GLENDALE, Ariz. -- For much of the night Monday, it didn't seem plausible that we'd see Nick Saban smile. Deshaun Watson had made Alabama's worst nightmares come true, dazzling the national championship crowd with what could have been an all-time great performance against a historically great defense.
But as Watson pulled off a rare dismantling of Alabama -- 405 passing yards, four touchdowns, 73 rushing yards -- the No. 2 Crimson Tide reached deep into their bag of tricks and into their reserves of blue-chip talent to take down No. 1 Clemson 45-40 to win the College Football Playoff and their fourth national title in seven years.
There are no underdogs on Alabama. This is a relentless machine of a program that amasses five-star recruits like it's nothing. When a third-string defensive end makes a massive sack midway through the fourth quarter that helps force Clemson to settle for a field goal, that third-stringer is Da'Shawn Hand, the former No. 1 rated recruit in the country.
But in a season in which Heisman winner Derrick Henry and the defensive front carried Alabama, the long journeys of the supporting players ended in the most spectacular way possible, propelling Alabama to yet another national title in a show of unparalleled roster strength.
"Initially it felt like a dream, and I tried to tell everybody to wake me up because I thought it wasn't real," said tight end O.J. Howard, the offensive player of the game. "It was just a great feeling to get in the end zone again."
Yes, Henry ran for 158 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries, including a 50-yard touchdown in the first quarter. But he had only 30 yards in the second half. Yes, the defense ended up holding both Watson and Wayne Gallman under four yards per rush attempt. But Watson's dual-threat ability kept Clemson alive, as he burned the Crimson Tide with his unmatched escapability and knack for making pinpoint throws into tight spaces. Alabama allowed 550 total yards, over 100 more than it had allowed all season.
And so it became Howard's show, along with tailback Kenyan Drake, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey, and kicker Adam Griffith, and quarterback Jake Coker. The game-changing plays in the second half came not from the all-world superstars we know; they came from the guys who did not make All-SEC this season but were all well-prepared to step up when Alabama needed sparks.
Howard in particular has enticed Alabama fans with his talent for three years. The 6-foot-6, 242-pound junior was a five-star recruit, and we glimpsed his potential stardom when he was a freshman and burned the LSU defense for a 52-yard touchdown in 2013. That was also the last time he scored a touchdown until Monday.
Howard caught five passes for 208 yards and two touchdowns, taking advantage of confused Clemson coverage to score on a 53-yarder and a 51-yarder, in addition to a crucial 63-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter that put Alabama in position to go ahead by two scores, which it did a few plays later.
"He came over to me and he was like, 'You know, man, this is bigger than my wildest dreams,'" Drake said. "I just couldn't be happier for the guy because he deserves it."
Howard has a solid 38 catches this season, but he did not catch a pass in the Iron Bowl, and he did not catch a pass in the SEC Championship Game. Last year's offense belonged to Amari Cooper, and this year's belonged to Henry and freshman phenom receiver Calvin Ridley. But with Ridley limited to only 14 yards on six catches and Henry quiet in the second half, Howard played the role of breakout star, taking advantage of the attention paid to Henry and Ridley. It often seemed as if offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had forgotten about Howard over the past two seasons, and Clemson wasn't prepared to handle him.
"O.J., quite honestly, should have been more involved all year long," Saban said. "Sometimes he was open and we didn't get him the ball, but I think the last two games have been breakout games for him in terms of what he's capable of and what he can do. I would say it's bad coaching on my part that he didn't have the opportunity to do that all year long, because he is really a good athlete, and he's improved tremendously as a player this year."
Not only did Saban smile on Monday night, but a player performed so well that he was forced to admit his coaching mistakes.
The narrative on Monday could have again been about how Saban still isn't prepared to handle talented dual-threat quarterbacks, and yet Saban flipped the script with aggressiveness and trust in his role players. The game changed early in the fourth quarter, when Alabama kicked a field goal to tie the game at 24. Saban called for an onside kick, with Griffith floating a kick down the right side, right into the hands of Humphrey in stride. Two plays later, Coker found Howard for his 51-yard touchdown with 10:34 left, putting control of the game in the hands of Alabama.
Griffith has had all kinds of ups and downs in his career. He was the kicker on the other end of the Kick Six against Auburn in 2013. He was the kicker who missed seven field goals last year and nine more this year. But Saban got aggressive, and Griffith perfectly placed the kick to Humphrey, who, according to special teams coach Bobby Williams, had made mistakes on the play in practice on Saturday.
Clemson mirrored Alabama's tight kickoff alignment, and the Tide saw an opportunity to take advantage by kicking a floater to an area of the field that the Tigers weren't prepared to defend.
"Saban, I guess you could say, he's a conservative coach in a sense, but he knows the athletes that he has on the field," Drake said. "He won't ever call a play that we've never practiced."
Drake was the final piece of the puzzle. One of the top tailback recruits in the country in 2012, Drake has struggled to consistently break through on a team loaded with backfield talent -- T.J. Yeldon, then Derrick Henry the last few years -- but also because of injury problems, including a broken leg in 2014 and a broken arm earlier this season.
Clemson responded to Alabama's onside kick/touchdown sequence with a field goal, but Alabama answered right away as Drake took back the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown, putting the Tide up by 11.
"I always like to see guys that are seniors who have been great contributors in the program do something special that's going to be a great memory to them, and that kickoff return was really something special," Saban said.
Drake had only 77 carries this season. Howard -- who is a junior but may enter the draft -- hadn't caught a touchdown since he was a freshman. Even Coker, the starting quarterback, had struggled to earn validation for years, transferring from Florida State, losing the QB competition last season and largely ceding the offense to Henry this season as starter. Coker was pressured heavily by Clemson, but he made key throws in the second half and ended up completing 16 of 25 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns with no turnovers.
"Would not trade this for the world," Coker said. "This game meant a lot to me. I felt like, you can win a bunch of games at Alabama, you can win the SEC championship, but that's kind of expected at Alabama. That's the way it should be."
And so, after a mere two-year drought, Alabama proved that its dynasty isn't actually showing cracks. The Ole Miss loss earlier in the season turns from a potential end point to yet another beginning, a game that will be remembered as a footnote or a turning point amid another spectacular championship season.
Watson and Clemson could have changed the story, but Alabama responded by putting on full display the magnitude of its depth and talent. Tuscaloosa is a place where even the role players are stars when their numbers are called, and on Monday, Saban and his staff found the perfect combination.
"We pride ourselves on being an explosive team, a team full of playmakers, and you can't ask for a better group of guys," Drake said. "You would think that guys, with our caliber of playmaking ability, there would be a lot of egos, and not everybody can get along, but this team really came together as one, a group of brothers, more than any other team that I've been on since I've been here, and the end result is us winning a national championship."
Confetti fell on the field, and when the Alabama locker room doors opened, the smell of cigar smoke filled the air. The team with the staggering individual talent deployed it in the best possible fashion, fighting off the challengers, upstart Clemson, by putting confidence in players across the roster to step into the spotlight and make plays when needed. They did so, and they proved that Alabama's dynasty never left.
The Crimson Tide set the standard, and everyone else is still chasing them. Everyone else is still the underdog.