Photo courtesy of Forbes: Clemson celebrating its national championship victory over Alabama.
On Monday night, January 9th, 2017, the third edition of the annual College Football Playoff National Championship game was completed between the Clemson University Tigers and the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in epic fashion.
Before recapping all three Playoff games, let us not forget the selection committee had to make the decision of which teams would compete in the Playoff. After a very competitive regular season, one that featured many upsets and classic games, the four teams left standing were the two aforementioned, along with the Ohio State University Buckeyes and the University of Washington Huskies. Of course, as has been the case in years prior, there was a little bit of controversy regarding the teams selected and a few that were left out of the Playoff. Everybody agreed that Alabama, who was 13-0, and Clemson, who was 12-1, were deserving of Playoff spots. It was the other two, Ohio State and Washington, where issues regarding consistency existed.
Before the Playoff existed, the BCS system, which came out with weekly rankings based on computer metrics, would determine ultimately which two teams would play for the National Championship. People argued that this placed too much emphasis on preseason rankings and didn’t value nonconference schedule or things of more importance. The College Football Playoff was created to change this and to give more teams the opportunity to compete for the title. Now, the committee, which is comprised of Athletic Directors and former coaches, puts an emphasis on a team’s overall resume. Metrics such as strength of schedule, quality of wins and losses, and the “eye test” are applied when deciding which teams are the best. The commissioners of the “Power 5” conferences met when this was formed and agreed to value conference champions as well.
For the first two years, all eight teams selected were conference champions. This year, Ohio State was chosen despite the fact that it didn’t even win its own division (the Big Ten East), let alone its conference (the Big Ten). The main justification for this was that they beat Oklahoma, a nonconference opponent who won its conference championship, on the road during the season. The Buckeyes also picked up wins against Wisconsin, ranked in the top ten, and Michigan, ranked sixth. Many people believed that Penn State, who beat Ohio State headto-head, which is another criteria of importance to the committee, and won the Big Ten, should have been chosen over the Ohio State. However, the chair of the committee, Kirby Hocutt, said that the two teams were “not close in the eyes of the selection committee.”
Regarding Washington, it played the weakest-ranked nonconference schedule, facing off against teams such as Rutgers, Idaho, and Portland State. Despite this, the Huskies’ 12-1 record and conference championship was deemed deserving of the Playoff spot. Washington’s inclusion angered people because, in 2014, Baylor and TCU were left out because Baylor played a soft schedule and TCU, which had played a respectable nonconference schedule, wasn’t a conference champion.
Regardless, the stage was set for the Semifinals, with Alabama playing Washington and Clemson playing Ohio State.
Alabama vs Washington
Leading up to the game, Washington’s worthiness was debated, and Alabama’s dominance was praised. Alabama closed as a 16-point favorite, meaning very little confidence was exhibited in the Huskies.
The game began with Washington on offense, and to many people’s surprise, they marched down the field for an opening drive of 64 yards that resulted in a touchdown, capped off by a 16-yard pass from Jake Browning to Dante Pettis. Alabama used its power running game to tie the game on a bruising 18-yard touchdown run by Bo Scarbrough. With two minutes remaining in the first quarter, Washington receiver John Ross coughed up a fumble right at midfield that was recovered and advanced by Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen. The Husky defense stood tall and held the Tide to a field goal that put them up 10-7. With less than two minutes before halftime, quarterback Jake Browning threw a disastrous interception that Ryan Anderson returned for a touchdown, giving ‘Bama a 10-point lead at the break. This was the Tide’s unprecedented 11th defensive score of the season.
Early in the fourth quarter, Scarbrough had an impressive, backbreaking 68-yard touchdown run, making seven defenders miss en route to the end zone. The score was 24-7, and remained that way until the clock struck zeroes. The explosive offense of Washington was held to just 194 total yards. Alabama was headed back to the Championship game, looking to defend its title from last year.
Clemson vs Ohio State
The buildup for this game revolved around the close games played and won by both teams, as each was inches, literally, away from having another loss and being left out of the Playoff entirely.
