Clemson and Alabama faced off in the Colllege Football Playoff Championship for the second year in a row on Monday night. It was the thrilling rematch of last year’s game, in which the Clemson Tigers had their underdog hopes dashed in a close 45-40 finish that earned the Alabama Crimson Tide their 4th national championship title under head coach Nick Saban.
So when they returned to face off with the kings of college football yet again, Clemson was armed with a full year’s worth of motivation. And in the end, and I mean the very end, it was they who would improbably emerge from the final college football game of the season as the best team in the country.
Clemson wide receiver Hunter Renfrow caught the winning touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson with :01 remaining on the clock. It was just enough time to execute a perfect on-side kick that would allow Watson, with tears in his eyes, to take the final snap of the game in the victory formation.
It was an electrifying, emotional conclusion that felt as thought it were ripped straight out of a fictional Hollywood sports movie. That characterization becomes even more appropriate when assessing just how statistically improbable Clemson’s performance really was.
In breaking down the historical relevance of Clemson’s win, the statisticians over at FiveThiryEight.com determined that the team and Watson “pulled off a number of incredible feats,” the first of which was earning the fifth-greatest championship upset win in 42 years.
This was determined using the site’s college football adaptation of the Elo rating system. (Read more about that here if you’re unfamiliar or want to learn more about FiveThirtyEight’s process.)
According to their formula, Clemson had a 32.9% chance of beating Alabama, which coincidentally ranks one spot higher than their last championship win all the way back in 1981. Players on that Nebraska team that Clemson beat in ’81 included College Football Hall of Famers Dave Rimington and Mike Rozier, 49ers Hall of Famer Roger Craig and five-time Pro Bowler Irving Fryar.
They also determined that Deshaun Watson’s comeback fourth quarter helped him to secure an historic honor as well. According to the Sports-Reference.com Play Index, Watson put together the best individual performance by a QB in a national championship since at least the 2000 season.
FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine explained how that metric is calculate based on total adjusted yards, which takes a player’s total offense, adds a bonus of 20 yards for every passing or rushing touchdown and subtracts a penalty of 45 yards for every interception.
“By that measure, Watson’s performance on Monday surpassed even Vince Young’s incredible feats in the 2006 Rose Bowl,” writes Paine.
Of course that also puts Watson’s performance ahead of Matt Leinart’s in 2005 and Tim Tebow’s in 2008 according to this metric, though I’m certainly not contending he was better. That’s still up for debate.
Finally, and perhaps most impressively, FiveThirtyEight goes on to point out that Clemson’s meteoric rise from a mediocre program to playing in back-to-back national championship appearances is unprecedented in college football.
“Going back to the dawn of the Bowl Coalition era in 1992, no champion has had a lower average end-of-season Elo rating in the 20 seasons leading up to the five seasons before its title than Clemson. Meaning, the Tigers didn’t have the advantage of a longstanding lofty pedigree; they just got very good very quickly…”
Anyone who watches college football can recognize the almost insurmountable advantage that Alabama’s continued success gives them in recruiting and producing championship-caliber talent year after year. For a team like Clemson to beat Alabama with a defense that was being hailed as one of the greatest ever, it required a very special combination of exceptional coaching, all-time talent at quarterback and maybe even a little bit of luck.