Last season I thought Clemson was a team of destiny. During the off-season heading into the 2015, I expected we would compete for an ACC title. Probably finish in the top 10 or 15.
I never would have expected to see my Tigers run the table and clinch a spot in the national championship. But they did and came up just a bit short in a 45-40 heartbreaker in Glendale, Ariz.
Most Clemson fans were just “happy to be there” last year. This time around, we were ready to celebrate the first title since 1981.
In a 35-31 rematch slobber-knocker that will be compared to the Texas-USC Rose Bowl title game in 2006 as one of the most exciting and competitive championship games ever, Clemson did just that Monday night.
Had it not been for leaving OJ Howard wide open all night and a pair of costly mistakes on special teams, Clemson likely would have knocked off Nick Saban and Alabama last year in Arizona. The narrow loss hurt, but it was the motivation the school from the small town in upstate South Carolina needed to return to the biggest stage one year later to finish the job.
It was fitting that Clemson and Alabama met again Monday night in arguably the most-anticipated championship game rematch in college football history. It was even more fitting for Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney, an Alabama alum and national championship winner as a player, to win his first title as a coach by defeating his alma mater.
To add to the glory, it was his 88th win as head coach and the former wide receiver coaches who played the same position at Alabama wore number 88 while playing for the Crimson Tide.
Growing up less than five miles from campus, all I’ve ever known is Clemson. A former season ticket holder myself, I’ve been on the front row of the rollercoaster that is our program for as long as I can remember. I have dreamed of the day I would see my team standing on the stage as they hoisted the national championship trophy in the air above a confetti-laden turf.
While Clemson has without a doubt become an elite program and climbed up the mountain of success, there were times I thought we would never be able to knock down that door and claim a spot upon the mountaintop of college football greatness. Monday night, that finally happened.
I’ve waited my entire life to experience a national championship in football and now that it’s here I can’t even begin to express how great it feels. All those losses to Florida State under the Tommy Bowden era, sitting through every single snap of the five-peat the Gamecocks handed Clemson 2009-2013, to watching the most lackadaisical game ever as the Tigers fell to South Florida in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in 2010 led to this.
The flashes of current and former NFL stars such as Matt Ryan, Calvin Johnson, Andy Dalton, Jameis Winston and Todd Gurley crushing my heart will never fade away. But all the disappointments and letdowns were part of this journey to the top. Just like the game of life, those valley experiences make mountaintop moments more enjoyable.
Thank goodness for Deshaun Watson and what he was done in his three years in Tigertown. The recent Clemson-grad will now move on to the NFL where he’ll certainly be a high draft pick. A future ring of honor inductee at Clemson, Watson has humbled an Alabama defense two years in a row for a combined 75 points including 825 passing yards for seven touchdowns, 116 rushing yards including another rushing touchdown and just one interception in both contests.
I think what makes this one so spectacular is the way in which it all played out. Last year, Clemson was a bit of a surprise but everyone knew how good they could be this year and to say they had a target on their backs would be an understatement.
From the last minute stand against Louisville, to taking down Florida State in Tallahassee for the first time since 2006, to losing to Pittsburgh at home, to shutting out Ohio State in the semifinals and handing Urban Meyer his first-ever shutout loss....it was destiny for the Tigers to meet Alabama this year for a rematch, but to finish the job this time.
Taking down Alabama is a tall task and one that only a few can claim they’ve done in the past decade. You can now add Clemson to that coveted list. In fact, the Tigers became the first team to defeat a Nick Saban-coached squad in a national championship as he entered Monday night with a perfect 5-0 record.
Dabo is known to be the coach with plenty of emotion who knows how to have fun but not sure I’ve ever seen him as emotional was he was last night as the party began in Tampa. There’s a reason the Tigers are now a consistent top ten program and going punch for punch on the recruiting trail with the big boys. People love him and how he runs his program and athletes want to be a part of what he has built in Tigertown.
I’ve always said that as Swinney continues to climb the ladder as one of the best coaches in the game, I truly believe the only place he would ever leave Clemson for is Alabama. I also said that the Tide would only call him back home if he were to win a title or two in Clemson. While it is unsure how much longer we will be blessed to see Nick Saban—arguably the best coach ever—roam the Tide sideline, I think it is safe to say that potential homecoming for Swinney became a little more realistic after Monday night’s win over his alma mater.
For the second straight year, college football fans were treated to another instant classic title game between the Tigers and Tide. As good as last year’s game was, this one was just as exciting and lived up the every bit of the hype. I’m sad that I was unable to dish out $1,500 or more for a ticket to see it live, but I will cherish Monday night for the rest of my life. As a long-time Clemson fan, it simply doesn’t get better than this.