The whole regular season, and the first round of College Football Playoff has produced this one single game for the biggest prize in collegiate athletics. What made this game so interesting was its multi-faceted importance; it’s almost as if it appealed to every possible angle. Fans entered the game wondering: will Alabama’s Coach Nick Saban obtain his fifth National Championship? Can Heisman trophy winner Derrick Henry live up to expectations? Is it possible that Clemson will be able to continue it’s unblemished season and finish undefeated? Can Alabama’s ferocious defense contain the mobility of Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson? Thankfully, all of these questions were answered, but what contributed most to the outcome of the game were the two most underrated words in football: special teams.
Alabama was a clear favorite leading up to this game at 6.5 points, and deservedly so, even though Clemson had the better record and therefore better seed. There was no one as dominant as Alabama, and that was clear to everyone in the country. Playing on the biggest stage that college football has to offer, there was definitely pressure on both teams that was clear early in the game, as play was sporadic; no one could get any momentum on their side. This changed when the aforementioned Derrick Henry broke free and sprinted for a fifty yard touchdown to put the Tide up 7-0 with 7:58 left in the first quarter. He finished with 158 yards and three scores on 36 carries. As soon as this happened, everyone began thinking that the game would be yet another blowout. However, Clemson had other plans. A little more then two minutes later, Watson orchestrated a near perfect drive that ended with a 31 yard strike to walk-on freshman Hunter Renfrow for the first of his two touchdowns on the day. He ended the game with five catches for 208 yards, in addition to the touchdowns. This play quickly tied the game. This squashed the previous thoughts about a blowout and it became clear that both teams were going to play the game to the very end. With momentum on their side, Clemson again drove down the field and Watson threw a 11 yard dart that perfectly led tight-end Renfrow to make a spectacular grab. This ended the first quarter with Clemson up 14-7.
Clemson had the ball after forcing an Alabama punt early in the second quarter. This was basically a mistake-free football game until Deshaun threw an interception at around his own thirty yard line. If Clemson was to score on that drive, they would be have up 21-7 with a struggling Alabama offense who couldn’t protect their quarterback, Jake Cocker. He had already taken three sacks for a loss up to that point. This play was a defining moment in the game, and was one out of a couple that led to an Alabama victory. This is where Derrick Henry scored his second touchdown of the night on a 1 yard plunge to, again, tie the game. After that score, the rest of the half was relatively quiet. This was until an inexplicable clock management error occurred at the end of the half. The clock continued to run even though it wasn’t supposed to, costing the Tigers their last timeout. This didn’t allow them to run another play, which could’ve put them closer into field goal range. Ultimately, it was a 44 yard field goal that got tipped and that contact caused a miss. Coach Sweeny was understandably heated at the way this was handled and was left searching for answers. The half ended 14-14.
From this point on, even though the game was close, Alabama only trailed once the rest of this game. This was surprising when considering the fact that Derrick Henry only had thirty rush yards in the second half on 16 carries. In addition, their defense let up 550 yards of total offense when they only gave up 276 on average. However, their success was due largely in part to Coker. He answered the bell with a huge 53 yard touchdown to OJ Howard that put them up 21-14 with less then 3 minutes into the third quarter. Coker finished with over a 60 completion percentage, 335 yards passing, and 2 touchdowns. Clemson responded again with a thirty seven yard field goal to cut the deficit to four. They wouldn’t let the game get out of reach. This put them in prime position with 4:48 left in the third quarter. Running back Wayne Gallman rushed for a 1 yard touchdown to put them up 24-21. Now it was Alabama’s turn to play from behind. They couldn’t get much going on offense, but their defense kept the game within 3. It wasn’t until the 10:34 mark in the fourth quarter that Alabama was able to tie the game at 24 with a 33 yard field goal by Adam Griffith.
This is when Nick Saban decided to try an onside kick. It was poorly covered by Clemson because, even though they weren’t expecting it, no one was covering the sideline, and they were too packed into the middle. This was executed to perfection by Griffth and the kicking team. Only three plays later, Coker hit Howard for the second time on a 51 yard bomb. The fight didn’t leave Clemson as they continued to show their resilience. They kicked another field goal to put the game within reach. This new found hope was quickly decimated when another special teams play impacted the game. A 95 yard kickoff return returned for a touchdown by Kenyan Drake. Alabama was up by double digits at this point, and the light was fading. Clemson had one last opportunity to win the game. Down 45-40 Clemson tried an onside kick of their own with 12 seconds left in the game and it had the perfect bounce for an onside kick, but was a little to high. The ball went out of bounds and all Alabama has to do was take a knee.
Watson finished with a superb game, throwing for 405 yards passing and 73 yards rushing on 20 carries. Ultimately, he proved that he can play at a high level against anyone, even though it was a losing effort. On the other hand, Alabama proved three things this game. Firstly, Nick Saban is the best coach in college football history, which can be proven by one simple statistic: in the past ten years, every recruiting class has won a national championship if they stayed the four years. Secondly, they are the best college football team now. And finally, they are the best college team of all time.