Tide, Tigers offer fitting finale to 2015 season

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- They are who we thought they were.

Well, sort of.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, a Heisman Trophy finalist, ran like a water bug and threw darts like a barfly. The man he lost that award to, Alabama running back Derrick Henry, bowled through defenders like a monster truck with no brakes. The box score will say that the winner of the second College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T was Alabama by a score of 45-40. The Crimson Tide were the exhausted victor of a closer-than-the-final-score game that included five lead changes and three ties, but somehow still felt more like a boxing match than a track meet.

The history book will say that Nick Saban, winner of his fifth national title, might well be the greatest coach in college football history. At the very least, he's an inarguable member of the sport's Mount Rushmore. Those annals will also say that Alabama officially seized the title of greatest-ever college football program, via its 11th national championship (they claim 16). A footnote to all of that will be Henry's graduation into that rarest of rosters, players who backed up their Heisman Trophy with a national championship trophy.

But the real winner was the 2015 college football season. From August through early December, it was one of the most scintillating and unpredictable years in recent memory. Then a bloated, lackluster bowl season threatened to erase the good feelings of a fantastic fall. The Tide and Tigers finally provided the season with some worthy punctuation.

Yes, Watson ran and threw aplenty, with 73 yards rushing to go with 405 passing and four TDs, enough to become the first FBS quarterback to surpass 4,000 yards throwing and 1,000 yards rushing in a single season. Yes, Henry was a bulldozer, with 158 yards on the ground, enough to become Alabama's all-time leading rusher, and three touchdowns. And yes, both defenses were tough, despite one of the most evenly combined scoring affairs of the BCS/Playoff era. The teams' vaunted D-lines combined for seven sacks.

But there were also long balls galore. A whopping eight receivers had at least one catch of 20-plus yards. Clemson's Hunter Renfrow, a walk-on wide receiver playing for a former walk-on wide receiver, head coach Dabo Swinney, hauled in a pair of touchdown catches, matching his total from the entire 13-game regular season. Meanwhile, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, who had 394 yards receiving and zero touchdowns during his first 14 games, posted 208 and a pair of touchdowns on Monday night.

The classically conservative Tide ran multiple reverses and broke a fourth-quarter tie with a surprise, pop-fly onside kick that set up a 51-yard TD pass from Jake Coker to Howard. The Crimson Tide took a 31-24 lead and never trailed again, despite a frantic, final effort from Clemson.

Henry's 1-yard TD run with 1 minute, 7 seconds remaining was supposed to have put the game on ice. Even that wasn't nearly as simple as it will appear on the score sheet, with the back having to fight his way through a wall of orange. His crossing of the goal line was in doubt until it was reviewed from the replay booth.

Then Clemson answered with a six-play, 68-yard TD drive that cut the lead to five. The game wasn't finally in hand until a failed onside kick attempt with 12 seconds remaining.

"It wasn't easy and we weren't perfect," Saban said as confetti cannons filled his silver hair with gold. "But they answered the challenge. And this is the reward." Yes, for all of us.

Monday night's game was the third college football national championship hosted at University of Phoenix Stadium. It was easily the most start-to-finish entertaining of the group and has to rank high among the greatest moments in the history of the silver-plated dome, including a couple of nail-biter Super Bowls.

The first great moment at the stadium happened during its first season, nearly a decade ago, in October of 2006, and it did not take place on the field. The home team Arizona Cardinals had lost a horribly awful contest with the Chicago Bears. The game itself was quickly forgotten. But the media conference that followed has proved timeless, when head coach Dennis Green totally flipped out. You can watch it on YouTube. A million folks already have.

"They are who we thought they were!"

True that, coach. Well, sort of.