You thought the Alabama dynasty was dead? You weren't alone. The Crimson Tide had lost its two last trips to the postseason, and many who didn't write them off after that began to start thinking about it after the loss to Ole Miss earlier this year. But Alabama did what Alabama has done so often before: Bounce back from the upset, work its way back into the national title game and, in this case, knock off the Clemson Tigers, 45-40, in one of the more entertaining national title games we've seen.
That might have been the biggest difference between this win and the other times the Tide have claimed the championship. Alabama generally beats its opponents handily -- topping Texas by 16, blanking LSU after the 2011 season and waxing Notre Dame a season later. As a rule, Alabama took control of those games early and never really let their opponents get back into the game. But against Clemson, it was a different -- a back-and-forth affair that helped make up for what has largely been a dreadful bowl season. And a game that the Tide won in large part due to the two parts of its game that were least likely to lead the charge: Special teams and the passing attack.
It started out looking like it might be one of those classic Alabama blowouts. After experiencing a little trouble but ultimately getting Clemson to punt on its first possession, the Tide got the ball for its second turn on the Alabama 41. Three Derrick Henry runs later -- the last a 50-yarder -- Alabama had a quick 7-0 lead.
But Clemson responded quickly, with Deshaun Watson hitting Hunter Renfrow on two touchdown passes sandwiched around -- what else? -- an Alabama missed field goal. Not longer after that, Alabama capitalized on a Watson interception to tie things up at 14-14 before halftime.
After the half was when things started to get very un-Alabama-like. A badly busted coverage by Clemson led to a 53-yard touchdown pass from Jake Coker to (until then) lightly-used O.J. Howard, one of several plays that made Coker's up-and-down night look a lot better on the stat sheet than it did live. Clemson responded with another installment of the Deshaun Watson Show, guest-starring Wayne Gallman, and scored 10 points of its own in the third quarter to take a 24-21 lead.
And then came the fourth quarter, a 40-point barrage of the kind that Nick Saban professes not to like. Late in the third quarter, Alabama had sacked Watson for the first time in the game to end a drive with potential, and maybe give the Tide a chance at the lead. But they came up empty. On the first Clemson possession of the fourth, Alabama got another great defensive play, this one a leaping move by Marlon Humphrey to break up what would have been a long pass play for Clemson.
The Tide took over, drove to the Clemson 16-yard line, and kicked a field goal. Tie game.
What followed was something that Nick Saban rarely if ever pulls out in the middle of a game: An on-sides kick that was beautifully executed and fielded at the 50-yard line. After a rush by Henry lost a yard, Coker once again hit Howard, this time for a 51-yard touchdown throw. While no one knew it at the time, Alabama had finally taken the lead for good.
Clemson fought back for a field goal, but Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Alabama was now leading 38-27, and time was running out for the Tigers. Watson wasn't done. He ran or threw for all of Clemson's 75 yards on the next drive, but the Tide defense managed to stop him on the two-point conversion, and Alabama's lead held at 38-33.
Mark J. Rebilas -- USA Today Sports
When Alabama took over again, Coker went to Howard again, this time for a 63-yard pass that set up a dose of Henry and Coker runs that ended with a 45-33 lead for the Tide. Clemson scored with 12 seconds left to pull within five, but the Tigers' desperation on-sides kick went out of bounds to essentially end the game.
Coker wasn't sharp most of the night, but he still ended up 16-of-25 for 335 yards and two touchdowns. O.J. Howard -- who had 33 catches for 394 yards before Monday's game -- grabbed five receptions for 208 yards and his only two touchdowns of the year. Henry was largely held in check outside of his one long run, picking up 108 yards on 35 carries, an average of less than 3.1 yards an attempt. Big passing plays and special teams saved Alabama in this game, which is something that's not generally associated with Nick Saban winning titles.
Part of the reason the Tide needed those big plays, though, was that Clemson gave Alabama a whale of a game. Watson was 30-of-47 for 405 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. He also ran the ball 20 times for 73 yards. The passing yardage made him the first player in FBS history to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in a single season, though it's worth noting that he did so in 15 games, which was unheard of in the FBS until last year. Bama managed to check the second-best running weapon on Clemson's team, limiting Gallman to 11 yards on 10 carries outside of a 34-yard run.
Before all of that, before Monday night, it was reasonable to wonder if the Alabama dynasty had run its course. Coming into 2015, Alabama had dropped its last two bowl games in appearances that looked bad, even if the score was at times closer than the game. But it was difficult to tell whether those two seasons were a hiccup or a trend, the beginning of a decline or simply proof of the fact that no one, not even Nick Saban's Alabama, can win them all. The Tide became a Rorschach test for college football fans.
The notion that Alabama's dynasty was ever truly over, though, looks indefensible in the wake of the team having won its fourth national title in seven years. It's something that hasn't been done in almost 70 years, long before scholarships were capped at 85 players and other moves were supposed to level out college football. Bear Bryant never won four titles in a seven-year stretch.
What Nick Saban has built at Alabama is something unique, if not in the overall history of college football then at least in the modern history of the game. It will eventually crumble, because all dynasties do. But Monday night proved that Alabama's dynasty hasn't ended yet -- and that the end seems as far off as it ever has.