Tuesday, 4 a.m.
In the back offices of Penn State, someone smiles.
On the practice fields of Texas A&M, someone nods.
In the recruiting offices of Oklahoma, someone told someone else so.
There is a new hope everywhere, from the fields of Auburn to the offices of FSU, from the dorms at Colorado to the track at UCLA. From Baylor to Houston, from Virginia Tech to Arkansas, from Florida to Tennessee.
Alabama has fallen.
And isn't that cool?
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For so long, the Tide was simply better than anyone else. It was the deathstar, and it destroyed planets. It spewed out championships, like from a fax machine. It recruited the best, and it won the most, and Nick Saban led the world in frowning through confetti. Championships seemed like a birthright, and everyone else in the game was a peasant. Think of college football as Huns; Saban is Attilla.
If nothing else, though, Clemson's 35-30 victory on Monday night was a victory for the average-sized guys, the also rans in Power Five conferences. If Clemson can pull this off, perhaps there is hope at Georgia, and at North Carolina, and at Iowa. If you have a sensational-enough quarterback, and if you have a folksy coach who taps into his team's potential, then you, too, can win over the Nickster.
If your defense is good enough, and if you have a collection of big wide receivers who are fearless, and if you have an underrated running back, then you, too, can hush all this talk about the best-team ever. Heck, Alabama wasn't even the best team on the field Monday night.
"That has to be one of the greatest games of all time," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Just absolutely incredible, to have to go down the field to win the game, that's what it's made of."
Instead, Lane Kiffen gets the last laugh. Blake Barnett, the quarterback who transferred, gets the last laugh. Watson gets the last laugh.
And Saban? Chuckles? This week, no one is going to open a fresh can of Bear Bryant comparisons.
Oh, you have to feel good for Swinney, who believed this season on all those Saturdays when Clemson was just barely the best team playing. Against Troy. Against N.C. State. Against FSU. In the loss to Pitt. Against Virginia Tech.
Swinney was like a cast member of Hair Monday night. He talked about love and God and blessings and growing up tough. But you know what? All of his – Watson and Renfrow and Ben Boulware – sounded just like him. He made things possible. Even when he was behind, he had faith. And he won over Saban, which very few coaches do.
Most weeks, Alabama comes out with that relentless defense, and it wears the other team down to the nubs. It's like watching erosion. Most years, the Tide wins with a perfectly average quarterback – A.J. McCarron or John Preston Wilson or Jay Barker. This time, Jalen Hurts. But it doesn't matter because the defense is usually so good.
But Clemson is different because of Watson. The longer the game went on, the better he was. And the more the vaunted Alabama defense, the No. 1 defense in the country, started to gasp for breath.
Watson threw for 130 yards in the final quarter. And that was the difference. Most of the years when Alabama has won the national title – against Texas, against Notre Dame, against Penn State, against Arkansas – it hasn't really faced a quarterback who can make the Tide look ordinary.
"As I said earlier, and I'll say it again, he didn't lose out on the Heisman, the Heisman lost out on him," Swinney said. "They lost out on an opportunity to be attached to this guy forever. But this guy, his class, his humility, this was his Heisman tonight, and this was really what he wanted. This is what he came to Clemson to do.
"He's just been an unbelievable, unbelievable player, preparer, leader, and ambassador for this university. He set the standard. He set the bar for everybody coming through. It's just unreal. Over a 3.0, and I'm so proud of him. I mean, this guy deserves it. I told him, I said, you deserve it. And I'm just happy that we have this moment to share in it, and the rest of these seniors, they'll take this with them forever. They'll take this into their marriages, they'll take this into their jobs. The moment will fade, but the work ethic, the will to win, the passion, the courage, the guts, the teamwork, the belief, how to think the right way, they'll take that with them forever."
He did. Watson has star quality. And he loaded the rest of his team on his back and carried them. It's odd: Whenever Alabama loses -- and it's rare -- legend is born. Remember Joe Montana? Remember the kick six? Now Watson, the kid who refused to lose.
Think about what Watson did in two years against Alabama. He hit 66 of 103 passes. He passed for 825 yards. He threw seven touchdowns. He led a last-second drive. Heck, Alabama was lucky to get a split.
Before his last play, Watson knew.
"I just kind of smiled to myself," Watson said. "I just knew because I knew that we were inside the 5 and I knew they were going to play straight cover zero man, and I knew if Tay make his block and get the little pick, Renfrow was going to get in the end zone. I kind of smiled, and I knew before I even snapped the ball it was going to be a touchdown. All I had to do was just get the ball to him. I slowed down the moment, everyone made their blocks and did their part, and I did my part, and we pulled it out."
Oh, there are others. Mike Williams and Wayne Gallman and Renfrow and Boulware. But it's Watson's show. If he had gone down in the second period with an ankle tweak, people would be praising Hurts for making a terrible night at least average with a long touchdown pass and a go-ahead run.
But Watson was better.
He was better than everyone.
"There was no upset tonight," Swinney said. "That's the last thing I told them when we left the locker room. I said, when we win the game tonight I don't want to hear one word about this being an upset. The only upset is going to be if we don't win the dadgum game. I don't want to hear one word about it. This is an expectation, the last thing I told them. We expected to win the game. We expected to win it last year. When we take the field, we expect to win because we work our tails off, and we got a committed group of people, staff, players, everybody."
They love their football at Clemson. They love the rock and the paw prints and the run down the hill and the Perrys and Frank Howard. Now, they'll love Watson forever. Theyll love Swinney, too. Because on a moonlit night in Tampa, they beat the best that college football had to offer. They made Alabama and Saban look mortal.
And they carved their own legend in stone.