GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The desperation onside kick failed, and Clemson's Cinderella aspiration for its first national title in 34 years fell short as Alabama took a knee in victory formation. College football's pre-eminent colossus stood atop college football for an 11th time after a back-and-forth 45-40 win in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T.
In the bowels of University of Phoenix Stadium, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, whose backstory is a sort of inspiring fairy tale itself, sat down before reporters in downbeat fashion, something that no one had seen during a 17-game winning streak dating back to last season. "What a year," he sighed. "What a year."
When the clock struck midnight, Clemson's season was over without its fairy-tale ending. But here's the thing: Swinney and this collection of athletes, including Deshaun Watson, the nation's best quarterback, aren't going anywhere, aren't turning back into a pumpkin after falling just short.
The Tigers will finish the 2015 season ranked No. 2 and are likely to begin the 2016 campaign ranked No. 1.
Cinderella? Heck, Swinney's postgame comments better approximated a famous line from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
"There is no doubt that we will be back," Swinney said. "It won't be 34 years before we're going to be back, I promise you that."
Swinney's news conference involved as much looking ahead as reviewing the night's action. His team yielded to Alabama because of a handful of big plays the Crimson Tide turned, most particularly on special teams. The Tigers were every bit the physical match for the SEC champions, even outgaining them 550 yards to 473. Clemson's points total tripled the Alabama defense's season average, its yards more than doubling the Tide's season average.
Those spectacular offensive numbers were almost entirely due to Watson, whose 478 total yards were the most ever produced in a national championship game. He passed for 405 yards with four touchdowns and an interception and rushed for 73. He had Nick Saban's defense on its heels most of the night.
Just three players have recorded 400 yards of total offense against a Saban-coached Alabama team. Simply, Watson was the best player on the field.
"Their quarterback is a fabulous player," Saban said.
Watson is the biggest reason Clemson will top the list of teams that could return for the third iteration of the College Football Playoff. He'll begin the season as a favorite to win the Heisman Trophy, an award Swinney thought he should have won this year. "No doubt about it -- that's an easy answer for me," Swinney said. "He's special."
But Clemson is not a one-star constellation. While it remains to be seen which underclassmen opt to enter the NFL draft early, the Tigers will welcome back a strong core of talent on both sides of the ball. They won't be entirely rebuilding their offensive line and defensive front seven next fall, as they were this season.
Watson shared a long embrace with Alabama running back Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman Trophy winner, after the game.
"He's the Heisman winner, national champion, so I'm trying to do the same thing," Watson said. "Just learn from the guys that have been there and done it."
When asked where he needed to improve, Watson said, "Just my whole game." But just before he spoke, fifth-year senior offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said, "Nowhere."
Mac Lain's point was that Watson at present is pretty darn good. He also noted that Clemson's near-miss against Alabama probably "put some ripples into the pond."
As in: Clemson is eager to transform from a surging top-10 team into an annual national contender.
"We stand toe-to-toe with everybody in the country," Swinney said. "This program doesn't take a backseat to anybody. We can play with anybody."
Then the kicker.
"We can beat anybody, and that's a fact."
Fact is, it didn't happen Monday night. But more than a few will project it to happen next January.