Clemson vs. Alabama
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Tampa, Fla.
On TV: ESPN
When Deshaun Watson was still just a kid at Gainesville High, back before the Heisman Trophy races and national championship chases, former Red Elephants quarterback coach Michael Perry instilled in him a simple principle.
They called it “snap and clear.”
“As soon as that snap is over, clear it off your mind and go to the next one,” Gainesville coach Bruce Miller explained. “I think Deshaun does that a whole lot.”
Watson has had to, from his 17 interceptions this season to the handful of shortcomings in a career loaded with accomplishments.
Take his interception on the opening drive of Clemson’s College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State on Dec. 31.
After that snap, Watson threw for 259 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 57 yards and two more scores as the Tigers cruised to a 31-0 win.
“We really understand the amount of work he puts into the game, the fact of poise and stature that he has as a person is who you want to root for,” Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell said. “That’s just a guy we want to play for.”
Watson’s performance helped No. 2 Clemson clinch a national title game rematch with No. 1 Alabama, the final and most important “clear” of his brilliant college career.
The Gainesville High graduate will lead his team against the undefeated Crimson Tide’s top-ranked defense at 8 p.m. Monday in Tampa, Florida. Despite Watson delivering arguably his best performance (478 total yards, four passing touchdowns) in last year’s championship game, Alabama knocked off the previously undefeated Tigers 45-40.
There should be no concern about Watson clearing that contest from his mind. He had already done so by the time he took the podium for his postgame news conference, when he told reporters “you’ll see us in Tampa next year.”
“Just belief. That’s just the type of person I am,” Watson said this week. “I have high standards for me and my teammates, and this is where we wanted to be. … We wanted to be in the front again and be one of the best teams.”
Here Clemson is, in the game designed for the nation’s two best squads for the second straight season.
Watson has much to do with that. He completed more than 57 percent of his passes for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns, which are both sixth-most nationally. Though not as prolific as a runner as he was last year, Watson still picked up 583 yards and eight scores on the ground.
“No question he’s been probably the biggest piece to us as a program and the amount of success that we’ve had,” Ferrell added. “ … We understand without him, we probably wouldn’t be where we are right now because of the type of player and person that he is.”
“We’re very blessed to have him on this team because we know how much of a program-changer he is.”
But for all of Watson’s production, he again came away as a Heisman runner-up, this time as the second-place finalist behind Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Even when the Gainesville native became the first player to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for another 1,000 in the same season in 2015, he finished third in Heisman voting.
That lack of confidence from the voters is something Watson has cleared as well. Tigers offensive lineman Tyrone Crowder, who suggested the entire team felt slighted by its quarterback being twice passed over for the Heisman, said Watson “doesn’t let it affect him.”
Miller concurred but claimed his former quarterback draws motivation from being overlooked.
“Deshaun would never say a word,” the Gainesville coach said. “He probably thinks, ‘I want to show people that I’m the best quarterback in the nation.’ Again, he would never verbalize that. But I think, deep in his mind, he would be thinking that.”
The one person Watson doesn’t need to prove anything to is Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who Wednesday again called his quarterback the best player in the country for the last two years.
“His legacy is well-established here, in my opinion,” Swinney said. “This guy is a phenomenal winner, and nothing that happens Monday night is going to change that for me. I don’t need him to stand on the stage and hold the trophy up. I have it validated for me.”
But that would be the crowning achievement for Watson, who has elected to forgo his senior season and enter this year’s NFL draft.
His final act with the Tigers — a rare rematch for the national championship — will likely be his most scrutinized. Miller said Watson has never spoken to him about getting a second chance at the CFP title, but last year’s loss to Alabama has stuck with the former Gainesville quarterback.
“It added an extra edge to him,” Crowder said. “He doesn’t want to leave any doubts or any regrets out there on the field.”
Watson will have to tap into the poise for which teammates praise him if he hopes to end his college career on top instead of a as runner-up again. To topple the Tide and avenge last year’s loss, the Gainesville native will need to clear his mind after every snap.
Luckily for Clemson, Watson has been doing that for years.
“Deshaun hates to come up short. He is the ultimate competitor,” Miller said. “But he’s one of those that after it’s over, he analyzes it and lets it go. And I think that’s what enables him to be the quarterback that he is.”