Alabama Returns to Top of College Football With 45-40 Win Over Clemson
Sam Khan Jr. | ESPN Staff Writer
GLENDALE, Ariz. — What a game.
Alabama and Clemson gave fans an entertaining back-and-forth show before the Crimson Tide eventually claimed a 45-40 victory over the Tigers in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T on Monday at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Tide are back atop the college football world. Let’s review how it all unfolded.
What the win means for Alabama: It’s the Crimson Tide’s fourth national championship in seven seasons — the others came in 2009, 2011 and 2012 — and the 16th overall in school history. It’s the fifth national title for head coach Nick Saban, further cementing his status in college football history. He trails only the late Paul “Bear” Bryant in national titles since 1936 (Bryant has six). It’s Alabama’s fourth consecutive win over a No. 1-ranked team in The Associated Press poll, a streak that dates back to 2011. Running back Derrick Henry becomes only the fifth running back in Heisman Trophy history to add a national title in the same season. And the SEC is back on top for the first time since 2012. It’s the conference’s eighth national title since 2006 (the SEC won seven straight from 2006-12). The Tide overcame a brilliant performance by Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who finished 30-of-47 passing for 405 yards and four touchdowns while also rushing for 73 yards.
What the loss means for Clemson: The Tigers were seeking their second national title and first since 1981, but came up short. The loss breaks a school-record 17-game winning streak, which is tied for the second-longest such streak in ACC history. Clemson becomes the second team since major classification began in 1937 to start 14-0 and not win a national title (Boise State was the other; it went 14-0 in 2009). The Tigers are now 3-13 all-time against Alabama. It’s a disappointing end for Dabo Swinney’s team, one that accomplished a lot this season by putting together an impressive campaign to win the ACC title and be the last undefeated team standing before Monday.
The game turned when …: Saban had the guts to call for an onside kick with the game tied 24-24. The Crimson Tide recovered with 10 minutes, 34 seconds on the clock. Two plays later, tight end O.J. Howard was wide-open for a 51-yard touchdown catch from Jake Coker, giving Alabama a lead it wouldn’t relinquish. It’s a call you wouldn’t necessarily expect from the typically risk-averse Saban, but it paid off, shifting the momentum in Alabama’s favor.
Player of the game: Throughout his career, Howard has sometimes been a forgotten man in the game plan, but not on Monday. The 6-foot-6, 242-pound junior found himself wide open several times — sometimes on Clemson coverage busts — and scored critical touchdowns on two of those occasions. His 53-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter gave Alabama a 21-14 lead at the 12:53 mark, and his biggest play of the night came on the 51-yard scoring reception after the onside kick in the fourth. Howard finished with five catches for 208 yards and averaged a whopping 41.6 yards per reception. He had 210 receiving yards in nine SEC games.
Top play: After Clemson trimmed Alabama’s seven-point fourth-quarter lead to four with a field goal, Crimson Tide running back Kenyan Drake delivered the knockout blow with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. It was the third kick return touchdown in a national championship game (Florida State’s Kermit Whitfield had one in 2013 and Ted Ginn Jr. had one in 2006 for Ohio State), and it gave Alabama a 38-27 lead, which was too much to overcome for the Tigers in the final 7:31.
Stats of the game: The 85 combined points by the Tigers and Crimson Tide are the most in a national championship game, surpassing the 79 scored by Texas and USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl, which was the BCS title game that season. … The Drake touchdown return was Alabama’s sixth special-teams touchdown this season, tied with Tennessee for most in the FBS. … Henry finished with 36 carries, giving him 395 for the season, which surpassed Herschel Walker’s SEC record (385).