunter Renfrow open in the corner of the end zone. The result will live on highlight reels and officiating clinic videos forever. As quarterback Deshaun Watson caught the snap, outside receiver Artavis Scott plowed into Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey. Renfrow dipped under the wreckage, leaving Crimson Tide corner Tony Brown to run around it. That provided the opening Watson needed. He flipped the ball toward the former walk-on, who caught the knockout blow with one second remaining.
Instead, Clemson claimed its first national title since the 1981 season. To do it, the Tigers had to beat every program that has won a national title since 2009 (Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Ohio State). The first drops of the foundation for this title were poured in a tiny high school gym in Lake Butler, Fla., in February 2006. It was there that a Union County High tailback named C.J. Spiller silenced the crowd by placing a Clemson hat on his head. Explaining his decision to reporters a few minutes later, Spiller cited a young receivers coach named Dabo Swinney as the main reason he chose the Tigers. Two years later, Spiller returned a kickoff 64 yards to set up a touchdown to beat Boston College. That win kept alive the slim chance that interim coach Swinney—who had taken over when Tommy Bowden was fired weeks earlier—would get the job full time. Without that return, someone else probably coaches the Tigers in 2009. Quarterback Tajh Boyd may not have come. Receiver Sammy Watkins may not have come. Defensive end Vic Beasley may not have come. Linebacker Ben Boulware may not have come. Quarterback Deshaun Watson may not have come. A 155-pound former triple option quarterback may never have been accepted as a walk-on, and then who would have caught that final touchdown? That’s why Scott ran through the confetti, found Spiller on the field at Raymond James Stadium and thanked him.
And even though Watson, who followed an epic performance (405 passing yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions) in a losing effort in last season’s title game against Alabama with an epic performance (420 passing yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions) in a winning effort, is likely headed to the NFL, Clemson is built to be in this game again next year. Defensive end Christian Wilkins is a sophomore. Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is a freshman. Offensive tackle Mitch Hyatt is a sophomore. Receiver Deon Cain is a sophomore. Scott is a junior. “We’re here to stay,” said Clelin Ferrell, a redshirt freshman defensive end who also will be back next year. “We’ve modeled our program after Alabama,” Elliott said. “Each year, you just reload.”