A chorus of rowdy Clemson fans still crowded the stands at Sun Life Stadium, screaming in celebration after their team toppled Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and Tigers safety Jayron Kearse wanted to soak it all in.
Kearse held his 6-month-old baby close to the Orange Bowl championship shirt he had stretched over his shoulder pads, confetti stuck to his sweat-soaked arms. This was a moment to cherish, but it didn’t take long for a reporter to burst the bubble.
It’s one thing to be Orange Bowl champs, after all, but another test was ahead for Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, and the likely foe was big, bad Alabama. The Crimson Tide boast a defensive line perhaps as good as any in college football history, a coach with four national titles already on his résumé and, the reporter noted, the Heisman trophy winner -- running back Derrick Henry.
This is where Kearse took exception.
“He may have the hardware,” Kearse said, “but we’ve got the Heisman winner.”
No, the votes didn’t come up in Deshaun Watson’s favor when the Heisman was presented last month, but for the Tigers, there is no player in the country better, no quarterback more prepared, no leader more revered. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables pulled Watson aside in the celebratory scrum just to say thank you. His head coach emphatically touted Watson as the best player in the country in his postgame news conference. And when presented with all the arguments for why Alabama poses the ultimate stumbling block, Kearse points to Watson as the equalizer.
In two years at Clemson, Watson hasn’t just won over the locker room, he has infused it with his unique brand of calm, cool confidence. And as the Tigers prepare for their biggest -- and final -- challenge of the season, Watson is the guy setting the tone.
“This guy is just special in every regard,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
This isn’t Watson’s first run at a championship.
Watson was a junior at Gainesville (Georgia) High in 2012, a third-year starter and already arguably the best player to ever come through the program. Football was always big in Gainesville, but in more than a century as the town’s athletic centerpiece, the Red Elephants hadn’t won a state championship. Watson aimed to change that, leading his team to the Georgia Dome with a dominant playoff run.
That final game against Ware County was a historical benchmark, not just for Watson but for his entire hometown. And if there was any question how Watson would handle that pressure, head coach Bruce Miller quickly found his answer in the locker room before the game.
“I thought he was going to go to sleep before the game,” Miller said.
There was Watson, sitting in front of his locker, calm and collected, chewing on a bag of gummy worms -- his usual pregame treat. The weight of the world -- or at least the world that he had grown up in -- might have been on his shoulders, but Watson never flinched. He threw three touchdowns and ran for two more, and history was made.
“The bigger the stage, the better he plays,” Miller said.
The kid is unflappable, Miller said. No outside expectations will exceed his own, and he believes supremely in his own ability and, more importantly, his preparation.
“People have a lot of respect for Deshaun because of how he handles things,” Swinney said. “He’s just relentless about preparing. He doesn’t let anything get in the way of that.”
The talent on the field is obvious. Alabama coach Nick Saban gushed -- at least, as much as Saban can -- over Watson’s ability this week, and Watson has left a trail of ravaged defenses in his wake. But it’s what he has done off the field -- that ability to prepare enough to know the outcome before it happens -- that has infected the entire Clemson locker room.
When Swinney was making the final push to get Watson to Clemson, he pulled Miller aside and emphasized the impact the star QB could have. Watson was the missing piece to the puzzle, Swinney told Miller, the final push Clemson needed to win a national championship.
Now that the Tigers are one step away, no one’s arguing with Swinney’s prediction.
“We knew early on that not only did he have great physical talents, but his mental strength and decision-making would be a huge advantage,” Clemson offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “And I don’t think he’s reached his ceiling yet.”
It’s a love fest for Watson within his own locker room.
In the days leading up to the Orange Bowl, tight end Jordan Leggett was happy to tout his quarterback’s inevitable success.
“I feel like with Deshaun back there, he’ll pick them apart the whole game,” Leggett said, and Watson rewarded him with 332 yards and two touchdowns.
Charone Peake was asked about the myriad receivers who have played a part in Clemson’s success, and he quickly deferred to his quarterback. “He puts the ball exactly where it needs to be, every time,” Peake said.
The offensive line has been a brick wall, allowing just 16 sacks in 14 games, but ask Eric Mac Lain the secret to the unit’s success and he can’t help but tab Watson. “Deshaun has saved us a ton this year,” he said.
But it is Swinney who sums up Watson’s magic the best. He holds out his hand -- flat, with the palm down -- then swipes a straight line across the air.
“He’s steady, boy,” Swinney said with a grin.
Same guy, day in, day out.
A crucial third-down throw against South Carolina to avoid disaster late in the season? Same guy.
A scramble for a big gain to help secure an ACC title? Same guy.
Underdogs against Oklahoma, the so-called most complete team in America? Same guy.
So what’s to worry about against Alabama?
Watson has seen the film, knows the drill. He believes Clemson can win, so the rest of the Tigers do too. It’s not magic. It is belief and preparation and consistency, and all those little clichés Swinney has drilled into his team’s conscious, but that Watson lives from moment to moment.
Yes, Alabama is good. There’s no doubting that. Why else would they be in the championship game? It’s nothing to be worried about. Clemson has Watson, and this is what he came here to do.
“That’s why I committed to Clemson,” Watson said. “I knew if we put in the work and the grind, we’d be at this point. Now we’re here. And we’re having fun with it.”