After a short drive from the Buckeyes, the Tigers started with the ball deep in their own territory. On a 2nd and 9, quarterback Deshaun Watson dropped back to pass, but his intended receiver, Mike Williams, fell down, and cornerback Gareon Conley intercepted Watson. The Clemson defense stood tall, forcing a 47-yard field goal attempt that was missed by kicker Tyler Durbin. Clemson responded with a drive of its own that resulted in a field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, Buckeye return man Parris Campbell took it all the way into Clemson territory. Again, the defense did its part, forcing another field goal attempt, which, again from 47 yards out, was missed by Durbin. These two misses proved crucial in what soon became a one-sided game. The Clemson offense began to march the ball downfield, with a 1-yard touchdown run by Watson, capping off the drive, making the score 10-0. As the second quarter went on, Ohio State’s offense did next to nothing, but its defense stood tall, as safety Malik Hooker picked off Watson for the second time. Clemson’s defense continued to suffocate with tons of pressure and stout coverage, and its offense found the end zone again with 2:22 remaining in the half, as Watson hit wide receiver C.J. Fuller with a 30-yard touchdown pass.
The score was 17-0 at the half, and the game only got worse for Ohio State.
The game ended 31-0, with Watson and running back Wayne Gallman each adding rushing scores in the second half. This game was the first time an Urban Meyer-coached team was ever shutout in his 194 career games as a head coach. The stage was set for a finals rematch.
Clemson vs Alabama
The question many wondered leading up to the game was whether or not Clemson would be able to score enough on the Tide’s defense. After forcing Alabama to punt on the game’s opening drive, Clemson moved the ball into Alabama territory, where it had a 4th and 1 at the 40 yard line. The Tigers went for it, but running back Wayne Gallman was stuffed. Only a few plays later, Bo Scarbrough had another of his signature runs that put the Tide in front on a 25-yard touchdown. With 10:44 left in the second quarter, Scarbrough ran for another touchdown, this one from 38 yards out, putting Clemson in a 14-0 hole. A few drives later, Clemson received a big spark from wide receiver Deon Cain, as he took a screen pass 45 yards all the way to the ‘Bama 40 yard line. After a big 3rd and 10 conversion, Watson took the snap into the end zone from 8 yards out to put the Tigers on the board. Halftime came with the score 14-7 in favor of the Tide.
Clemson received the third quarter kickoff, and only three plays into the drive, Gallman was stripped by Anderson, who appeared to be headed for the endzone. Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow, however, came in to make the saving tackle, which proved to be crucial, as Alabama was forced to kick a field goal, putting them in front, 17-7. A couple of drives later, Clemson started with excellent field position and capitalized on a 24-yard catch and run by the aforementioned Renfrow. With 7:12 left in the third, the score was now 17-14. With 1:54 until the end of the third, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard broke loose on a busted coverage and walked into the end zone for a 68-yard touchdown pass from Hurts. Clemson responded immediately, with Mike Williams catching a 4-yard touchdown from Watson to bring the deficit back down to 3 points a minute into the fourth quarter. Little offense ensued until Clemson went on an impressive drive, capped off with a 1-yard score by Wayne Gallman, giving the Tigers a 4-point lead – their first of the game – with 4:38 left to play. On Alabama’s next offensive drive, it faced a 3rd down and 16. Hurts escaped the pocket and floated a pass right near the first down marker to wide receiver ArDarius Stewart. It was 4th and 1, and the offense stayed on the field. They converted the fourth down, keeping the drive alive. A few plays later, Hurts alluded the blitz and took off, beating everybody down field to the end zone to recapture the lead at 31-28 with 2:09 remaining. Did Deshaun Watson, a two-time Heisman finalist, have one last drive left in him to get the Tigers into field goal range to force overtime?
Only two plays after Alabama kicked off following the touchdown, Watson completed a downfield pass to Williams, putting Clemson all the way down to the Tide’s 36 yard line. The clock ticked down, and after a third down conversion to Renfrow, Watson completed a pass to tight end Jordan Leggett, setting the Tigers up with a first and goal at the 8 yard line with 16 seconds to go. Clemson only had one timeout remaining, though, so it had to manage the clock efficiently and effectively. Watson fired a pass over the head of Leggett on first down; five seconds went off the clock. The next play, he lobbed a pass for Williams who was interfered with in the end zone, putting the ball at the 2 yard line, giving the Tigers an automatic first down. There were six seconds, meaning Clemson had time for one last chance to score the gamewinning touchdown before having to attempt the game-tying field goal. Watson took the snap out of the shotgun, rolled to his right, and delivered a pass for Renfrow, who broke free and caught the pass in the endzone: touchdown Clemson with 1 second left! A National Championship-winning touchdown caught by a former walk-on. Renfrow had 10 receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns. The Clemson Tigers are the champions of College Football for the first time in 36 years, winning an epic game by a final score of 35-31.
The ending to this season was fitting, after such a crazy and exciting year in College Football. So far, the three years of the Playoff have lived up to the hype, and, hopefully, they will continue to do so for as long as this current system is in place.
By Griffin Alcott