Jan. 1, 2018.
Clemson had walked off the field in New Orleans after falling to the Alabama Crimson Tide, 24-6 in a game where the offense struggled to establish a rhythm as the Tide forced two interceptions by Kelly Bryant in the second half, and Clemson’s receivers had some critical drops that could have kept drives moving.
All in all, it was just a bad night.
A freshman from Cartersville, Ga. enrolled at Clemson in January, ranked as the No. 1 recruit in the country by most recruiting services. The hype was through the roof for Trevor Lawrence, and it only got louder as Lawrence shined in the spring game, passing for 122 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown to Tee Higgins.
Zerrick Cooper and Hunter Johnson elected to transfer from Clemson, so the quarterback depth chart became smaller heading into the fall.
The fall approached. Bryant started the first four games and Lawrence traded reps with the veteran until the Georgia Tech game, when it was a coming out party for the freshman. Lawrence threw four touchdowns. You know the story from there. Lawrence was named the starter the next week against Syracuse, and Bryant transferred to Missouri.
The game against Syracuse provided a nightmare scenario for Clemson fans. Lawrence was hurt on a scramble in the second quarter and Chase Brice was thrust into action. Brice’s shining moment, and what is a core reason why Clemson just won their second national title in three years, was the 13-play, 94-yard drive that was capped off by a Travis Etienne touchdown to help Clemson win 27-23.
Lawrence returned the next week, and Clemson rolled on from there, averaging 47.4 points per game in the last 10 games. Dabo Swinney made the move to Lawrence to enhance the downfield passing game, and it worked perfectly, but it was also for another reason: To get another shot at Alabama.
Clemson rolled over Notre Dame in the semifinal game in Dallas on Dec. 29, as Higgins made an acrobatic catch in the right corner of the endzone which effectively put the game away and sent Clemson fans booking flights to California.
Cue part four of Clemson-Bama. It’s the championship matchup that many thought we would be see all the way back in August.
The first few drives indicated that the game might be a shootout, but Trayvon Mullen’s second quarter interception shifted the momentum towards Clemson, and the Tigers rode that wave to a national title.
It was the Lawrence and Justyn Ross show in the second half, as the duo that has been lethal all season could not be stopped by Alabama’s vaunted defense, which had been giving up less than an average of 21 points per game. Lawrence shined on the biggest stage, passing for 347 yards and three touchdowns as Clemson secured its second national title in three years.
What may go missing in the celebration of Clemson’s win is the play of Clemson’s offensive line. Clemson couldn’t run the ball against Alabama last year, and while it wasn’t totally dominant, the guys up front allowed zero sacks against Quinnen Williams and the Alabama defensive front.
On the other side of the ball, Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables had Clemson prepared for what Tua Tagovailoa was going to do for most of the evening. When this defense needed to create a stop, they got stops, created turnovers and confused Tagovailoa.
From heartbreak one year to tears of joy the next. What a difference a year makes.