Alabama dynasty talk stalls as 'The Process' fails to account for Watson, Clemson
Nick Saban, Crimson Tide are not going anywhere, but they no longer own college football
TAMPA, Fla. -- It turns out Nick Saban's "Process" couldn't account for everything.
Not when a silent locker room was fairly bursting with sadness, silence and simmering indignation Monday night.
"Media's coming in. Handle 'em right men," yelled Scott Cochran, Alabama's raspy-voiced strength coach as the doors opened. "Be a pro. There's no easy way to do this."
By "this," he means lose. For the first time in 27 games, Alabama did. You knew it was inevitable ... but like this? That first loss in almost 16 months came dramatically, fantastically and unbelievably, 35-31 to Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
You and they couldn't have seen it coming this way.
For the first time in 98 such contests, Saban lost a game at Alabama he led by double digits in the fourth quarter. A game his team led by two touchdowns Monday saw three lead changes in the final 4½ minutes.
For the first time -- maybe ever -- a new offensive coordinator (Steve Sarkisian) called the plays only a week after being moved into the role ahead of the championship game.
He did OK. His quarterback didn't.
The best defense of the Saban era gave up five touchdowns, 35 points and 511 yards.
To be addressed in an offseason filled with speculation: Was this just a hiccup in the dynasty or the end of it?
"Around here, we rarely lose. When we do lose, it's a shock. It's a shock to everybody," linebacker Tim Williams said in that quiet locker room.
Handle it right? They couldn't, not all of them.
Clemson's Deshaun Watson took all but one second of the final two minutes to lead the winning drive. He proved himself Alabama's kryptonite, this time with a lasting result that defined his career and his school.
"It's what God wants," Watson said afterward.
If that's the case, God must have a soft spot for a slight, unathletic-looking former walk-on named Hunter Renfrow. The sophomore slot receiver, who looks more like a student manager than a player, caught the winning touchdown pass with one tick left.
"Every time he makes a play," Alabama defensive back Marlon Humphrey said, "I just go like, 'White guy.' I guess he's got some serious talent."
Call that particular play the New Pick Six. Replays showed that Renfrow, while running his route, crossed over top of teammate Artavis Scott, who then dove into Humphrey. That freed Renfrow to run unchecked into the end zone as safety Tony Brown arrived late.
Such pick plays are supposed to be against the rules.
"It is but isn't," Scott said. "I'm running an actual route. It just happened to look like that, but it worked. Call it what you want, it's a touchdown."
Watson actually called it "a good pick" after the game.
Renfrow called it "a little rub."
Alabama hasn't figured it out yet. In two championship games against the Tide, the 5-foot-10, 180-pound Renfrow has caught 17 passes for 183 yards and four touchdowns.
"I'm not sure [how he got open so much]," Humphrey said. "I was wondering the same thing."
Yes, those so-called pick plays are illegal. In reality, they are practiced to succeed in that no-call gray area. Earlier, Clemson's Mike Williams had scored on a short pass after tight end Leggett smashed into Humphrey.
Another pick play. Saban was shown to be livid on the sidelines.
"That one was a little bit more legal," Humphrey said. "They were both somewhat illegal."
Saban didn't mention either play in his postgame comments.
"We know we can't set a pick," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "We're just trying to create some disruption."
There's disruption all right. Monday's result will provide enough fodder to program Paul Finebaum's show until the 2017 kickoff.
Maybe the offensive struggles lately weren't Lane Kiffin's fault after all. Sarkisian did his best to unleash Hurts, the freshman quarterback. Just a teenager, Hurts regressed late in the season as he struggled to read defenses and make smart decisions.
The Alabama offense converted only 2 of 15 third downs. The defense was on the field for 99 Clemson plays.
It took Watson accounting for 463 yards this time (478 last year) to beat a defense that held eight of 14 previous opponents to less than 200 yards.
CBS analyst Gary Danielson was right last month when he asked out loud, "Has the Alabama secondary been tested?"
Not quite like this.
"He tackled me," Williams said.
Maybe, maybe not. Remember what we said about that gray area. Big 12 officials had enough issues on their hands calling 12 penalties (nine on Alabama) and seemingly stopping every other play to review it.
In the end, it may have been the best championship game since the start of the BCS era (since 1998).
"Reminds of me of Texas-USC when I was a little kid," Humphrey said of that 2006 Rose Bowl. "My mom made me go to bed during the game. I snuck downstairs. As soon as Vince Young went into the end zone, it was just crazy."
It was a fitting end to a 135-day college football season that produced the longest average games on record. This one took 4 hours, 8 minutes before Watson stuck a dagger in the Tide.
"Guys that have been here for a while still feel a little bit of pain from the Ohio State [playoff] loss two years ago," Alabama tailback Damien Harris. "Lose with one second on the clock, what can you say?"
You can say there is a definite pause in this dynasty. Saban is still chasing Bear Bryant for a sixth national championship. The only team to appear in the first three College Football Playoffs has only one championship over that span.
"They're going to be back, but Nick's going to have to buy my dinner," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after the first championship game rematch left us wanting more.
"Hopefully, we have a chance to have a rubber match. I'd love nothing more."
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