Bill Shanks

Clemson finds winning formula for title

Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, left, and Ben Boulware wave to the crowd during a parade honoring the college football champions Saturday.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, left, and Ben Boulware wave to the crowd during a parade honoring the college football champions Saturday. AP

We were treated to a great finish to the college football season Monday. It might not have been the best game in the history of the sport (well, unless you’re a Clemson fan), but it was certainly one of the best endings we’ve ever seen.

Once again, perfection is not always possible in sports. Alabama would have had a perfect record if it had won, but instead the four-point loss to Clemson is the only blemish. The Tigers’ only loss was to Pittsburgh, by one point Nov. 12.

From 1997 through 2005, the national champions were undefeated in all but one season. Since then, it has happened only three times. And for all of Alabama’s glory, Nick Saban has had only one undefeated season (2009).

The road to a championship is more difficult now, and that’s why Clemson deserves our applause. Dabo Swinney has had double-digit winning seasons for the past seven years, and it was a gradual progression to make his program a champion.

While Swinney’s recruiting has been the difference, he had a far different roster than what Saban had on the field Monday — at least in terms of how the players were ranked as high school prospects.

Of Alabama’s 22 starters, half of them were five-star recruits, as ranked by Clemson had just three starters ranked that high when they came out of high school. Alabama had only two starters ranked as a three-star or lower, while Clemson had 10.

Who made the two biggest plays of the game? Well, while we know (five-star) Deshaun Watson won the game for Clemson, former walk-on Hunter Renfrow did well, too.

Swinney’s recruiting has become elite the past few years. In his first season in charge, Clemson’s recruiting class was ranked 39th by Rivals. Swinney’s next class ranked 20th, and since then he has had three classes ranked in the top 10 and three more either 13th or 14th.

Recruiting is essential to building a champion. You must have stars. Clemson had one in Watson, who might get a statue. People scoff about recruiting and how prospects are rated, but to be a consistent contender teams must have high-rated prospects.

Clemson’s win shows, however, that coaching also matters.

It’s a good thing Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables makes a lot of money. He deserves it. Swinney hired Venables away from Oklahoma right after his Tigers gave up 70 points in the Orange Bowl to West Virginia.

People laughed at Clemson when they gave up all those points, but it was likely the best thing to happen to the program. Venables arrived, and things changed.

Think of the defensive players Clemson has lost to the NFL in just the past two years. Two of them, Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett, played for Atlanta on Saturday in the NFL playoffs. Two others were drafted in 2015.

Then last year Clemson had seven defensive players drafted, including first rounder Shaq Lawson and early second rounder Kevin Dodd, two great college football players. And with all those players gone, Clemson’s defense just kept on getting better.

While the injury to Alabama running back Bo Scarbrough mattered Monday, the fact is Clemson’s defense made Jalen Hurts look like a freshman and made Alabama punt 10 times.

Swinney, Venables, Watson, the defense — it was the perfect storm for Clemson. They all deserve tremendous credit for building a very impressive championship program.

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