A week ago was the 10th anniversary of the epic 2006 BCS championship game between Texas and USC. While the second College Football Playoff title game couldn’t quite match that level of iconic history, it did its damnedest in trying to get there.
In a back-and-forth affair that featured a plethora of long-range scores instead of the expected body shots — and the normally-reserved Nick Saban channeling his heretofore unknown inner riverboat gambler for good measure — No. 2 Alabama used a wild fourth quarter surge fueled in large part by special teams to drop top-ranked and undefeated Clemson 45-40. With the win, Saban has now won five national championship — four with the Tide — one behind ‘Bama coaching legend Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most in FBS history.
And, in the end, this one was unlike any of the previous four in that it was both literally and figuratively “special.”
The Tide entered the fourth quarter down 24-21; seven and a half minutes later, the Tigers found themselves on the wrong end of 38-27 score. The keys to the lightning-quick half-quarter turnaround were a pair of special teams plays. With 10:34 remaining and coming off a field goal that tied the score at 24, Saban called for an onside pooch kick that was recovered by UA; two plays later, Jake Coker hit O.J. Howard on a 51-yard touchdown pass, the tight end’s second busted-coverage score of the game after not catching a touchdown pass of any kind since 2013 (watch that play here).
The ensuing possession for Clemson ended with a field goal that cut the lead to 31-27. That four-point deficit lasted all of 16 seconds as Kenyan Drake returned the kickoff 95 yards to push the lead back out to 38-27.
A Deshaun Watson touchdown pass, his third of the game, with 4:40 remaining trimmed the deficit to five at 38-33 — the same score, incidentally, by which Texas trailed USC with four minutes remaining in that epic Rose Bowl. Howard, of all people, helped ensure there would be no Vince Young-like fairytale ending for Watson and the Tigers as the tight end rumbled 63 yards on a second-and-12 screen pass to set the Tide up at the Clemson 14 with just under four minutes left on the clock.
Five plays and and nearly three minutes later, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry put the final nail in Clemson’s comeback coffin, bulling into the end zone from a yard out with just over a minute remaining. Henry’s third touchdown of the game pushed the lead back out to 45-33 and essentially ended the SEC’s mini title drought at two straight seasons.
Watson did connect on his fourth touchdown pass with :12 left, but Clemson was unable to recover the onside kick to officially end the instant classic.
Howard was the unlikely offensive star of the contest, outshining even the reigning Heisman winner. Coming into the game with just 394 yards receiving, the immensely-talented junior totaled 208 yards on his five receptions. Henry, who broke Shaun Alexander‘s school rushing record in the third quarter, would finish with a game-high 158 yards rushing, and became the first Heisman winner to win a national championship in the same season since Florida State’s Jameis Winston pulled off that trick in 2013.
Henry also became just the fifth running back to pull that off, joining Alabama’s Mark Ingram (2009), Pittsburgh’s Tony Dorsett (1976), Army’s Doc Blanchard (1945) and Minnesota’s Bruce Smith (1941). Henry’s teammate, quarterback Jake Coker, also made some history as the Florida State transfer become what we believe is just the third player to win two national championships at two different schools — Cam Newton won titles at Florida (2008) and Auburn (2010), while J.T. White won two at Ohio State (1942) and Michigan (1947).
Watson, a Heisman finalist himself, threw for 371 yards and ran for another 73 in a losing effort. He also became the first quarterback in FBS history to throw for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
Clemson, which was looking for its first national championship since 1981, had entered this title game having won an FBS-best 51 straight games when leading entering the fourth quarter. The Tigers had also been looking for its first win over the Tide since October of 1905, a stretch of 40,255 days.
Instead, it was Alabama that claimed its fourth national championship in the last seven years, an unprecedented feat in this day and age. One final note: Saban and Urban Meyer-coached teams now own seven of the last 10 titles.
In any discussion of the best current coaches in the game,it begins and ends with those two titans. And, based on how both teams are constructed, a head-to-head title matchup at some point down the road is certainly within the realm of possibility.