I thought the game itself came down to two things: first was Bama failing to capitalize on Clemson turnovers. Alabama’s ability to convert turnovers into scores (often without the offense taking the field!) became the stuff of legends this year. They created two turnovers in this game – both on Clemson’s end of the field. But not only did Clemson prevent those non-offense touchdowns that had become Alabama’s calling card; they also kept Alabama’s offense out of the endzone after those turnovers. The Tide had to settle for a net of three points off those two turnovers, and that wasn’t nearly enough of a knockout blow.
The last Clemson turnover came early in the third quarter, and Alabama led 17-7. From there the story was Clemson’s offense wearing down the Alabama defense. With Bo Scarbrough injured, the Tide found it difficult to sustain drives, and the Alabama defense was called on again and again until it broke down to the tune of 21 fourth quarter points for the Tigers. Clemson ended up running 99 plays due in large part to an effective defense of their own and an Alabama offense that couldn’t put together any kind of a sustained drive until they fell behind.
Georgia fans naturally thought of the end of the 2012 SEC Championship. This time the Tide didn’t stop the last-minute drive. The difference of course is that the 2012 Dawgs had to have a touchdown while this Clemson team would have survived with a chip shot field goal if it came to that. I think that difference changes playcalling quite a bit, and of course the issue of the running clock in 2012 also factors in.
I supported the Tide in this game. It wasn’t out of any SEC loyalty, a concept I’ll never understand fully. I saw a Bama win as the best outcome for Georgia. We’ve more or less become numb to Alabama titles, and I didn’t want Clemson adding a national title to their recruiting pitch. The Dawgs have enough of a challenge recruiting against their SEC rivals, but two of the last four national champs are ACC schools from neighboring states. That doesn’t make Kirby Smart’s job any easier.
Clemson won though, and three of the last four national champions border Georgia to the south, west, and now the northeast. It’s not news that the recruiting competition in this part of the country is cutthroat, and Clemson’s win will only make it moreso. Seeing yet another neighbor hoist the trophy, especially one with whom Georgia has such deep history, only increases the desperation of Georgia fans to see their program win a title. Clemson had waited since 1981, but Bulldog fans can do them one better.
Dabo’s path to the top hasn’t been linear and certainly hasn’t been conventional. His elevation from interim coach in 2008 wasn’t seen as a home run, and his program was nearly short-circuited after a disappointing 2010. Swinney made some changes and brought in outstanding coordinators – first Chad Morris to overhaul the offense and then Brent Venables to build the defense. The turning point was Clemson’s comeback upset of LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers have lost only seven games in the four seasons since. More, they’ve survived and even improved after the departure of Morris and a wave of talent that salvaged Swinney’s career.
Georgia’s 2013 and 2014 games against Clemson were battles of fairly evenly-matched teams. Clemson won a tight game in 2013 as Tajh Boyd bested Aaron Murray in a contest of senior quarterbacks. Georgia’s dominant running game was the story in 2014 as Gurley and Chubb took over and blew open a close game. A secondary story of that 2014 was how both teams managed to replace Murray and Boyd. Georgia was positioned better in the short term with Hutson Mason, but it took one throw to realize that Clemson’s long term answer was a very special true freshman.
I was surprised but certainly also glad that Clemson didn’t stick with Watson in that game. We had our own experience breaking in a true freshman quarterback this season, and I’m sure Swinney had his own developmental plan for Watson in mind. It didn’t take long for Watson to win the starting job, and he came back from a knee injury to lead his team to consecutive national title games. He’s been an outstanding player and has to be in the discussion of the best players who never won the Heisman.
No one imagined after that 2014 game in Sanford Stadium that Georgia had run all over a team that would play for a national title the next year and win it just one one year later. I also doubt many expected the two programs to head in such different trajectories.
As Kirby Smart rebuilds the Georgia program, he knows that the team’s foundation is as important as the superstars. That realization is evident in the current recruiting class, especially on the offensive line. It’s true that Georgia also must keep top talent like Watson in state, but Georgia has had exceptional individuals like Stafford, Green, and Gurley with no titles to show for it. It’s the supporting cast that needs the most work, and it isn’t hard to imagine how much better even a true freshman like Eason would look having a target like Williams or a left tackle like Hyatt.
What we saw last night was an outstanding player in Watson that could push a program over the top as well as a program in a position to take full advantage when that player came along. Swinney did well to land a transformational player like Watson, but he’s a championship coach because the rest of the ingredients were in place and came together. Even Watson couldn’t do it alone, and it took a fleet of receivers like Williams, Renfrow, and Leggett making tough catches along with a line that largely held their own against Alabama’s standard pass rush to produce those magical fourth quarter drives.