Note: The following appears in the Wofford gameday football program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 150th season of college football. The author of this article, Tim Bourret, is one of 150 college football historians on a committee formed by ESPN that is selecting the top teams, games, players and programs during the first 150 years. In conjunction with that, Bourret is writing articles this year on the great moments in Clemson football history. Below is the sixth installment of the series.
Clemson defeated Ohio State 31-0 in the Fiesta Bowl, one of the two semifinal games of the College Football Playoff, at the end of the 2016 season. The shutout was the first suffered by the Buckeye program since 1993 and the first for Head Coach Urban Meyer, the third-winningest coach (in terms of winning percentage) at the time in college football history in his 194 games as a head coach.
On the same day, Alabama defeated Washington in the other semifinal in Atlanta by a score of 24-7, setting up the first rematch of a national championship deciding game in college football history.
The roles were reversed this time. Alabama entered the 2016 title game with a 14-0 record and a chance to become the first 15-0 team in FBS history. Alabama also had the No. 1 ranking. Clemson was the 14-0 team the previous year.
The Crimson Tide had won 26 games in a row, the longest winning streak by an SEC team since 1980, and had won 16 games in row over top-25 teams, tied for the longest streak since the poll began in 1936.
Both teams were ranked in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense entering the game, and it appeared it would be a defense-dominated game in the first half. Alabama led 14-7 at halftime, the first time all year Clemson did not hold a halftime lead.
Alabama could have taken a dominant 21-7 lead early in the third quarter when the ball was stripped from Wayne Gallman and recovered by Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson.
The Crimson tide had scored 12 defensive touchdowns, which were momentum backbreakers throughout the season. But Hunter Renfrow hustled on the play and tackled Anderson. The Tiger defense held the Crimson Tide to a field goal. In retrospect, it was the single-most important tackle of the season by a Tiger.
Alabama had a 24-14 lead entering the fourth quarter. As a head coach, Nick Saban had won 97 games in a row with a double-digit lead entering the fourth quarter.
The cumulative effect of the offense’s pace took its toll on Alabama in the final quarter. First, the Tigers drove 72 yards in nine plays to cut the margin to 24-21 when Deshaun Watson connected with Mike Williams on a four-yard pass.
After a trade of punts, Clemson drove 88 yards in six plays to take a 28-24 lead with 4:38 left in the game. How fitting were the 88 yards, because that was the uniform number Dabo Swinney wore when he played at Alabama.
But Alabama drove right back. Precocious freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts scored on a 30-yard run, and Alabama had a 31-28 lead with just 2:07 left. Only 2:07 remained until a fifth national championship in eight years for the Alabama program, something no program had ever done.
What followed was the “drive of the ages” for the Tiger program.
Williams made one of his diving catches for a 24-yard gain early in the drive, giving Clemson the ball at the Alabama 39 with 1:30 left.
Two plays later and facing a third-and-three, Watson connected with Renfrow for six yards and a first down. Clemson then stopped the clock with 19 seconds left.
On second down, Watson connected with Jordan Leggett, this time for 17 yards down the left side. Leggett used his entire wing span on the final catch of his Tiger career with 14 seconds left.
On an incomplete pass to the endzone, Alabama was flagged for pass interference on Williams, giving Clemson first-and-goal at the two with just six seconds left on the clock.
Knowing this could be the final play of the game and his career, Watson rolled to his right and found Renfrow in the right side of the endzone. There was just one second left on the clock.
The reception, Renfrow’s 10th of the game, the most against Alabama in four years, gave Clemson a 34-31 lead. The ensuing extra point made the score 35-31. How fitting was it that Clemson scored 35 points when it had been 35 years since they had won its first national championship.
After recovering an onside kick, just Clemson’s fourth onside kick recovery in 39 seasons, all the Tigers had to do was take a snap and a knee. Fittingly, Watson had the ball in his hands as the game and his Tiger career came to an end.