Sonny’s Side Note: College football season ends on high note
The second ever College Football Playoff National Championship took place Monday, Jan. 11 in a classic matchup of the one seed, a ranking in the standings, as Clemson versus the two seed Alabama. Clemson was hoping to become the first Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) to finish the season without a blemish on their record, 15-0. Alabama was looking to reach dynasty status by winning its fourth national title in seven straight seasons.
Clemson made the championship by beating fourth seed Oklahoma by a score of 37-17 in the Orange Bowl, while Alabama shut out Michigan State 38-0 in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Both teams exhibited a stellar performance in the semifinals and set high expectations for themselves to bring home a trophy.
All great teams have great players that lead them to the position they are in. Alabama boasts this season’s Heisman Trophy winner—running back Derrick Henry—who broke the Southeastern Conference (SEC) record of rushing yards (2,061) and rushing touchdowns (25). Freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley filled the void left by Amari Cooper once he declared for the draft at that position. He led the team in receiving yards (1,031), receptions (83) and touchdowns (seven).
Clemson countered Alabama with quarterback Deshaun Watson who was a Heisman finalist with over 4,500 yards of total offense including over 1,000 yards on the ground. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander covered Ridley most of the game and has been the leader of the secondary by shutting down the opponent’s best receiver in almost every game.
Clemson head coach, Dabo Swinney, was the wide receiver coach for his Tigers in 2008, when the two teams faced off for the first time since 1975, while head coach Nick Saban was only in his second year as head at Alabama. In fact, Swinney was a graduate of Alabama’s class of 1993, played WR for the Crimson Tide from 1990-1992 including when the team won the national championship in ‘92, and was a wide receiver and tight end coach before being fired in 2001. He took control of the Clemson Tigers midway through the 2008 season when Tommy Bowden resigned as head coach six games into the season. Swinney isn’t the only coach that has jumped from program to program, Saban did the same with Michigan State to Louisiana State University and finally to Alabama after a two year head coaching stint with the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Saban is a very well-decorated coach owning five national championships (one with LSU in 2003 and three with Alabama in 2009, 2011, and 2012). He has also claimed the AP National Coach of the Year award twice (2003 and 2008). The newcomer coach Swinney is building a winning tradition at Clemson while old school coach Saban has continued building onto a winning program in Alabama.
History was on Alabama’s side as they lead the series meetings 12-3, winning the last 12 games, but they hadn’t played Clemson since that 2008 matchup. Alabama was favored by many to win by a touchdown making this one of the most highly anticipated championship games in years, and boy did it live up to the expectations.
Clemson decided to kick off to start the game and gave up a dazzling 50-yard touchdown run to Henry halfway through the first quarter. Clemson scored the next two touchdowns with WR Hunter Renfrow catching an 11 and a 31-yard touchdown pass from Watson, to put them up 14-7 at the end of the first quarter. Henry had the lone score for the rest of the first half to end in a tie 14-14. Both teams were playing great football and were heading into the fourth quarter tied at 24-24 after a touchdown and a field goal from each team. Then, with 10:44 left in the game, Alabama attempted an onside kick that surprised both Clemson and the viewers, which allowed them to reclaim the lead after a O.J. Howard’s 51-yard touchdown. Clemson came back with a field goal, but then, Kenyan Drake returned a kickoff 95 yards to boost Alabama’s lead to 38-27. Watson would end up throwing two more touchdowns, which were split by Henry’s third touchdown of the game resulting in Alabama winning 45-40.
The championship’s highlight reel contained an inspiring performance from Clemson’s Watson who went 30-44 with four passing touchdowns, 405 passing yards and 73 running yards. Clemson outgained Alabama in total offense with 550 yards to 473 yards, but Alabama was propelled to its fourth title in seven years with Derrick Henry’s 158 rushing yards and three touchdown performance.
I expect Clemson to be in the top five next year, perhaps making a semifinal playoff game, but winning it will be challenging as they can’t rely solely on Watson to carry them. Now, I’m not saying that Clemson doesn’t have a chance of making it, but I believe they need some players to step up to replace the players that have declared for the NFL draft. Alabama has proven to be one of the best-run college football programs every year, and I expect Saban to lead them into another championship game with the help of Ridley and a strong RB core, but once there, it may be the first time he loses without a work horse like Henry.
Swinney and Watson expect to be back in the championship next year in Tampa. Saban remains perfect in championship games and now wears a ring on each finger while having lead Alabama to the title of a dynasty.
Check out a recap of the University of Alabama versus Clemson University game on ESPN’s website.