TAMPA, Fla. -- Alabama left too much time on the clock.
It's what Deshaun Watson told himself before the two minutes in which he would conquer the Crimson Tide dynasty, two minutes in which he would engineer what will go down as one of the most legendary championship drives in college football history. Very few offensive players have earned the right to be confident about what they can do against a Nick Saban-coached Alabama football team.
Watson is one of them, and it's why Clemson is the national champion.
"I just smiled right when they scored," Watson said after Jalen Hurts put Alabama ahead by three. "I saw the two minutes on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew. I just told my guys, 'Hey, let's be legendary, let's go be great.'"
Watson is a man of his word.
Clemson stunned Alabama, 35-31, on Monday night in Tampa in the College Football Playoff championship game. It did so because of the heroics of Watson, the unflappable, unbreakable Clemson quarterback who got up from big hits, shook off mistakes and a slow start and delivered the ultimate knockout blow to cap an extraordinary college career.
With Clemson trailing all game, Watson directed a gorgeous 88-yard drive in less than two minutes, including two big passes to Jordan Leggett and Mike Williams and a 15-yard dash to set up Wayne Gallman's go-ahead score. When Hurts had responded with a 30-yard touchdown of his own to put Alabama back ahead by three, no doubts crept through Watson's mind. He says he blocked it all out, the noise of a record-crowd at Raymond James Stadium, the pressure of millions watching the final moments of a national championship game.
Needing a field goal to force overtime, Watson used all but one second left on the clock to go 68 yards and achieve football immortality. With a handful of completions and the help of a pass interference penalty, Clemson lined up on the two-yard line, first and goal, national championship on the line. It was Watson's Vince Young moment, the weight of a title and the chance to slay a giant on his shoulders.
"I was just in my zone," Watson said. "I just felt just at peace."
What happened next is in dispute.
"Someone told me Deshaun wanted to run the ball," wide receiver Hunter Renfrow said on the field amid the postgame celebration. "So I'm just glad they called a pass play.
"Well Coach [Dabo] Swinney wanted a running play, but I told him let's pass it," Watson said. "I told him put the ball in my hands."
"The last call, Jeff was adamant about it," Swinney said of co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott.
Clemson put the ball in Watson's hands. Watson rolled right. He got the help of a successful, uncalled pick and delivered an easy pass into the hands of Renfrow in the end zone, one tick on the clock, national championship in hand, no overtime necessary.
"I kind of smiled, and I knew before I even snapped the ball it was going to be a touchdown," Watson said.
What isn't in dispute is the final result, and how Watson masterfully handled the moment like few other college football players ever would have been capable of doing. Watson may be the first quarterback to feel at peace in the most pressure-packed situation imaginable against the seemingly unbeatable Alabama defense.
He had reasons to be confident. One year ago, Watson tormented Alabama with an all-time great performance in a losing effort in which he amassed 478 total yards and four touchdowns but came up one touchdown short of Clemson's first national championship since 1981. One year ago, despite the loss, Watson did as much individually as anyone can possibly do against Alabama's relentless all-time great defenses. And yet it still wasn't enough.
But Watson had solved Alabama's defense before. On Monday night, national title on the line in a revenge game, Watson solved Alabama again in what will be the final game of his college career after graduating in three years.
Next will come a winter of nitpicking, of endless NFL Draft scrutiny in which Watson has the raw ability, experience, arm strength and athleticism to be the first quarterback taken but will have to answer questions about occasional lapses in decision-making and up-and-down accuracy.
The Cleveland Browns have the No. 1 pick, and Texas A&M's defensive end Myles Garrett is expected to be high on everybody's board. But the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears are picking at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively this April, and Watson could prove to be a fit in either place.
If ever someone could have delivered a game tape to the NFL that showcased his poise, intelligence and toughness, it was Watson vs. Alabama, part II, the type of night that should cap a career to deliver a quarterback to the first round with ease.
Watson managed a paltry 23 yards of total offense in an ugly first quarter. He finished the game with 483 yards and four touchdowns. He threw 56 passes. He ran 21 times. He survived numerous hits, including hard shot on a run that left him spinning circles in the air before landing.
He got back up and did the impossible.
Whenever Clemson's back was against the wall, Watson came through. It's what he was brought to Clemson to do. A five-star recruit out of Gainesville, Ga., Watson committed to play for the Tigers as a high school sophomore. Clemson built its roster around Watson, planning for a future that it hoped would at long last include a national championship.
A few weeks before the title game, Watson dealt with a second consecutive disappointment when he was invited to the Heisman Trophy presentation but didn't win, instead watching as ACC rival Lamar Jackson won the award. Watson, however, ended up earning the award he really wanted, standing on a stage in Raymond James Stadium, confetti raining down, national championship in hand.
"He didn't lose out on the Heisman; the Heisman lost out on him," Swinney said. "They lost out on an opportunity to be attached to this guy forever. But this guy, his class, his humility, this was his Heisman tonight, and this was really what he wanted. This is what he came to Clemson to do."
Watson went to Clemson to push the Tigers to the top of the sport. He was the missing link, the next big thing, the all-everything five star quarterback who managed to be the type of player who lived up to every bit of the hype and delivered what was promised. His career had been immaculate, his place in Clemson history had already been secure before the Tigers and Crimson Tide kicked off on Monday. But in those final two minutes, Watson may have forever secured his place as the greatest, most important player in the history of the Clemson football team.
"I just wanted to sign my name and end it with an exclamation point," Watson said, "and I think I did that. Moments like this I'll never forget. Clemson was the best three years of my life, and credit me as the person I am today. Through my faith, as a citizen, as a football player, as a student, I've learned so much, and it's just been special."
Fittingly, the touchdown wasn't the end of it.
"You know, what a way to win a national championship, to be able to go out on the field with one second and take a knee," Swinney said. "See this guy get one more snap. Just special."
Clemson left one second on the clock: just enough time for Watson to take center stage and cap his career in a perfect way.
Clemson recovered an onside kick and had to snap the ball one last time. It produced a more fitting ending than even the game-winning touchdown: the victory formation, a kneel to run out the clock on a career that had achieved the ultimate prize, Watson at the center of it all, the man who said he wanted to be legendary and went out and became a legend.