A Look Back: Tigers were destined to win the National Championship
|Monday, May 15, 2017, 8:28 AM- -|
Four months have passed since Hunter Renfrow carefully cradled the pass from Deshaun Watson and propelled himself into Clemson history. In many ways, it seems like it was yesterday. In other ways, it seems longer.
This time of year is tough on all college football fans. The school year is officially over, spring practice is in the rearview mirror, and we have two long months to wait before the ACC Football Kickoff and head coach Dabo Swinney’s annual media golf outing.
The time away from it all gives us all a chance for reflection, and I’ve been endeavoring to remember and savor each moment of last year’s incredible ride. For me, it’s the first chance I’ve had to sit back and reflect on an incredible season. During this reflection, however, I’ve realized that in so many ways Clemson was built for just that moment, and they had the requisite luck along the way that helped the Tigers win the school’s second national championship.
The Tigers weren’t a team of destiny. But in many ways, they were destined to win it all.
The foundation for it all began after the loss to Alabama in the title game in Phoenix. Players like Wayne Gallman and Jordan Leggett had decisions to make on whether to bolt for the NFL Draft or come back for another season. Both elected to return and played pivotal roles on that last drive.
If Mike Williams hadn’t gotten hurt against Wofford in the 2015 season opener, he likely would have bolted for the NFL after that game, and he would likely have been a first rounder. The injury led to another year at Clemson, he won a title and still wound up a first rounder.
The season began, and the Tigers began to show a little of the resolve – and luck – that would be needed. Williams had nine catches for 174 yards in the opener at Auburn; the Tigers survived some clock issues at the end of the game and Auburn quarterback Sean White’s Hail Mary heave into the endzone was batted away. Disaster averted.
The next week against Troy, the Tigers were taken to the brink against a team from the Sun Belt and had to recover an onside kick with 53 seconds remaining to ice the win. A controversial fumble call on the goal line earlier in the game went the Tigers’ way and allowed them to take a 20-10 lead. It didn’t seem huge at the time, but on such things in September titles can be won or lost.
On the first Saturday of October, the Tigers and Louisville stepped into Death Valley and put together an instant class. The Tigers led by 18 at halftime, went down by eight in the fourth quarter and eventually took a 42-36 lead. On fourth-and-12 with 40 seconds left from the Clemson 14, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson found wide receiver James Quick wide-open for a short pass in the left flat with room to run. He sprinted toward the left sideline, and as Clemson defensive back Marcus Edmond rushed up to meet him at the five, he spun out of bounds standing up at the three, a yard short of the first down. Game over.
The Tigers dismantled Boston College but ran into trouble against N.C. State. Wolfpack kicker Kyle Bambard missed three field goals on the afternoon, the last one a 33-yarder with two seconds remaining in regulation. As everyone in Death Valley held their breath, Bambard’s kick went wide right, and Clemson wound up winning in overtime.
A week later, the Tigers used a long completion from Watson to Leggett with 2:06 left on the clock to take a 37-34 lead at Florida St., then had to weather the Seminoles’ last-ditch effort at a win. At this point, it was evident these Tigers were learning how to win the close ones, but they were also getting a little lucky along the way.
That luck ran out against Pitt.
Clemson was stopped on fourth down late in the game, and the Panthers kicked a 48-yard field goal with six seconds left on the clock to upset Clemson in Death Valley. Were the Tigers’ title chances over? Not quite. Clemson beat Wake Forest and South Carolina handily, escaped Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game – another defensive stop made late – and manhandled Ohio St. in the Fiesta Bowl.
That set up the rematch against Alabama, something that this team had been aiming for all year. On the last drive, Gallman made a huge play. Williams had an acrobatic catch. So did Leggett. The stars were aligned, and a team that had performed miracles all season performed a final one as the clock ran out in Tampa.
All of the comebacks. All of the last-second stops. All of the great plays with under two minutes to play. All of the decisions to come back for another run at a title. They all came together at one perfect time on the biggest stage of all.
The final moments were a microcosm of an entire season - incredibly breathtaking moments followed by sheer terror followed by exhiliration. It was just that kind of year.
Because it wasn’t easy, because there was adversity almost every step of the way, this one is even more special. But reliving all of those exciting and hair-raising (or hair-pulling) moments makes me ready for another run at this thing. I don’t want to wish the summer away, but….
Can we get the run to the next one started soon?