GLENDALE, ARIZ.– Deshaun Watson’s performance in Clemson’s 31-0 victory over Ohio State in the College Footballl Playoff semi-finals here Saturday raises an obvious question.
If the Heisman Trophy balloting were held today, who would win the award?
The easy answer is Watson, who dazzled the sellout crowd of 71,297 at the University of Phoenix Stadium by completing 23 of 36 passes for 259 yards and shook off two interceptions to throw two touchdowns against the Buckeyes’ vaunted secondary and rushing for an additional 57 yards and two scores as the second seeded ACC champion Tigers (13-1) shut out an Urban Meyer-coached team for the first time in his 194 game career.
Watson finished second to Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson in the official voting compiled in December. But Jackson suffered a late season meltdown that lasted through three painful losses and culminated when in the Citrus Bowl when LSU’s defense held him to 153 passing yards and 33 rushing yards in 26 carries during a 29-9 victory in Orlando.
In some ways, it was a chance for retribution. Watson said recently he felt he was the best player in the country, despite what the Heisman voters decided. But he didn’t go there after this game. “All the Heisman stuff wasn’t on my mind,” Watson said. “Lamar deserved it. He won it.”
Watson, who was selected Offensive Player of the Game, looked like most dangerous quarterback in college football as the Tigers advanced to the national championship game for a second straight year. Their opponent Dec. 9 in Tampa will be top-seeded, undefeated SEC champion Alabama (14-0), which defeated Pac-12 champion Washington, 24-7, in its semi-final at the Peach Bowl in Atlanta. This will be a repeat of last year’s title game, which the Tide won, 45-40, on this same field. Alabama is still the undisputed heavyweight champion until proven differently.
“Better watch what you wish for,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We have a lot of respect for Alabama and who they are. They’ve been the best for a long time. If you get a first down against them, you strike up the band. We’re excited. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
Alabama has the best defense in the country with 11 starters who are destined to play on Sundays.
But the Tide has not faced a quarterback like Watson this season. “He showed why he’s the best player in the country again tonight,” Swinney said. “He’s 31-3 as a starter. He’s a winner. He’s hard to beat.”
The Tigers’ supporting cast isn’t bad, either. Clemson is the one team with a powerful enough arsenal of offensive skill position weapons to make Alabama feel uncomfortable heading into their rematch. Clemson is a dangerous team with a seemingly impenetrable defensive front four of Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, who tortured Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett all game. The Tigers dominated this game, outgaining Ohio State, 470 yards to 208, and limiting the Buckeyes to a season low nine first downs. Clemson’s defense had 11 tackles for loss, three sacks and two interceptions. Ferrell, who had one sack and three tackles for loss, was an easy choice for Defensive Player of the Game.
“We just didn’t execute very well on offense,” Meyer admitted. “I expected much better performance. It was frustrating. This is the same group went to Norman and Madison won at Oklahoma and Wisconsin. We got beat. We’re not used to this at Ohio State. I’m not used to this.”
Swinney is making believers of us all. He may not be Alabama icon Nick Saban but he certainly deserves to be in the conversation when you talk about elite coaches like Meyer and Jim Harbaugh of Michigan after the way his team spanked the Buckeyes.
“A lot of people were doubting us,” Watson said. “They don’t respect us. But we just worry about Clemson,” Watson said. “Last year, we played Alabama and we didn’t finish. All year long, we talked getting another shot. Did we want Alabama again? Of course. You always want to play the best of the best.”
The Tigers sound confident after this win. They have won back to back ACC titles for the first time since 1928, have won 10 games for the last six years as well as six bowl games. “We got the best player in the country making decisions for us,” Swinney said. “And we had our best performance in a game that had the biggest stakes attached to it. We’ve been ranked in the Top 5 for a long time. The narrative has changed, But it still seems like we’re underdogs in big games. There’s only one thing left for us to do. We have not been able to win it all.”
This is the Tigers’ chance to show the college football world that times have changed.