TAMPA, Fla. -- The key to Alabama's nearly unprecedented run of success over the last year-and-a-half -- over the past eight years, really -- has been their mechanical, relentless, almost pathological punishment of their opponents' slightest mistakes. You can keep a game close for a while, but they will wear you down and strike at the moment you even hint at a weakness. Sometimes you feel you are close to Alabama. But you're not. You only think you are. And the moment you realize you're not is obvious to everyone.
In the semifinal game on New Year's Eve against Washington, Bama seemed to be letting the Huskies hang around until late in the second half, when one miscue -- an errant pass as Washington tried to sneak one last score before halftime -- turned into an Alabama touchdown. Washington theoretically could have come back after that. But everybody in the stadium new better than that. Alabama takes you, chokes you and you die. It's what they do.
In Monday's night's epic, and epically lengthy College Football Playoff national championship game -- it ran longer than the legendary 11-inning Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, thanks in part to the sheer volume of replay reviews -- Clemson, a year after suffering through one of those patented Alabama losses in the last CFP national championship game, faced at least four of these moments. But they still prevailed, 35-31. In any other game, any other team, those moments would have been the end of it all: Alabama would just do their thing as usual.
When Bo Scarbrough ran for a 37-yard touchdown five minutes into the second quarter to give Alabama a 14-0 lead, that felt like it. When Deshaun Watson fumbled a snap deep in his own territory early in the third quarter, that felt like it. When true freshman QB Jalen Hurts hit tight end O.J. Howard, that guy again, for a 68-yard touchdown to give the Tide a 10-point lead with two minutes left in the third quarter, that felt like it. When Clemson was trying to come back late but receiver Jordan Leggett dropped a third-down pass, that felt like it. When Hurts ran for a 30-yard touchdown with two minutes left, requiring Watson to drive the Tigers 68 yards against a defense that most observers have spent the season calling perhaps the best college football defense of all time, that felt like it.
None of those things were it. Clemson did not trick Alabama, or catch the defending champs on an off night, or pull out a bunch of lucky breaks. Heading into the game, it was a legitimate point of debate whether or not Nick Saban had somehow solved the game of college football: a ruthlessly efficient system, with five-star recruits three deep everywhere, just churning out win after win after championship after championship. Clemson would be a worthy challenger, but all you had to do is give Alabama that one opening, and you were toast.
But Alabama kept getting openings all night and failing to take advantage of them. The Tide dominated the first half but only led 14-7, thanks to some costly penalties, some dumb mistakes and some occasionally shaky play-calling. (The same kind of eccentric play-calling, frankly, that got Lane Kiffin booted out of here a few days ago.)
With Steve Sarkisian calling Alabama's plays on the sideline for the first time after being promoted from offensive strategist to coordinator, the Crimson Tide occasionally went away from what was working, like following up a successful run with a first-down pass, which was a struggle all night for Hurts, who completed only 13 of 31 passes. The offense felt at times totally reliant on Scarbrough, who was limited in the second half and ultimately left with a leg injury.
You kept waiting for Alabama to do what it always does, to make that big play that puts the game away, but every time there was an inkling of one, Clemson just came plowing back, like it didn't realize, or care, that it was playing The Alabama. Watson was wobbly early, but once he settled in, and he and the Tigers realized that the vaunted Alabama defense could in fact be had, they were the relentless ones. And they kept pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing … and then they finally broke through. Alabama never lets teams hang around too long. This time, it picked the wrong time, and the wrong team, to do so.
But man, did Bama ever make Watson pay. Watson was hit repeatedly, most memorably doing a 540-degree turn on a play that, cruelly, still left him one yard short of a first down.
Deshaun Watson spin cycle pic.twitter.com/Ow1PvouPLk- Mike Leslie (@MikeLeslieWFAA) January 10, 2017
Waston put himself at the mercy of the Alabama defense a shocking 78 times, throwing the ball 56 times and running it 21. (He even punted it once.) Clemson ran an astounding 99 plays, and 78 of them featured Watson either being hit, being attacked from all angles in the pocket, or both. And yet back he came, over and over and over again. It was ludicrous. Who does that against anybody, let alone Alabama?
You could almost see Alabama's players, so used to opponents wilting under their gaze, wondering what was happening. Who takes this sort of punishment and comes back stronger? Alabama's rare losses have felt fluky, like the weird one against Mississippi in September 2015, like the universe occasionally decides, "we know you're better that whoever you play but I have let them win sometimes, so here's a whole bunch of random sh-t that makes no sense that causes you to lose." But that's not what happened Monday. Alabama kept punching Clemson, and Watson specifically, in the face. They did what Alabama does.
But Watson never stopped kicking. Even after Hurts' astounding 30-yard touchdown run to give the Alabama the lead back late in the fourth quarter, Watson and Clemson could not be stopped. The 99th play was the best one of them all, just about the most dramatic way a football game can end.
(Of course, there was one more second left on the clock, which led to 15 more minutes of gameplay and replays, somehow. It was a very long night. You might have noticed.)
And then Clemson, somehow, in a game we'll never forget, in a game that felt like that legendary Vince Young Texas game more than a decade ago, was the champion. Alabama will not change who it is, and it will win many more championships because of it. The Tide's way is a dominant one that is nearly guaranteed to work, and it would be an active surprise not to see them back in this spot next year. They'll probably win it too, because they won't be facing Deshaun Watson.
Alabama makes you lose. Alabama makes everybody lose. Except one guy. Except him.