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Joe Boozell | | January 9, 2017

How close was Clemson to winning last year's championship?

  Alabama's onside kick was a turning point in last year's national title game.

It’s cliché as heck, but it’s true: football is a game of inches. Look no further than last year’s national championship game for evidence; Alabama defeated Clemson 45-40 to take home the title, but it was a back-and-forth tilt until the end.

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With the rematch looming on Monday night, certain storylines emanated from last year’s result. But had a few key plays gone just a bit differently, we wouldn’t be talking about Alabama’s potential dynasty. We’d be talking about how Dabo Swinney has the Tide’s number, or how Alabama’s defense isn’t built to stop elite spread quarterbacks like Deshaun Watson. A few inches can flip an entire narrative on its head.

Let’s take a look at last year’s game and see how close Clemson was to tasting glory.

Play one: Eddie Jackson picks off Deshaun Watson

For most of the first half, Clemson was in control. The Tigers were leading by a touchdown and driving with 12 minutes left in the half, and Watson dialed up a wheel route to Ray-Ray McCloud. Eddie Jackson had other ideas:

Jackson made an amazing play on the ball, but had Watson gotten two or three more inches on this throw, McCloud is off to the races and the Tigers are taking a 21-7 lead. Would Alabama have come back from a two-touchdown lead? We’ll never know.

Play two: Jake Coker barely beats the rush, completes deep ball to ArDarius Stewart

Third-and-11, ball on the Alabama 44-yard line. The Crimson Tide trailed by three in the third quarter. Had it come up empty, Alabama would have given the ball back to a red-hot quarterback with a lead in the second half.

Clemson came oh-so-close to sacking Coker on this play. Ben Boulware is a quarter of a second too late, and Coker lofts a beautiful deep ball to Stewart, who makes a magnificent catch down the sidelines. This play set up the game-tying field goal, which set up the play that swung the game more than any other.

Play three: The onside kick

Nick Saban surprised you, me and the Tigers when he decided to try an onside kick with 10:34 left in a tie game. And not just any game — in the national championship, this was a particularly gutsy call. If ever there was a program to resist resorting to gimmicks to win football games, you’d expect it to be the Alabama Crimson Tide. And then:

After nailing a 33-yard field goal to tie the game up, Adam Griffith pulled off this beauty in a high-pressure environment. Two plays later, Jake Coker hit O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touchdown strike. There’s a good chance the Tigers are national champions if Alabama kicks it deep here – Watson was rolling, and Clemson could have taken the lead on the ensuing drive. It was a potential 14-point swing.

Play four: Kenyan Drake’s kickoff return touchdown

Clemson hit a field goal in the fourth quarter to trim Alabama’s lead to 31-27. Had it gotten a stop, Watson would be within a touchdown of taking the lead.

And then Drake happened:

This was an awesome play by Drake. He’s an explosive athlete, and once he hit the corner, he was gone. But Clemson had ample opportunity to bring him to the turf early in return. If you didn’t already know the result of this play, would you have expected the Tiger defender to make this tackle?

This isn’t to say Clemson absolutely would have won the national championship had it brought Drake to the ground. But it might have. Had any of these plays gone in the Tigers’ favor, we might be talking about a different outcome.

Play five: Coker escapes a sack on third down, converts on a scramble

Coker turned in a gritty performance last year. Clemson wouldn’t go down easily; after Drake’s kickoff return touchdown, Watson promptly found Artavis Scott for a 15-yard TD strike to bring the Tigers to within five.

Alabama methodically moved the ball down the field and was facing a third-and-3 on Clemson’s 6-yard line. A Tiger stop would have forced the Tide to kick, keeping the game within one score.

Instead, Coker evaded an almost-sack and picked up the first down with his legs. Derrick Henry would score, putting the game out of reach:

Look, all of these plays happened how they happened. Alabama is the reigning national champion – not Clemson – and it deserves to be.

But don’t kid yourselves into thinking the Tigers weren’t this close to flipping the script. These plays defined the game, and they easily could have gone differently. Bring on the Monday night drama. We could witness another instant classic at Raymond James Stadium.

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