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In a college football landscape where ups and downs of elite teams are defined not by winning seasons but by National Championships, there remains joy and tragedy in the expected. However in the unexpected, no matter how rare, the beauty seems to magnify and encompass the entirety of the game.
I will admit: my college football fandom is limited. The occasional big SEC match up and depressing viewings of Indiana away games dominates my TV set. However as a sports fan and a follower of #TeamChaos, the chance to witness Clemson beating Alabama was too perfect to miss out on. Like any sports viewer/tweeter/complainer, I had my pregame take:
The story lines were plentiful. Alabama’s defense was possibly the best defense in their long history. Deshaun Watson will play his final college game against the same team he lost to in the 2016 National Championship. Alabama’s freaking dynasty (again). The buzz, drama, and the craze was entirely present before the game even started, yet we were still star-struck and amazed such a game could even occur.
Throughout the game, many were thinking with each definitive Alabama play, “This is it for Clemson. Bama is back on top.” Not because we wanted to be right — but it felt right. During the Saban era, we have been taught not to underestimate Alabama, insomuch to never believe in the possibility of them losing on the big stage. Winning 4 out of 8 beer pong games will earn you house honors but 4 of 8 National College Football Championships? There are few reasons to doubt ever again. Clemson may have never been a real underdog but against Alabama, even the well-matched teams are viewed as Davids.
Then Wayne Gallman ran it one yard in for a touchdown. It happened. Clemson had the lead. With 4:38 left in the 4th quarter, usually we would feel a moment of relief. Yes, that should be enough time to hold out. We just need four more stops. Milk the clock as much as you can. However, the traditional maxims did not apply, and Jalen Hurts ran it 30 yards for the lead.
Watson had the ball with 2:05 left in the game. Every story line we read leading to this game will be answered in the next 2:05 minutes of game time. All questions will be solved, and all debates, settled.
The irony is Alabama fans likely preached the same prayers ever non-Alabama fan preaches every game: Yes, that should be enough time to hold out. We just need four more stops. Milk the clock as much as you can. Perhaps that is where Watson and Clemson really won — making the giant appear normal, common with the man.
The catch, the flag, the pick play. It sealed the fate for Watson, Dabo Swinney, and Clemson. The story lines solved and the debates settled, but not the way anyone predicted.
This game should never be referred to as a “David and Goliath” narrative or a “Cinderella Story,” none of that. In the minds and hearts of every single Clemson Tiger player, coach, and staff, beating Alabama was expected. This mindset has been drilled into their minds since Day 1. That’s how sports works: against all odds, winning is expected for those who expect winning. For the viewers/tweeters/complainers, winning is a stat, a narrative, a history.
For them, the joy and tragedy comes with the expectation of a win. For us, the moment that moves us to bewilderment and to fantasize more of the unbelievable paints an unexpected picture that can only be described in one word: beautiful.