Clemson reaches top of mountain

This article was published January 11, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

ESPN chose a Rolling Stones classic from the 1960s as fadeout music to commercials in its telecast Monday night of college football's national championship game.

"Gimme Shelter," its famous opening riff by guitarist Keith Richards, captured the general feeling on one sideline, then the other, as Alabama met Clemson in the season's biggest game for the second year in a row.

With six seconds on the clock, Nick Saban's sixth national title, his fifth as Alabama head coach, was just a yard away (actually the ball was on the two), to paraphrase a lyric from the Stones' classic. That was time enough for Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson to find tight end Hunter Renfrow for the touchdown that made the Tigers, by 35-31, college football's king of the mountain for the first time in 35 seasons.

Borrowing again from the Stones, wild horses couldn't have dragged Dabo Swinney from the podium where he held high the championship trophy, joining Danny Ford as the only coach to win college football's national title at the South Carolina school smack dab in the basketball-mad Atlantic Coast Conference.

Swinney thanked his former Clemson boss, Terry Don Phillips, for promoting him to head coach after leading the 2008 Tigers to a 4-3 mark following the resignation of Tommy Bowden. Terry Don, you might remember, played defensive tackle at Arkansas from 1966-69 (older brother Loyd won the Outland Trophy for Frank Broyles' 1966 Razorbacks) and served as UA's senior associate athletic director from 1988-94 before becoming athletic director at Oklahoma State, later at Clemson.

"Eight years ago Terry Don Phillips game me a chance to lead this program, and we set out to put Clemson back on top," Swinney said on the podium early Tuesday local time in Tampa, Fla. "Tonight, on top of the mountain, that Clemson flag is flying.

"Hopefully, before they put me out to pasture," said the 47-year-old coach, his record now 89-28, "we can do this a few more times."

A native of Pelham, Ala., Swinney knows the despair Crimson Tide fans are feeling, the program's 26-game win streak and chance to become the first 15-0 team in college football gone a-glimmering. William Christopher Swinney joined the Crimson Tide as a walk-on wide receiver in 1989, Bill Curry's last of three seasons in Tuscaloosa, and lettered on three Alabama squads, including the Gene Stallings-coached 1992 national-championship team.

Beating Miami in the Sugar Bowl, the 1992 Crimson Tide, like Clemson against Alabama Monday night, knocked off a favored defending national champion. Clemson entered with a revenge motive, taking Alabama to the wire before losing 45-40 in the previous year's championship game, the Tigers perhaps looking more impressive shutting out favored Ohio State than Alabama did beating Washington in the playoff semifinals New Year's Eve.

Clemson's high-powered offense took a while to get going but ran 99 plays (the most ever by a Alabama opponent) against one of the most opportunistic Crimson Tide defenses ever. Alabama led 7-0 after Clemson gambled unsuccessfully on a fourth-down play and looked in complete control at 14-0. Meanwhile, Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist each of the first two years, accounted for only 23 yards (none rushing) in a long first quarter for the Tigers.

Clemson righted itself with a second-quarter touchdown, but Alabama increased the lead to 17-7 after a fumble recovery and then to 24-14 on Jalen Hurts' long strike to tight end O.J. Howard, a Tiger nemesis in last year's title game.

As Swinney described it later, the Clemson head coach took a prophetic approach in the locker room at halftime.

"We're going to win it because we love each other," said Swinney, now 6-1 in bowl games. "I don't know how we're going to win, but we're going to win it."

Watson said he turned to his teammates in the offensive huddle and said, "Let's be great. God put us here for a reason."

With Watson working toward a 420-yard night passing that he completed 36 of 56, Clemson took its first lead, 28-24, then watched Alabama, with the heart of a champion, regain the advantage, 31-28. The Crimson Tide faced third and 16, then fourth and one, on the drive that Hurts, its wondrous freshman quarterback, legged 30 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:07 left.

That drive should have earned Steve Sarkisian, in his first game as the Crimson Tide's offensive playcaller, a special place in Alabama annals -- featuring a 24-yard pass from receiver ArDarius Stewart to Howard -- but won't.

In the end, Clemson could not be stopped, driving home the dagger with one second left -- then taking a knee after recovering a squib kick. Clemson's fast-paced offense, getting repeated chances because Alabama could not convert third downs (two of 15), left the Crimson Tide vulnerable late.

"We're not used to seeing Alabama give up 21 points in a game, let alone in a quarter," said ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit.

Saban, now 5-1 in BCS or CFP championship games, gave due props to both teams.

"One game doesn't define you are," said the 65-year-old Alabama sideline master. "We have a team of winners. We had opportunities to stop them and didn't make the plays we needed to make."

The first Clemson football coach to celebrate a victory over Alabama since 1905, Swinney tried to put it all in perspective.

"Maybe now everyone will understand when I say Deshaun Watson's the best player in the country," Swinney said. "I love the University of Alabama, and coach Saban, (but) it was our night and it was our time."

Sounding like Saban when he spoke of "a process in the making for us," Swinney prefaced his remarks thusly, "Only God can do this."

Sports on 01/11/2017
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