The Clemson Tigers were 60-minute men at Raymond James Stadium in the national championship game in Tampa on Monday night.
In a rematch from Alabama’s 45-40 title win over the Tigers, the powerful Crimson Tide was denied a fifth national crown in the last eight years.
Clemson was intent on earning its second national championship and first since 1981, accomplishing the feat with one second remaining on a 2-yard touchdown toss from Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow.
In a play with a degree of poetic justice, the Tigers sealed the outcome by recovering an onside kick to deny the Tide a final flicker of hope for a miraculous ending to the 2016 college football season.
A surprising and successful onside kick by Alabama was instrumental in the previous national championship in Arizona.
The Tigers seemed destined for their first win over the Tide since 1905 in a stunning fourth quarter. Watson said he felt like he was an instrument of God on the winning series.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he told his players that their love for one another would prove decisive. Clemson’s spiritual dimension and belief can’t be overlooked in overcoming a two-touchdown deficit against a unit that led the Football Bowl Subdivision in points allowed at 13.0.
A quarter of a century ago, East Carolina had its best football season ever and belief was a key ingredient.
In one series of outcomes, the 2016 Pirates were part of an interesting lineage that showed how good the ECU program was at its best last season.
The Pirates beat N.C. State. The Wolfpack beat North Carolina. The Tar Heels topped Pitt and the Panthers handed Clemson its only loss.
Unfortunately for ECU, the win over the Wolfpack was the zenith in Scottie Montgomery’s first season as coach. The fan base and playing personnel did not achieve the same degree of harmony and performance again.
But like the mission that drove Clemson after falling short in the playoff championship a year ago, the Pirates have a sense of purpose in the offseason. Montgomery vowed after a 37-10 season-ending loss at Temple that ECU wouldn’t have a season like the 3-9 grind during his maiden voyage as skipper of the Pirates.
A promising effort on the recruiting trail has been a source of hope for Pirate Nation during an unpredictable bowl season.
Highly-motivated talent proved effective in Tampa in one of the greatest college football finishes of all time.
The pride of bearded Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware, who grew up in the upstate of South Carolina, was evident in his play and postgame remarks.
“It’s coming home,” Boulware shouted after the trophy presentation. “It’s coming home.”
I like a guy whose motor is still running after all the confetti has fallen.
There was many a winding path on the road to the national championship. I remember covering a game between Clemson and Wake Forest in Winston-Salem in 2008. I met Bonesville scribes Sammy Batten and Brett Friedlander in Greensboro for a ride over to the Thursday night matchup on ESPN.
Riley Skinner’s 7-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Boldin with 5:28 to go gave the Deacons a 12-7 win.
Tommy Bowden resigned as coach of the Tigers the following week and Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips promoted Swinney from receivers coach to interim head coach.
The rest is history. Swinney had the vision that culminated so dramatically on Monday night. In many ways, Swinney has more Bama blood than his two-time title game counterpart, Nick Saban, a native of West Virginia. Swinney was born in Birmingham and was a member of a national championship team at Alabama in 1992.
Swinney was a walk-on for the Tide, a “crawl-on,” as he puts it.
Montgomery has some Alabama connections, too. The ECU coach was on the staff at Duke under David Cutcliffe, a Birmingham native and Alabama alumnus.
In the broader spectrum of conference affiliation, the Tigers struck a blow for the ACC in the ultimate showdown in college football.
The ACC went 9-3 in postseason matchups.
One of the more surprising results that went in the ACC’s favor was a 34-26 Wake Forest win over American Athletic Conference champion Temple in the Military Bowl. The Deacons were down to their third string quarterback as they managed to hold off the Owls. Skinner was in the radio booth providing analysis in the aftermath of stunning revelations that former Wake Forest color man Tommy Elrod had been helping opposing programs.
I can’t even conceive that Kevin Monroe of the Pirate radio network and Bonesville would consider such a thing.
Temple was without coach Matt Rhule, who authored the Owls’ recent success before leaving for Baylor. There will be several notable leadership transitions among teams on ECU’s schedule in 2017 with new staffs at Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston and South Florida.
The Pirates will play the same East Division foes next season but will trade Navy, Southern Methodist and Tulsa for Houston, Memphis and Tulane from the West Division.
No tears will be shed that the Midshipmen are rotating off the Pirates’ schedule but Temple and Army showed how to attack the Navy option offense late in the year. Former ECU coach Skip Holtz guided Louisiana Tech to a 48-45 win over the Midshipmen in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Virginia Tech’s incredible comeback from a 24-0 deficit against Arkansas for a 35-24 win in the Belk Bowl was another postseason highlight and provided some foreshadowing for the ACC-SEC final. The Hokies looked nothing like the team that bounced the Pirates 54-17 in Blacksburg last season until the second half.
Maybe it was a good thing for Clemson that Watson didn’t win the award that supposedly goes to the game’s best player. Lamar Jackson played with a Heisman hangover in Louisville’s 29-9 loss to LSU in the Belk Bowl.
And what if the Clemson safety hadn’t missed a tackle on Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts, who scored on a 30-yard run for a 31-28 lead for the Tide with 2:07 to go? If Hurts had been stopped, Alabama might have used more clock and made Clemson’s final drive a more demanding proposition.
And should the Big 12 officiating crew have called Clemson for pick plays on two of the Tigers’ touchdown passes?
ECU will start the 2017 season at home against a national champion — not Clemson, thankfully.
The Pirates meet Football Championship Subdivision winner James Madison on Sept. 2 in Greenville. JMU, coincidentally, is the alma mater of ECU athletic director Jeff Compher. Donnie Kirkpatrick is offensive coordinator for the Dukes. Dale Steele is director of football operations and recruiting coordinator at JMU. Both were on Ruffin McNeill’s staff at ECU.
The Clemson-Alabama game showed just how thrilling college football can be and heightened the anticipation that ECU can experience a greater degree of success in the future. For all their gridiron glory, the Tigers were perceived as the little guys at Raymond James Stadium, where coincidentally the Pirates put in an appearance against South Florida on Oct. 8.
The outcome was in a sense a victory for all the have-nots in the game. That distinction certainly included ECU in 2016.
Clemson showed that tremendous disappointment one year can transform into profound celebration the next.