TAMPA, Fla. -- Deshaun Watson gave Alabama nightmares, and all the nation's best wide receiver prospect could do was watch.
Watson passed for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rushed for 73 yards, and even though Clemson lost one year ago in the national championship, it was one of the greatest individual performances anybody has had against one of Nick Saban's Crimson Tide teams. What might be the most impressive thing about that night?
Watson did it without Mike Williams, Alabama's new worst nightmare.
When Alabama attempted to slow down Watson last year, it did not have to slow down Williams, arguably college football's most complete wide receiver. Williams broke a bone in his neck in Clemson's opening game in 2015, sidelining him for the rest of the season and depriving Watson of his best weapon in what proved to be a Heisman finalist year for him anyway.
Now, Watson has his full arsenal of playmakers available to take on Alabama, once again owner of the nation's best defense, in a national championship rematch on Monday (8 p.m. on ESPN). Top deep threat Deon Cain will be on the field after missing last year's playoff because of a suspension, too, joining a healthy Williams to round out college football's deepest receiving corps, which is paired with the most well-rounded quarterback.
"There's no question, Mike Williams is a difference-maker," said Jeff Scott, Clemson's co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach. "He makes defenses defend us differently when he's on the field. He's a guy that Deshaun has a lot of faith in. They have a high confidence in each other, knowing where the ball's going to be, knowing where Mike's going to be, those type of things."
As a sophomore in 2014, Williams emerged as the top target for the then-freshman Watson, catching 57 passes for 1,030 yards and averaging 18.1 yards per catch at 6-foot-3, 225 pounds. He was supposed to follow that up with an All-America season, supposed to be Watson's best asset in what would become a breakout season nationally.
Instead, Williams' 2015 season lasted one drive, and he didn't get to play an on-field role in the playoff chase.
It was a season-opening cupcake game against Wofford, the type of afternoon in which the main goals are to take care of business with no injuries and as little drama as possible. On its first possession, Clemson had first-and-goal at the four-yard line. Watson took a snap in the shotgun and calmly delivered a pass over the middle to the back of the end zone to Williams for the touchdown.
As Williams came down, he was pushed by a defender and fell straight into the goalpost. He was carted off the field on a stretcher. He had fractured the C6 vertebrae in his neck, creating a sense of dread in which the only sense of relief came when it was revealed that Williams would be able to make a full recovery.
"I can remember at that point sitting there at halftime in the locker room thinking 8-5," Scott said, "trying to figure out where we were going to be because he was such a key part of our offense. But I think the very first thing you think about is his career. He's a guy that's got a special future ahead of him at the next level if he'll continue to stay healthy. So that was the first thing that kind of went through your mind, is being sure that he's going to be healthy, be able to walk, be able to play again. Once we heard that, we could deal with him sitting out a year."
Williams spent the 2015 season making weekly visits to the doctor and focusing on academics -- he graduated in December with a sociology degree -- knowing that he could not play. When Clemson met Alabama last year in Arizona, Williams was relegated to the sideline, serving as an extra coach who helped tell teammates what kind of defense was being run. He watched as walk-on freshman Hunter Renfrow beat Alabama for two touchdowns, and he watched as Charone Peake, now in the NFL, stepped up with 99 receiving yards.
After watching his team's undefeated season end at the hands of Alabama, Williams made a full recovery and was cleared for limited contact in spring practice, setting the stage for a comeback story in the 2016 season. The comeback couldn't have gone much better.
Williams returned to catch nine passes for 174 yards in Clemson's opening win at Auburn. While the Tigers' passing game had some rough moments in the first half of the season, Williams caught fire and now has 90 catches for 1,267 yards and 10 touchdowns in 14 games, earning him first-team All-ACC and several All-America honors.
Clemson has a diverse, deep set of receivers. Renfrow remains an ace out of the slot. Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud are masters of catching short, quick passes as an extension of the running game. Jordan Leggett has developed into one of the nation's best tight ends. Cain, out of Dabo Swinney's doghouse, averages 19 yards per catch and will also be a vital weapon in Clemson's attempt to inflict more damage upon the Alabama defense.
Nobody, however, is more of a difference-maker than Williams, who changes the way Alabama has to prepare for Clemson. Watson spreads the wealth, and yet Williams has nearly twice as many receiving yards as anyone else on the team.
"Mike has a unique ability in the one-on-one man situations versus some of the top corners to be able to still win those matchups because he's a very physical guy, to be able to go up and attack the ball," Scott said.
Williams is one of the biggest wide receivers in the country, and he combines his size and strength with impressive speed. Most notably, Williams is able to stretch the field and make contested catches because of his exceptional ball skills and hands.
With both Cain and Williams, Clemson is better equipped to attack Alabama downfield, which could free up more room for Watson to do damage with his legs. It's a lot to account for, even for a defense as athletic and talented as the Crimson Tide. The potential matchup of Williams vs. Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey could be the game's biggest, most important individual showdown.
It's an opportunity that Williams is going to savor.
"Just knowing that the game could be taken from you at any time," Williams said, "I just appreciate the game a lot more."
Monday's national championship game will only be the beginning. With his degree in hand to go along with his size and speed, Williams is ready to take on the NFL, where he stands a good chance of being the top wide receiver taken, continuing the recent tradition of Clemson sending touted receivers to the NFL, a club that includes Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant and Jacoby Ford.
"He's going to kill it," Watson said. "He's going to take it to another level. … Mike is going to be a superstar in the NFL."
First, Alabama awaits, the biggest challenge of Williams' college career.
It goes both ways, though. Entering the rematch, there are plenty of differences between this year and last. None are bigger than Alabama needing to account for the addition of a first-round wide receiver to Watson's arsenal.