Sluggish start can’t damper epic finish between Clemson, Alabama

WASHINGTON — I suppose if you’re a fan of either Clemson or Alabama, you were coming into Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game with a fair amount of interest. But between the two non-compelling semifinal matchups leading in, a lackluster NFL weekend and a fairly inert offensive display from both teams, for about two-and-a-half quarters, the game itself started out kind of … boring.

Which is crazy. All the storylines were there. These were the top two ranked teams in the country, squaring off in a rematch of last year’s title game. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney had walked on to the Alabama team in college. Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban was aiming to tie Bear Bryant’s mark of five national titles. And yet, even as a bigger college football fan than NFL fan, I found it hard to care as much as I do for, say, a random Super Bowl.

And then the final 20 minutes happened. A sleepy, defensive slog turned into a barn-burning shootout. Full extension catches. Double passes from running backs. Deshaun Watson sent spinning like an action figure.

Given ESPN’s range of coverage, it seems like they must have expected, or at least hedged, for a bad game. There was the traditional telecast on the main network, but a trio of alternate options. Former players from each school provided a “homer telecast” on the Deuce; over on ESPNews, a handful of other college coaches broke down film as the game ran; and on ESPNU, well, it’s hard to say exactly what was happening, with a motley crew of personalities ranging from Rachel Nichols to Keyshawn Johnson lounging on couches and talking about almost anything but the actual game.

And honestly, it’s a good thing they did. Because for about the first three hours, even when the game was close, it just wasn’t very compelling. Whether you wanted to geek out on information overload with the coaches or listen to national treasure Bill Walton (adorned in a glittery Uncle Sam outfit) extol the virtues of drug decriminalization, there was something for everyone to distract from the actual action on the field.

“Does this seem like a really long game to y’all?” Michelle Beadle asked after a particularly long review. That was less than five minutes of game time into the second half.

Maybe it was those interminable reviews. Maybe it was the commercial breaks, which seem to get longer every year. Maybe it was the kickoff, after 8 p.m. local time on the East Coast, pushing the end of the game well past midnight. Maybe it was ESPN playing “Gimme Shelter” every five seconds like Mick Jagger was squeezing the network for royalty money. It just seemed like Alabama might quietly shut Clemson down like they do to everyone and bleed out the final minutes of the season.

But college football remains undefeated.

The Tigers scored 24 points in the second half against a Crimson Tide defense that hadn’t allowed that many in a full game since Oct. 8. The teams combined to trade three lead-changing touchdowns over the final 4:38, each one of which might have been the game-winner on any other night. But Clemson struck last, with a single second left on the clock, as Deshaun Watson threw his third touchdown of the night to go along with over 400 yards passing for a storybook, 35-31 ending.

Sure, it still took 28 minutes of actual time to play the final six minutes of the game. But by then the action had spiraled into a frenzy and delivered one of the best national title games in a generation. No, it was no 2006 Rose Bowl, but then again, nothing is. For me to even have to type that sentence tells any college football fan who didn’t see the finish just what they missed.

And so, despite it all, college football left us with another indelible title game. Kickoff for the 2017 season is the first weekend in September. I can’t wait.

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