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Initial Impressions from the College Football Championship Game

Clemson 35, Alabama 31

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In a game that will be remembered as one of the most exciting finishes to a season in college football history, Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers scored a touchdown with one second to play to earn the school’s first national title in 35 years. It has to be a gut-wrenching loss for the seniors on the Alabama defense, who carried the team all season and did everything they could in the final game.

Coming in, this was billed as the defense built to stop Deshaun Watson. Alabama was lighter and more athletic up front, and it showed. Watson could get absolutely nothing going early as the Tide defense swarmed him and delivered punishing blows at every opportunity. There was no room to be found on the ground either. In total, Clemson’s first five possessions netted a little over 80 yards and zero points.

Meanwhile, Bo Scarbrough was well on his way to MVP honors in what looked to be a dominant win for Alabama. Scarbrough rumbled for touchdown runs of 25 and 37 yards, both coming on the edges where Clemson has been known to struggle. The Alabama offensive line did some fabulous road grading on both.

Unfortunately for the Tide, neither touchdown drive took much time off the clock. For years it has been debated whether faster paced offenses put too much stress on their own defenses. On this night, it certainly seemed to play a factor. Clemson ran 45 plays in the first half despite managing only two possessions of any substance, and entered the break down 14-7.

The second half started out swimmingly for the Tide as Ryan Anderson ripped the ball out of star RB Wayne Gallman’s hands and picked it up with every intention of scoring. Unfortunately for the Tide, Clemson WR Hunter Renfrow made a critical hustle play, diving to trip Anderson up at the 16-yard line. In what would be a theme of the second half, the Tide promptly shot themselves in the foot with a Cam Robinson false start on first down and ended up settling for a field goal.

Watson completed a couple of passes on the ensuing drive to flip the field, but the Tide defense ultimately held up and forced a punt, with Watson delivering a perfect pooch punt that pinned Alabama at the five. This was the point that things started to unravel for Alabama.

Ardarius Stewart uncharacteristically dropped a ball on second down that would have given the Tide a first down and some breathing room, leading to a quick three and out to kick off a string of maladies and hijinks that would define the evening. Alabama punter JK Scott, a legitimate weapon who has bailed the team out of similar spots on so many occasions, picked an awful time to shank one, giving Clemson possession at Alabama’s 42.

Facing a 3rd-and-6 at the Alabama 24 on the following possession, Watson was able to find Renfrow for a touchdown as Tide safety Hootie Jones inexplicably stepped right into the path of Tony Brown, turning what should have been a quick catch-and-tackle into a touchdown, cutting the Alabama lead to three.

At this point, the Tide offense needed to possess the ball for a while to allow the defense to catch its breath. A Gehrig Dieter drop of a very catchable third down pass squashed that idea, and Alabama was forced to punt again. Undeterred, the defense rose up again and forced Clemson to punt.

Things were looking up as Bo Scarbrough ripped off a six yard run, followed by a five yard run - until he didn’t get up from the latter. Scarbrough suffered some sort of leg injury on the play and could not return, a crushing blow for an Alabama offense that needed to drain clock and keep Watson on the sidelines. This felt like a death knell, and would perhaps turn out to be, but Hurts immediately found OJ Howard running wide open down the sideline for a long, but quick, touchdown drive.

Saban was visibly upset on Clemson’s next possession as receiver Deon Cain appeared to blatantly push off on a first down conversion that immediately followed a questionable pass interference flag on Marlon Humphrey. Tight end Jordan Leggett finished the drive with an obvious pick in the end zone to free up WR Mike Williams and didn’t even try to hide it. No flag would be forthcoming, however, and the lead was back down to three.

With no Scarbrough to lean on and any sort of consistent passing game nowhere to be found the offense sputtered, managing only ten snaps over the next three possessions. Somehow the defense kept going, forcing two more punts before finally giving way to exhaustion.

It was certainly an exciting finish, with the teams trading touchdowns on the final three possessions. Jalen Hurts showed uncanny moxie once again, leading the team down the field with his legs for the go-ahead score with a little over two minutes to play. Given that much time against a spent defense, however, the writing was on the wall.

Watson gets to ride off into the sunset with his signature moment, cementing his legacy as Clemson’s Young/Tebow/Newton. Alabama was laying the wood to Watson all night, and on a couple of occasions he was understandably a bit slow to get up off the turf, but he never quit. This was a superhuman effort against an incredible defense and in the end he earned the victory by gutting it out when it mattered most. Hats off to him and to the entire Clemson team.

The Tide could not afford to shoot themselves in the foot against a team of this caliber, but they did just that with penalties, dropped passes, and the aforementioned collision in the secondary. Alabama forced two fumbles and Cam Robinson promptly put the team behind the chains with a false start both times, netting only three total points off the two turnovers. As great as Cam has been for Alabama, the mental errors will need to be corrected as he moves on to the next level.

Outcome notwithstanding, the Alabama team should be proud of its effort. The defense completely snuffed out Clemson’s running game and showed that it was indeed better prepared to defend against elite mobile quarterbacks. Watson’s line shows 420 yards and three scores, but 156 of those yards and two of the scores came on the final two possessions when the defense was on its last legs. No way to know how Scarbrough’s injury affected the outcome, but Clemson certainly seemed to expend quite a bit of effort in bringing him down and he has shown to be an effective closer. At this point there has been no update as to his condition.

So, the winning streak comes to a close at 26 games. The Tide will have to settle for an SEC title and #2 in the country this season, with yet another top recruiting class coming in. There will be several to replace on the defensive side of the ball and the passing game simply must improve, but there is plenty of talent on the roster to accomplish both. Watching Watson continually fire accurate balls down the seams and across the middle should provide some great film study for young Jalen, who will return a bounty of artillery on offense with more reinforcements coming. The future is bright, folks.

Only 234 days until kickoff.

Roll Tide.