Clemson’s comeback stuns Alabama 35-31 in classic championship

TAMPA, Fla. — The unthinkable happened. The beautiful happened. The soul-crushing happened.

A comeback team for the ages happened.

The slaying of a giant happened.

No. 2 Clemson 35, No. 1 Alabama 31 happened. And no one who watched will ever forget it.

Hunter Renfrow reels in the game-winner. (AP/David J. Phillip)

Hunter Renfrow reels in the game-winner. (AP/David J. Phillip)

The list of heroic plays — of heroic players — that will be remembered long into the future by college football fans is significant. And it runs a gamut the likes of which we’ve perhaps never seen on a championship stage.

There were the quarterbacks, Clemson junior Deshaun Watson — the most accomplished at his position in the country even before this game — and Alabama true freshman Jalen Hurts, an unfinished product who nevertheless led his team to the brink of 15-0.

Hurts led a 68-yard go-ahead drive, running in a 30-yard score with 2:31 to play. But Watson was resilient and sensational, throwing for 420 yards and three touchdowns without an interception against the top-ranked defense in the land. When it seemed the 88-yard drive he steered to take a 28-24 lead with 4:38 to play couldn’t be topped, he answered Hurts’ score by driving his team 68 yards in the waning moments.

On the winning play of what will be one of the most talked-about championship games in college football history, a second Clemson hero stood tall. In a game filled with blue-chip superstars on both teams, it was a former walk-on receiver, sophomore Hunter Renfrow, who reeled in a touchdown on third-and-goal with one second left on the clock.

“It’s a blessing. It’s surreal. I love my team,” said winning coach Dabo Swinney. “I told them tonight that the difference in this game would be the love they have for one another. I knew they wouldn’t quit.”

Renfrow caught two touchdown passes — matching the two he scored a year ago as a short, skinny freshman who’d been recruited out of high school by the likes of Appalachian State, Furman, Gardner-Webb and Wofford. Now he’s a name to remember for all time.

So is Swinney, an Alabama alum who was a walk-on there — so far from seeing the field, he refers to himself now as having been a “crawl-on.” Swinney toppled the great Nick Saban, who’d won nine consecutive championship games (conference and national).

Swinney now has six postseason victories in five years over coaches who’ve won national titles. He has beaten Urban Meyer twice, Bob Stoops twice and Les Miles once in postseason games. And now he has toppled the mighty Saban, the greatest coach of his generation.

Alabama led 14-0, but the Tigers — seeking revenge for a 45-40 loss to the Crimson Tide in last year’s title game — never gave up the hunt.

The fourth quarter was one of the best the college game has ever conjured, with the Tigers (14-1) and Tide (14-1) trading impossibly clutch touchdown drives.

Clemson won it’s 11th game of the season over an opponent that finished with a winning record. The Tigers now have 70 victories in the last six years, second only to Alabama’s 76.

The Tide’s 26-game winning streak is no more.

“I don’t think one game defines who you are, you know, as a person, as a competitor, or as a team and certainly (doesn’t) define what this group of young men was able to accomplish this year,” Saban said. “It was a hard-fought game out there today. Very disappointing to lose a game like that.”

Watson took a pounding he’ll feel well into the offseason, as he presumably heads into the 2017 NFL Draft and becomes one of the top quarterbacks selected. He was drilled early, often and late, but in the end he was — as he so often has been — the best player on the field.

Before the final drive, Watson gathered his teammates in the huddle and told them, “Let’s be legendary. Let’s be great.”

They were that and more.

“We came up a little short last year,” Swinney said, “but tonight, at the top of the mountain, that Clemson flag is flying.”

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com