Even with one game left to play, Gainesville High graduate Deshaun Watson already knows what he wants to be remembered for during his time at Clemson.
“Just leading this platform for the right reasons, helping others, impacting the community,” the Gainesville native said during Wednesday’s College Football Playoff teleconference. “Just doing it with no regrets. I had fun and enjoyed the time at Clemson.”
But Watson’s legacy with the Tigers can be so much more than that.
The former Red Elephants quarterback, who led the program to a 2012 state championship, can bring home a national championship when No. 2 Clemson faces No. 1 Alabama in the CFP title game at 8 p.m. Monday in Tampa, Florida. This will be the second straight season these two powerhouses meet in this game after the Crimson Tide scored 24 fourth-quarter points to pull out a 45-40 win last year.
Watson torched Alabama’s stout defense despite the loss, completing 63.8 percent of his passes for 405 yards and four touchdowns with just one interception. He added 73 yards on the ground for the previously-undefeated Tigers.
“The guy is an unbelievable winner, and he is incredibly attentive to details and a great, great student of the game,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said during his session with media Wednesday. “He just loves to grind to get ready, and then when it comes game time, he just goes and plays.
“He knows that he’s prepared. He’s put the work in. And so there’s a lot of confidence that comes with that.”
The Tigers (13-1) reached college football’s biggest stage by dismantling No. 3 Ohio State 31-0 in the CFP semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31. Watson piled up 316 total yards and three total touchdowns in that game.
Alabama (14-0), meanwhile, notched a methodical 24-7 win against Washington in the CFP semifinal at the Peach Bowl that same day.
Now the two teams will face off in a strength-versus-strength matchup at Raymond James Stadium. Clemson enters the contest scoring 39.5 points per game, while the Tide has by far the nation’s stingiest scoring defense in allowing just 11.4 points per contest.
Watson showed last year that he’s a suitable match for Alabama’s perennially potent defense. The former Gainesville High quarterback and Heisman Trophy runner-up posted comparable numbers this season, throwing for 4,173 yards and 38 touchdowns while rushing for 583 yards and eight scores.
Still, Watson — who has decided to skip his senior year and enter the 2017 NFL Draft — knows the massive challenge he faces in his final college contest.
“Last year is last year. You can’t go based off last year,” Watson said. “They have maybe – I want to say seven new starters, eight new starters on this defense, and everyone else is in the NFL. It’s a totally different defense, so you’ve got to go based off this year.
“You can’t live on last year’s success. You’ve got to keep moving forward and see what’s going on this year.”