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Deshaun Watson And Clemson Made History Against Alabama

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:

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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
Biggest college football championship upsets, 1975-2016

Source: College Football at Sports-Reference.com

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:

PASSING RUSHING
PLAYER SEASON SCHOOL OPPONENT YDS TD INT YDS TD TOTAL ADJ. YARDS
1 Deshaun Watson 2016 Clemson Alabama 420 3 0 43 1 543
2 Vince Young 2005 Texas USC 267 0 0 200 3 527
3 Deshaun Watson 2015 Clemson Alabama 405 4 1 73 0 513
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
6 Matt Leinart 2005 USC Texas 365 1 1 2 0 342
7 Cam Newton 2010 Auburn Oregon 265 2 1 64 0 324
8 Jameis Winston 2013 Florida State Auburn 237 2 0 26 0 303
9 Tim Tebow 2008 Florida Oklahoma 231 2 2 109 0 290
10 Nick Marshall 2013 Auburn Florida State 217 2 1 45 1 277
Best QB performances in a championship bowl, 2000-16

Total adjusted yards adds a player’s passing and rushing yards, plus 20-yard bonuses for passing and rushing TDs and a 45-yard penalty for interceptions.

Source: College Football at Sports-Reference.com

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:

ELO RATING
SEASON NATIONAL CHAMPION CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON 5-YEAR AVG. HISTORICAL AVG.
2016 Clemson +30.4 +20.4 +6.4
2015 Alabama +32.8 +29.1 +13.9
2014 Ohio State +31.5 +19.1 +16.9
2013 Florida State +27.3 +17.9 +21.0
2012 Alabama +31.9 +26.7 +12.6
2011 Alabama +30.4 +21.1 +13.2
2010 Auburn +23.4 +10.7 +12.7
2009 Alabama +29.3 +13.3 +14.2
2008 Florida +31.9 +19.6 +18.6
2007 LSU +23.4 +22.2 +7.5
2006 Florida +24.3 +14.1 +19.0
2005 Texas +28.6 +21.9 +8.4
2004 USC +31.8 +19.0 +12.4
2003 USC +28.4 +14.1 +13.3
2003 LSU +24.7 +12.1 +7.2
2002 Ohio State +22.1 +13.5 +14.4
2001 Miami (FL) +29.6 +16.9 +18.2
2000 Oklahoma +26.0 +5.7 +17.1
1999 Florida State +29.4 +26.0 +18.1
1998 Tennessee +26.9 +22.7 +10.9
1997 Michigan +27.2 +18.9 +19.1
1997 Nebraska +31.3 +28.1 +20.5
1996 Florida +31.0 +23.9 +11.1
1995 Nebraska +33.9 +23.3 +21.8
1994 Nebraska +27.6 +18.7 +22.5
1993 Florida State +29.8 +28.1 +9.9
1992 Alabama +26.5 +17.9 +20.8
Clemson didn’t come from a championship pedigree

Five-year Elo rating averages include the championship season and the four previous seasons. Historical averages are 20-year averages starting from 24 years before the championship season and going though five years before that season.

Source: College Football at Sports-Reference.com

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.

Footnotes

  1. In 1974, Associated Press champion Oklahoma didn’t play in a bowl game. Every champ since has finished their season in a bowl.
  2. 2000 is earliest season for which Sports-Reference.com’s Play Index has game-by-game player stats.
  3. So, for Clemson, this would be the 20 seasons between 1992 and 2011, which preceded the five seasons from 2012 to 2016.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

Filed under Clemson Tigers 15 posts, Deshaun Watson 2

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