I was fortunate enough to be in Clemson last weekend, with my friends at a bar downtown as we watched Clemson play in the 2018 National Championship. Right around the middle of the third quarter, when Clemson was really laying it on thick and erasing any hope of an Alabama comeback, my friend turned to me and said “Is it just me, or does this feel just as special as the 2016 Natty?”
2016 gave the Tigers a chance to avenge that loss and send Clemson legends like Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Ben Boulware out with a championship in their senior year. The game was as dramatic as could be, coming down to a literal last-second touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow that gave the Tigers the win and secured Clemson’s first national championship since 1981.
We felt beyond blessed. To go to school at a time when the football team wins a championship is a remarkable coincidence and provides an unforgettable experience. For the rest of your life, you can say “I was there” whenever someone brings the Clemson football dyansty. Clemson hadn’t won it all in 35 years and it could have been another 35 years before they won another as far as anyone knew.
As we watched the minutes tick by last weekend, slowly counting down the seconds until we were able to parade through the streets, hugging and high-fiving strangers and screaming “TIGS ON TOP” at cars passing by, many of us tried to fit this victory and this season into the bigger picture, both in terms of Clemson and in terms of the college football world as a whole.
Entering the season as the number two team in the country, Clemson made headlines for its dueling quarterback position. The incumbent Kelly Bryant started the first four games and played as well as nearly any other quarterback in the country while rookie phenom Trevor Lawrence dazzled on nearly every offensive drive he helmed.
As the games went on and Lawrence continued to impress, though, his talent became impossible to ignore. He eventually usurped Bryant’s position as starter and spurred Bryant’s decision to transfer to Missouri. Regardless of what some may think about how Bryant handled the decision, he deserves a massive amount of credit for this championship.
Can you think of a harder position for a quarterback to be in? He waited patiently on the sidelines for two years and had to follow up the best quarterback in Clemson history and a national championship. That’s like going to your regular bar to make your debut playing the guitar, but Jimi Hendrix is your opening act.
Not only did Bryant keep Clemson relevant, but he excelled far beyond expectations in a season that some thought would be transitional. And then all of a sudden, he has to fight for the starting job against a true freshman, a notion that seems ridiculous until you realize that the freshman just so happens to be a once-in-a-generation quarterback talent.
Regardless, Lawrence took the starting job and ran with it, demolishing just about every freshman quarterback record that Clemson keeps track of. He showed off the kind of talent that has NFL teams with top picks in the upcoming draft wishing they could draft him right now.
By the end of the season, he had thrown for more yards in one season than any Clemson quarterback not named Watson, Boyd or Whitehurst.
By the time the playoffs rolled around, it was clear that Alabama and Clemson were on a collision-course. Both with undefeated records, star-studded rosters and a killer instinct, the two were in a class of their own.
Which is why this championship is so unbelievable and why it feels like this is the beginning of something new.
In a way, when the Tigers won in 2016, it felt like the peak of something. Despite the fact that we had the best quarterback in the history of the school and an all-time defense, Clemson was barely able to scrape out a win against the reigning college football powerhouse. It felt like we were the plucky underdogs who defied the odds and won it by the skin of our teeth, Rocky-style.
And while this game wasn’t nearly as dramatic thanks to yet another matchup with Alabama and a blowout to boot, every Tiger fan had to feel like this was a landmark game.
The game was so convincingly one-sided that it really seems like Clemson might be the new standard in college football and put this team in the record books as one of the best of all time.
The 44-16 smackdown marks the largest margin of defeat in Nick Saban’s illustrious career as a head coach and marked the first time since 1897 that a team has gone 15-0. With the win, the seniors of the football team like Christian Wilkins and Renfrow became one of the winningest classes ever with 55 wins and just four losses.
Clemson toppled Alabama - the immortal college football monolith - in a way that shook the country from Santa Clara all the way to the Southland.
Nothing is certain--especially in sports. Yes, the Tigers have won two championships in three years and look poised to capitalize on their success, but it might be another 35 before they win another. You never know.
So whether you’re a senior and you get to go out on top, a freshman who feels like they got here just in time to be a part of something truly exceptional, a graduate who will always root for their alma mater, a fan who’s followed the team for as long as they can remember or a parent or family member who roots for the team because their child wanted to be a Tiger:
Celebrate. Because this one was special.