GLENDALE, Ariz. — Alabama and coach Nick Saban, who reached into his bag of tricks for a momentum-turning play in the fourth quarter, are back on top of the college football world.
The Crimson Tide won their fourth title in seven years Monday night by beating Clemson 45-40, using a quartet of scoring plays that covered 50-plus yards and setting up the go-ahead touchdown by recovering an onside kick with 10:34 to go.
Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry sealed the outcome with a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:07 remaining, stretching Alabama’s lead to 45-33.
The Tigers battled to the end in a wild fourth quarter that featured a combined 40 points. Quarterback Deshaun Watson’s 24-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Leggett with 12 seconds left brought Clemson within a score, but the ensuing onside kick went out of bounds.
Alabama tight end O.J. Howard had five catches for 208 yards and two touchdowns. Henry ran 36 times for 158 yards and three touchdowns, including a 50-yard burst to start the scoring.
He wasn’t able to get untracked much in the second half, but quarterback Jake Coker connected on scoring passes of 53 and 51 yards to Howard after the break. Coker finished 16-for-25 for 335 yards.
Alabama’s fireworks on offense were enough to offset a brilliant effort from Watson, who dazzled with his arm, his legs and dizzying improv skills.
He completed 30 of 47 passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and he ran 20 times for 73 yards.
After several big-bowl blowouts, Alabama and Clemson put a whopper of the topper on the college football season in front of 75,765 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Howard’s second score came after defensive back Marlon Humphrey recovered a high-bouncing onside kick toward the right sideline. After a 33-yard Alabama field goal tied the game at 24, Humphrey caught the ball cleanly at the 50-yard line.
Alabama, which lost in last season’s playoff semifinals, was not done exerting its special teams superiority.
Clemson used a 31-yard field goal to get within 31-27, but Alabama kick returner Kenyan Drake carved through the coverage on the ensuing kickoff, taking it 95 yards and stretching out the ball to hit the pylon for a touchdown with 7:31 left.
The Tigers had won 51 consecutive games when leading after three quarters but couldn’t hold on against Alabama after taking a 24-21 lead into the final period.
Saban won his fourth national title at Alabama and fifth overall. Only former Crimson Tide coach Bear Bryant (six) has won more than four national titles during the wire-service era (since 1936).
Alabama took a 21-14 early in the third quarter when Howard scored on a 53-yard reception, wide open down the right sideline because free safety T.J. Green failed to come over in support.
Clemson answered with a 37-yard field goal from Greg Huegel and took a 24-21 lead on a 60-yard drive, capped by a 1-yard plunge from running back Wayne Gallman.
Henry and Watson took turns throwing haymakers in a riveting first half, which ended with the teams tied at 14.
Henry scored twice, including on a 50-yard run, and Watson fired two pretty touchdown passes to freshman receiver Hunter Renfrow. Henry went over the 100-yard mark with 7:41 to go in the second quarter.
Each team missed 44-yard field goals, including Clemson in the final seconds of the half. Alabama defensive lineman D.J. Pettway got a hand on the attempt, causing it to fall short.
Alabama, which had allowed only 19 first-quarter points all season, gave up 14 to Clemson after the Tide took a 7-0 lead.
After the teams exchanged punts to open the game, Henry, on third-and-1 from midfield, took a handoff and made one cut to the right, where guard Alphonse Taylor and tackle Dominick Jackson opened a huge hole. With Clemson’s defense pinching in, Henry got to top speed and ran past strong safety Jayron Kearse and into the end zone for a 7-0 lead with 7:55 to go in the first quarter.
Clemson immediately answered.
After the Tigers converted third-down plays on a pass-interference call and a Watson scramble, Watson lobbed a perfect 31-yard pass into the end zone for Renfrow, who slipped behind defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick to tie the game.
That Clemson combination struck again on the final play of the first quarter, as Watson, on third-and-9 from the Alabama 11, fired to Renfrow on an in-route in the middle of the end zone. Once again, Renfrow beat Fitzpatrick on the play.
Alabama tied the game after safety Eddie Jackson’s interception at the Clemson 42. Henry topped the drive by going airborne from the 1-yard line with 9:35 to go in the half.
NOTES: Next season’s national title game will be held at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Jan. 9. The semifinals will be held in the Fiesta and Chick-fil-A bowls on Dec. 31. … Clemson DE Shaq Lawson, who sustained a sprained left MCL in the Orange Bowl, was in the starting lineup, playing with a brace on his knee. He had two sacks in the first half. … Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander, who was nursing a hamstring injury, also started but left the game with 7:41 to go in the first half. He did not return. … Alabama RB Derrick Henry scored a touchdown in his 20th consecutive game, an SEC record. Henry also passed Shaun Alexander (3,565 yards) as the school’s leading career rusher. … Former Alabama Heisman-winning running back Mark Ingram was the Tide’s honorary captain for the game. Ex-Clemson running back C.J. Spiller held that role for the Tigers. … A Pac-12 crew officiated the game.