We will always use Vince Young and Texas against USC, in the national championship, in the Rose Bowl, as the standard in college football, because the big game ended with that kind of Hollywood ending, that close to Hollywood, ended with 467 passing and rushing yards from Young. Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush and USC had won two national championships in a row and were going for three, had won 34 games in a row, and the Trojans were poised to call themselves the greatest college football team of all time. Then Young took his team down the field and beat them, 41-38, scoring the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left. But what Clemson did to Alabama in Tampa on Monday in 'Bama-Clemson II, with one second left, was better, in a game of college football that felt like Ali-Frazier III.
This was the night when Nick Saban was supposed to win his sixth national championship and Alabama was supposed to win another one against Clemson. This was Clemson going up against what is the best program in college football and arguably -- maybe not much of an argument, really -- the best of all time once Saban got to Tuscaloosa. Deshaun Watson and Mike Williams and Hunter Renfrow beat all that with one second left in Tampa, 35-31, after losing 45-40 to 'Bama in this same game one year ago.
Watson and Clemson came back from that, and came down the field after Alabama had gone ahead with just over two minutes left, and won the game. Vince Young played the way he did once, when he got his shot at being legendary, and beating legendary. Watson has done it twice. He threw for 405 yards last year and lost. He threw for 420 yards this year and won. That is 825 passing yards against an Alabama defense. Lamar Jackson was the Heisman Trophy winner in September and October this season. Dabo Swinney was right when it was over on Monday night, though. Watson is the best player in college football.
Now Watson gives us his own Hollywood ending. He makes throws to Williams and Williams makes the kind of acrobatic catches that made Odell Beckham, Jr. even more famous than joining Justin Bieber's America's Cup team. Finally, the Clemson Tigers line up with six seconds to go in the shadow of the Alabama goal line and the Tigers pull off the kind of pick play that was never going to get flagged in a sports moment like this, and Renfrow pulls Watson's throw and the national championship close to him before he falls to the ground. Clemson, in all ways, has come all the way back against Alabama.
The play started from the 2-yard line, ended with one second left, and established, for all times, that Deshaun Watson is one of the great players for all times in college football. Not just because of what he did across his career, running and passing, but because of what he did in these two games and whom he did it against. He was 1-1 in these games. Still: Vince Young, times two. The kid even gave Vince a shout-out when it was over on Monday night, and how cool was that? But then, really, who is cooler than Deshaun?
"The thing that was running through my mind was Vince Young," Watson said. "I was like, man, we have to be great and I want to be legendary. Vince Young was one of my greatest players that I love to watch, and we pulled it off."
Being legendary, beating legendary. Nobody ever had a better night than this with it all on the line. Deshaun Watson had 463 yards passing and rushing, four yards short of Vince's 467 11 years ago. Close enough.
It is a new year, but this still felt like an ending for 2016 in sports. And look at what sports has given us in the past 12 months. We got Villanova beating North Carolina on the last Monday night of college basketball, the sport never seeing a ball-in-the-air ending like the one Kris Jenkins gave us after Marcus Paige had just made an off-balance, hang-in-the-air, did-he-really-knock-that-down? shot of his own to tie the game for Carolina. We got the World Series we got from the Cubs and Indians, in the year when the Cubs ended all the waiting on the North Side of Chicago, all the way through Game 7 and into extra innings and through the most famous rain delay in baseball history.
Now we get this kind of last Monday night from college football, Watson taking Clemson down the field after an 18-year-old quarterback for the other team, Jalen Hurts, had scrambled away from pressure and broken into the clear and put his team ahead with just over two minutes to go.
Now Watson, who had the game and the season in his hands all night long, who had fallen behind 14-0 after falling short a year ago, was either going to be Vince Young or he was not. This was the way the tournament in his sport was ending, after all the weekends that felt like the tournament since September, when one contender or another was always playing some kind of knock-out game somewhere. If the people in charge think they can make the current system better by adding more teams and more playoff games, they're all nuts. Leave it the way it is. Commercial message over. Back to as fine a game of college football as you will ever see in your life, organized around as good a college player -- Watson -- as you will ever see in your life.
It is funny how these things work out, when something really is as fine as this in sports. I'm watching on television and I don't know what time it is, or how long the game lasted. And I don't care, even when it looks as if the worst Clemson can do is kick a field goal so Alabama and Clemson can keep playing. Here comes Deshaun Watson, trying to get to nearly 1,000 yards of total offense, against Alabama, in these two games that will always be remembered in college football.
"I'd seen the two minutes and one second on the clock, and I just smiled and I just knew," Watson said to the media when it was over. "I told myself, 'They left too much time on the clock.'"
They did. Finally, he was throwing one more ball into the Florida night sky, and somehow Williams, who had taken a helmet-to-helmet hit earlier in the game, went up and got it. Finally, there was the interference call in the end zone, two Alabama defenders there. There was contact between Bama DB Tony Brown and Williams. Williams went to the ground. Maybe he slipped, maybe Brown tripped him up just enough. Maybe Brown didn't think that there was enough help in that moment against Mike Williams, the way he kept going up and coming down with the ball, that if the pass was inside the Tampa city limits, Williams was going to find a way to catch it. Flag thrown. Ball on two. Six seconds left. Rest is history.
Watson had now thrown for more than 800 yards against Alabama in these two games. Nearly produced 1,000 yards passing and running. Had led an offense that had scored 75 points in these two games. Against Alabama. Against a Saban defense. There was never supposed to be a better game, in the big game in college football, than Vince Young against USC. Until there was. Until this game. Until this Clemson quarterback. Until Deshaun Watson got another shot at 'Bama. Be legendary, beat legendary.