By beating Alabama 35-31 in Monday night’s instant classic of a College Football Playoff Championship, Clemson and its quarterback, Deshaun Watson, pulled off a number of incredible feats.
For starters, the Tigers became the fifth-greatest upset champions since 1975,1 beating a Crimson Tide squad that, at its peak, was ranked as the best team in modern college history by FiveThirtyEight’s Elo power ratings:
|SEASON||CHAMPION||BOWL RESULT||BOWL OPPONENT||PREGAME ELO WIN PROBABILITY|
|2002||Ohio State||31-24, Fiesta Bowl||Miami (FL)||22.2%|
|1983||Miami (FL)||31-30, Orange Bowl||Nebraska||25.9|
|2006||Florida||41-14, BCS Championship||Ohio State||28.6|
|1992||Alabama||34-13, Sugar Bowl||Miami (FL)||30.5|
|2016||Clemson||35-31, CFP Championship||Alabama||32.9|
|1981||Clemson||22-15, Orange Bowl||Nebraska||34.0|
|2000||Oklahoma||13-2, Orange Bowl||Florida State||35.8|
|2005||Texas||41-38, Rose Bowl||USC||39.8|
|2014||Ohio State||42-20, CFP Championship||Oregon||40.1|
|2010||Auburn||22-19, BCS Championship||Oregon||41.9|
That’s not to say the 13-1 Tigers didn’t appear to stand a chance against the 14-0 Crimson Tide; Clemson finished the season with history’s 18th-best peak rating. But the Tigers’ task was still daunting, particularly when the third quarter ended and they were still trailing by 10 points. During Nick Saban’s tenure at Alabama, the Tide were 97-0 when leading by double digits going into the final quarter of a game.
That’s when Watson began to dominate the vaunted Alabama defense, which had previously been lauded as among the greatest in college football history. In the fourth, Watson completed 12 of 18 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns, adding 22 more yards on the ground. He led Clemson to the most points (21) and third-most total yardage (152) any team put up against Alabama in a fourth quarter this season, capping off the victory with a 2-yard touchdown to Hunter Renfrow that put Clemson up with 1 second left on the clock.
That quarter helped Watson secure the best individual performance by a QB on the championship stage since the 2000 season.2 At least, that’s according to total adjusted yards, which takes a player’s total offense (passing plus rushing yards) and adds a bonus of 20 yards for every passing or rushing touchdown and subtracts a penalty of 45 yards for every interception. By that measure, Watson’s performance on Monday surpassed even Vince Young’s incredible feats in the 2006 Rose Bowl:
|PLAYER||SEASON||SCHOOL||OPPONENT||YDS||TD||INT||YDS||TD||TOTAL ADJ. YARDS|
|4||Marcus Mariota||2014||Oregon||Ohio State||333||2||1||39||0||367|
|5||A.J. McCarron||2012||Alabama||Notre Dame||264||4||0||9||0||353|
|8||Jameis Winston||2013||Florida State||Auburn||237||2||0||26||0||303|
|10||Nick Marshall||2013||Auburn||Florida State||217||2||1||45||1||277|
And, unlike most recent champions, the Tigers were not longstanding members of college football royalty. Clemson won the national title in 1981, but it also spent most of the 1990s and 2000s as a decent-but-not-great program. It wasn’t until coach Dabo Swinney’s third or fourth full season at the helm that the Tigers became a permanent presence among the nation’s top 10 teams.
To demonstrate the team’s rapid rise, let’s look at its last 25 seasons. Going back to the dawn of the Bowl Coalition era in 1992, no champion has had a lower average end-of-season Elo rating in the 20 seasons leading up to the five seasons before its title3 than Clemson. Meaning, the Tigers didn’t have the advantage of a longstanding lofty pedigree; they just got very good very quickly:
|SEASON||NATIONAL CHAMPION||CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON||5-YEAR AVG.||HISTORICAL AVG.|
In an era dominated by the Alabamas and Ohio States of the world, Clemson’s victory proved that with the right coach — and a special talent like Watson under center — a school can still rise from the middle of college football’s pack and become a champion.