CLEMSON, S.C. — The thought immediately comes to mind after observing Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson up close for the first time:
This kid stands between Alabama and its 16th national championship? This is the budding superstar who’s out to deny head coach Nick Saban of his fifth national title in 12 years (fourth with the Crimson Tide)? He’s MAYBE 190 pounds when soaking wet. Oh, this can’t end well.
And yet, there’s a strong national belief that Watson — at just 20 years old — can help pull off the upset in Monday’s championship bout. There’s also a growing sentiment Clemson will become the first 15-0 team in NCAA/FBS history, confirming the Tigers’ status as a supposed team of destiny.
That optimism has much to do with Watson’s superb skill set as a dual-threat quarterback, along with his sublime control in the Clemson huddle; and that’s a rare combination for a player in only his second season under center.
Which brings us to this: For the Oct. 11, 2014 episode of College Gameday, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit boldly proclaimed that Watson would be “the face of college football for the next two years.” At the time, Herbstreit’s words were dismissed as an exuberant overreaction to Watson’s outing against North Carolina two weeks prior, lighting up the Tar Heels for 435 yards passing and six touchdown passes.
Sadly, that would represent the high point of Watson’s freshman campaign. For the Oct. 11 game against Louisville — a brutal offensive showing, full of three-and-outs on both sides — Watson broke his right hand after getting tackled on a read-option run.
Four games later, Watson returned for a huge clash with Georgia Tech (the ACC’s eventual Coastal Division champions) … but would only last one quarter, after suffering a knee injury. The Tigers offense crumbled shortly thereafter, enduring a 28-6 shellacking in Atlanta.
The significance of that? Clemson hasn’t lost since the Georgia Tech debacle. The Tigers have subsequently reeled off 17 straight victories — including back-to-back bowl blowouts of Oklahoma.
So, taking in the full scope of subsequent events since October 2014 — such as Clemson being the Power Five conferences’ only unbeaten squad and the College Football Playoff committee’s wire-to-wire choice for No. 1 in 2015 — it’s fair to wonder … in our best Sam Kinison voice:
Well, was Kirk Herbstreit riiiiiight?
Is Deshaun Watson the face of college football? Or, at the very least, might everything change in his favor Tuesday morning — if Clemson claims its first national championship in 35 years.
“I knew I was going to come back, regardless of how bad (last year’s) injury was,” said Watson last week, shortly before Clemson trekked to Arizona for Championship Monday. “And I was ready to go (early in the rehab stage), ready to be there for my teammates and my team. …”
“And I wanted to come back stronger and better than the year before.”
* * *
It has been a dream season for Watson. He was dominant enough to capture ACC Player Of The Year honors and finish third overall in the Heisman Trophy balloting. As part of that, he was healthy for all 14 Clemson victories — with big-time performances against Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and Oklahoma.
About that Miami game … in late October, the Hurricanes were supposedly riding high off two victories against Nebraska and Virginia Tech, plus one painful, yet respectable defeat to Florida State.
As such, there was plenty of mid-week chirping about how “The U” had found its mojo once again.
Well, that all changed shortly after kickoff, with Clemson systematically scoring touchdowns on five of its first six possessions. Throw in a pick-six at the end of the second quarter … and the Tigers owned a 42-0 lead at the break.
On the road. In the sweltering midday heat of south Florida. Against a Miami team full of NFL-caliber athletes.
For that day, Clemson rushed for 416 yards and six touchdowns — including one score apiece for Watson and tailback Wayne Gallman (129 total yards). The final score: 58-0.
For this writer, it might have marked the first time that Clemson bore the look of a legitimate national-title contender. It also was a major setback for Miami, as head coach Al Golden was fired the following day.
Fast forward to the present: On paper, this isn’t an ideal matchup for a Clemson offense which has experience and skill in the running game — but only skill with the passing attack (young, inexperienced corps of receivers and tight ends). What’s worse, Alabama currently ranks as the nation’s top-ranked rush defense, allowing a measly 71 ground yards per game.
Plus, the Crimson Tide have surrendered only six rushing touchdowns for the year — matching Miami’s single-day, uh, output against Clemson.
“I’m not a fan of comparing one opponent to the next,” says Watson. “They’re Alabama. There’s no comparison. They’ve got their own swagger.”
Watson may prove prophetic with the above statement. He has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark in five of his last six games. Conversely, Alabama’s six most recent opponents have averaged 64 team rushing yards against college football’s most dominant front seven.
(If Alabama defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson isn’t a 7-time Pro Bowler at the next level, I’ll eat this laptop.)
In their Cotton Bowl crushing of Michigan State (38-0), the Tide defense yielded only 29 rushing yards on 26 carries. They also feasted on Spartans quarterback Connor Cook, knowing the pro-style passer would never be a threat to leave the passing pocket.
That luxury doesn’t exist against Clemson. Watson (seasonal completion rate: 68.2 percent) has the athletic gifts and football savvy to peruse every inch of the University Of Phoenix Stadium turf. Including the 1/3-yard which completes the field width of 53 1/3 yards.
“We probably won’t win if (Watson doesn’t) play well. You don’t win championships without your best players showing up and getting clocked in and performing. That’s for sure,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney last week. “He’s been there all year long. I know this: Nobody is going to prepare harder. Nobody is going to play with more will to win than No. 4.”
* * *
Tim Tebow. Brian Johnson. Stephen Garcia. Cam Newton. Johnny Manziel. Trevor Knight. Nick Marshall. Bo Wallace. Cardale Jones. Chad Kelly. Jordan Jefferson (twice).
That’s the exclusive list of opposing quarterbacks to beat Alabama since 2008 — a time span in which Coach Saban owns a 97-10 record with the Crimson Tide.
And excluding Jefferson splitting time with Jarrett Lee for LSU’s two defensive-minded victories (2010/2011), the other 11 quarterbacks enjoyed rock-solid averages of 275 total yards and 2.8 touchdowns when knocking off Alabama.
This seems like a good starting point for Watson come Monday. For the season, he notched per-game averages of 338 total yards and 3.1 touchdowns against the likes of Boston College, Louisville, Florida State, North Carolina State, Wake Forest and Oklahoma — all among the top-40 leaders in total defense.
(In the realms of “scoring defense,” “red-zone defense” and “total defense,” Boston College actually trumped Alabama twice.)
And luckily for Clemson fans, there won’t be any Alabama Awe Factor with Watson — a Gainesville, Ga. native — who has spent a lifetime absorbing the culture of SEC football.
“I’ve seen it every Saturday, of course. (The conference) has a lot of great teams … and the best players in the country,” said Watson, who opens next season against another SEC foe (Auburn). “I wasn’t the type of recruit to say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to the SEC to make it.'”
That may be true, but Watson (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) certainly needs the SEC’s help to make it to the top of the college football universe. Opportunity knocks.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.