College Sports

In a season of massive expectations, Deshaun Watson’s climax could be a rematch with Alabama

Alabama coach Nick Saban, center, has called Clemson’s Deshaun Watson college football’s best player since Cam Newton.
Alabama coach Nick Saban, center, has called Clemson’s Deshaun Watson college football’s best player since Cam Newton. AP

Back in July, Alabama coach Nick Saban said some highly complimentary things about Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Get ready to have those praises repeated and dissected over the next few weeks.

Watson and the Tigers pushed the Crimson Tide hard before losing in the fourth quarter of the national championship game. When Saban paid a visit to ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., campus, he called Watson "the best player in college football since Cam Newton."

Saban, whose undefeated team will undoubtedly be seeded first in the four-team national playoff draw, knows all about now-Carolina Panthers quarterback Newton’s gifts from his national-championship run at Auburn.

The parallels between Newton and Watson, as quarterbacks who can beat you with their arms and their legs, are valid.

You could see as much in how Watson beat Virginia Tech 42-35 Saturday for the ACC championship. Watson ended the game with 288 yards passing, including three touchdowns. He also had 85 yards rushing and two more touchdowns.

Watson dislikes the term "dual-threat quarterback" because it marginalizes him a bit as a pocket passer. But Saban, who is as good at breaking down game film as any coach in college football, will undoubtedly find time to review Watson’s performances this season in the coming weeks. And he’ll undoubtedly think "dual threat."

At 12-1, Clemson appears safe to make the four-team playoff field. But the Tigers’ inability Saturday to put away Virginia Tech until cornerback Cordrea Tankersley’s late interception could work against Clemson in the beauty pageant aspect of the seeding process.

"We just couldn’t put them away," said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. "Up two touchdowns, up three touchdowns. …They just wouldn’t go away."

There’s not a lot of difference between Clemson, Washington, Ohio State or even Big Ten champion Penn State. The playoff committee could justify Clemson being seeded fourth, and send the Tigers to Atlanta to play Alabama in the first round on New Year’s Eve.

If so, we’re in for a fascinating rematch of Alabama’s defense and Clemson’s offense. If you saw Alabama’s goal-line stand against Florida Saturday in the SEC championship game, then you know the Crimson Tide is still great defensively.

Even so, Clemson has the pieces to score plenty on Alabama. It’s not just Watson, it’s wide receiver Mike Williams, running back Wayne Gallman and tight end Jordan Leggett. Those four are all elite at their positions nationally.

It’s been an odd season for Watson, who has already made his intention to enter the NFL draft clear. He was so good last season, particularly in the championship game, that expectations were unreal.

Then, he wasn’t even the most dynamic quarterback in the ACC. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson captivated college football fans the first half of this season, scoring touchdowns like he was a video game come to life.

Louisville narrowly lost to Clemson, and then fell twice more to Houston and Kentucky. But Jackson still appears a narrow favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.

It will be good when the Heisman presentation is over and Watson can get to some quiet and normalcy before the Tigers’ semifinal. When the moment slows, I suspect he’ll talk with Newton, who has become his mentor over the past few years.

Watson was asked in the preseason what he and Newton discuss. Watson replied it’s not usually much technical advice, more a way to run your life.

As in concentrate on what’s important and tune out everything else.

What’s important is a likely rematch with Alabama. That is what would settle Watson’s legacy as a college football player.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell