TAMPA, Fla. — The confetti continues to haunt him.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson says he’ll never forget confetti falling from the ceiling in the aftermath of last year’s College Football Playoff championship game.
It was a gut-punch to Watson and the Tigers, having come so far only to fall to Alabama, 45-40 at University of Phoenix Stadium, in one of the most exciting college football title games in history.
Watson and his Clemson teammates look to make new memories tonight at Raymond James Stadium and avenge that loss to the Crimson Tide at 8:17 p.m. ET tonight (TV: ESPN).
Coach Dabo Swinney readily admits the team pins its offensive hopes on Watson, a junior who has graduated and is likely appearing in his final collegiate game.
“Deshaun Watson is as complete a quarterback as I’ve ever been around and probably ever will be,” Swinney said. “The kid is a brilliant quarterback, brilliant.
“His football I.Q., his preparation, the way he goes to work every day and his skill set. And when he scrambles, he can beat you with his legs by running for first downs or he can extend plays and then make the throws.”
Many, including Pittsburgh coach Pat Narduzzi, believes Watson will need to run the football for the Tigers to have any chance against a motivated Alabama defense.
Crimson Tide defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, recognized as the best defensive player in college football by virtue of winning the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, made it clear Alabama has something to prove tonight, too.
“Whenever you play bad it eats at you, and for it to be the last game it sticks out in your mind and reminds me of what could have happened,” Allen told SEC Country. “So it’s definitely a motivating factor for this defense.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to redeem ourselves.”
Indeed, it wasn’t as though Watson played bad in last year’s title game, as he was 30-of-47 passing for 405 yards and 4 touchdowns in addition to rushing for a team-high 73 yards on 20 carries.
“All that stuff last year I did is good, but at the end of the day, you want the ‘W’ and to be national champion, so all that goes out the window,” Watson said at the teams’ media day this week.
“I just try to focus on getting the final outcome and focus on winning.”
The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder from Gainesville, Ga., estimated he watched tape of last year’s game five times leading up to tonight’s title bout.
“I didn’t spent too much time trying to figure out what they did against us,” Watson explained, “because they have a whole new defensive coordinator.”
Jeremy Pruitt, Georgia’s defensive coordinator in 2014 and 2015, is that man.
Former NFL GM and Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage told SEC Country that Alabama’s defense is better-equipped to handle Watson and the Tigers this time around.
Pruitt, however, is no less concerned about the challenges the Tide’s defense will face.
“That’s who I’m worried about, Deshaun Watson, he can run the football, he can throw the football, he can make all the throws, and he’s a great leader,” Pruitt said. “You can tell the kids rally around him. They’ve gotten behind in a lot of games and have rallied back, which tells you about their character.”
The film speaks volumes for the stress Watson puts on a defense.
“Obviously, Deshaun being able to run the ball is a big thing,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “If you’re going to come down and stop Deshaun, you’re putting guys on islands on the outside.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for their defensive backs, they’re some of the best, (but) last week against Ohio State, I think they all have corners slated to go in the first round.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban was a defensive backs coach by trade before entering into the head coaching ranks, so he has seen and prepared for some of the top quarterbacks and receivers in the game.
Saban’s plan is for the Tide to disguise their defenses to the point that Watson doesn’t know who’s coming and going in coverage packages, or the occasional blitz.
“He reads the defense, he gets the ball out of his hand quickly, he does a really good job reading what you’re playing on defense and tries to take advantage of it,” Saban said. “I think trying to disguise things is important, but I also think not allowing him to extend plays — which is where they made some big plays on us a year ago, is important.
“I think a lot of our players last year came out of this game, even though we won, not feeling like we played really well on defense. Hopefully that’s a bit of a motivating factor for our guys to do a better job this year.”
For Watson, it’s a matter of sealing his legacy as the greatest quarterback in Clemson history.
“I would say Deshaun, he’s been the model student-athlete for us, ands class just sets him apart,” Tigers assistant head coach Danny Pearman said. “He has some calmness about him, and when the lights are the brightest, he plays his best.”
BOVADA ONLINE SPORTS: DESHAUN WATSON OPENING LINES
Total Passing Yards Deshaun Watson, over/under: 269 1/2
Total TD Passes Deshaun Watson, over/under: 2 1/2
Total Completions Deshaun Watson, over/under: 42 1/2