GLENDALE, Ariz. – Alabama coach Nick Saban has built a powerhouse that takes prides in being prepared to overcome anything and everything.
Maybe the greatest testament to that came Monday, when it managed to even get the better of Clemson and Deshaun Watson.
Alabama (14-1) captured its fourth national title under Saban, beating Clemson and its brilliant quarterback 45-40 using the third phase of the game, special teams, to assure itself status as a truly special team.
"I am so proud of our players, the way they competed, especially in the second half," Saban said after the game. "… This is my – I hate to say – favorite team, because I love 'em all, but these guys have come so far and done so much. Their will, their spirit, to compete and do the kind of things they needed to do to be the kind of team they could be, I'm happy for them. This is all about winning a game for them."
The momentum of the game changed dramatically with the score tied and 10:34 remaining. That’s when the often-conservative Saban called for an onside kick, which the Tide executed perfectly against an unprepared Tiger defense. It was enough for the Alabama coach to crack a rare sideline smile.
Two plays later quarterback Jake Coker hit a wide-open O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touchdown, Alabama’s third big-play score in the game.
The next time Alabama touched the ball, leading 31-27, its gifted return man Kenyan Drake ripped off an outrageous 95-yard kick return touchdown, diving for the pylon at the end to break the game open.
The championship gives Saban five career titles, including one at LSU. He is second all-time for the most national championships, trailing just Alabama legend Paul "Bear" Bryant, who has six.
Rather than a slow grind-'em-out and ride-the-defense win, this one came courtesy of big plays.
In the third quarter, Coker hit an uncovered Howard on a 51-yard touchdown pass. He later got Howard for a 63-yard gain in a critical late-game drive that salted away the victory. Meanwhile, Derrick Henry opened the scoring with a 50-yard touchdown.
The big plays helped offset what was actually often a frustrating night offensively for Alabama, which struggled to deal with Clemson’s stout defensive front. Coker was sacked five times and, despite the big plays, Henry was often stuffed.
For much of the game it was the Deshaun Watson Show, the sophomore quarterback displaying a magical combination of running and throwing. The vaunted Alabama defense was incapable of containing him, whether it was on a designed run, a bullet pass or a scramble to avoid the rush.
Watson twice hit wide receiver Hunter Renfrow for first-half touchdowns, one a 31-yard dime and another, an 11-yard rip, both perfectly placed. Renfrow, who is a redshirt walk-on from Myrtle Beach, spent much of the regular season as a third receiving option. He broke out in the semifinal game against Oklahoma and then became a legend in the first half against 'Bama.
Watson regrouped the Tigers in the fourth quarter after Drake's touchdown return, leading them on an eight-play, 75-yard drive and scoring on a 15-yard pass to Artavis Scott with 4:40 remaining.
Alabama responded in kind with a back-breaking eight-play drive of its own to take a 45-33 lead with just 1:07 left. Watson and the Tigers needed only 50 seconds to drive the length of the field and cut the deficit to five points, but the ensuing onside kick bounced harmlessly out of bounds to end the game.
Watson finished with 405 yards and four touchdowns passing and another 73 yards rushing as he tried to deliver Clemson (14-1) its first national title since 1981. In the end, he fell just short.
"He really is [a special player]," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said about Watson after the game. "...That's one of the things [Nick] Saban was talking to me about after the game. This guy, he's special. Again, he's got great toughness, great heart, a great mind for the game, and just made some huge plays all the way to the end."
Saban likes to remind anybody who will listen that there are three phases of game: offense, defense and special teams. It was the last one that won it for Alabama this time.
"We weren't playing very well on defense and it was a tie game and I thought we needed to do something that was going to change the momentum," Saban said. "That certainly did and then the kickoff return was big, too, so special teams was what did it for us."