- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 10, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Thank you, Clemson.

College football needed this.

Thank you, Alabama.

A fallen champion, but thoroughly magnificent.

In a sequel that proved to be even more of a blockbuster than the original, Deshaun Watson and the Tigers went to the 59th minute and 59th second of the national championship game to finally topple one of the greatest dynasties in the history of sports Monday night.

When Watson rolled out to his right and zipped a 2-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with a single second left on the clock, the Crimson Tide’s bid for a fifth national title in eight years was snuffed out by a 35-31 defeat .

That was a welcome development for everyone outside of Tuscaloosa. The sport desperately needed someone to stare down Nick Saban’s juggernaut, which was turning college football into a bit of a bore.

Since the start of the 2008 season, Alabama had played only three regular-season games that didn’t have a bearing on the national championship race. The Crimson Tide has made all three editions of the four-team College Football Playoff, a run that was deserving of admiration but was getting a little too automatic.

We needed a break.

“They’ll be back,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of the vanquished champ. “They’ll probably be back next year. But Nick’s gonna have to buy my dinner this year.”

Watson was the one who did the staring with another superhuman effort. The NFL-bound quarterback, who already graduated from college in three short years , calmly guided the Tigers to three fourth-quarter touchdowns against the biggest, baddest defense in the land.

It was stunning to watch.

Just imagine what it was like to live it.

“I want to be legendary,” said Watson, who was thinking all along about Vince Young’s performance in that off-the-charts Rose Bowl 11 years ago.

Mission accomplished.

But hand it to Alabama: No great champion goes down meekly, and the Crimson Tide fought and struggled and clawed right to the very end.

“I will remember this team as a group of winners,” said Saban, who was denied his sixth national title as a coach, which would’ve tied him with Bear Bryant for the most championships in the poll era. “These kids had a great season. These players did so much to create this opportunity. It’s tough to lose this way. But I’ll say this - give a lot of credit to Clemson. They made some great plays down the stretch.”

Before the game, Swinney was asked for his favorite sequel.

He immediately mentioned “Rocky II.”

“In the first one, it was kind of a draw, and the draw goes to the champ,” Swinney said. “In the second one, at the last possible second, Rocky gets up (and wins the heavyweight title). That’s kind of how it was tonight.”

Now, he’s got a new favorite.

And he wouldn’t mind another.

Alabama-Clemson III, anyone?

“Hopefully we’ll get a chance to have a rubber match,” Swinney said. “I would love nothing more.”

Alabama went to the fourth quarter with a 24-14 lead.

Saban’s record with a double-digit advantage in the final period was 97-0 during his decade of dominance at Alabama, but this game was just getting started.

When it was done, he was 97-1.

Watson threw a 4-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams in the opening minute of the fourth to cut the deficit to 24-21. Then the quarterback guided his team from nearly one end of the field to the other on an 88-yard drive that put the Tigers ahead for the first time all night, capped off by Wayne Gallman’s 1-yard run.

Then it was Alabama, with 18-year-old freshman Jalen Hurts running the offense, going 68 yards in a mere six plays to reclaim the lead with just over 2 minute remaining. The young quarterback covered the last 30 yards himself, breaking free up the middle and cruising into the end zone for what looked to be a championship-clinching score.

But Watson had one more crack at it.

He used every last second to deliver the Tigers their first national title in 35 years, helped along by several catches that somehow clung to his receivers’ fingertips.

“It was calm,” said Watson, who finished 36 of 56 for 420 yards - even more than he had in last year’s 45-40 loss to Alabama in the title game. “No one over there panicked. I walked up to my offensive line, my receivers, and I said, ‘Let’s be great.’”

That they were.

So was Alabama.

“It was an unbelievable, unprecedented run,” Swinney said of his alma mater, where he won a national title as a player in 1992. “I’ve never seen anything like it. But they lost the wrong game.”

Really, there were no losers.

For that, we say to both teams:

Thank you.

___

Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .

___

More AP college football: www.collegefootball.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 .

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