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College Football Playoff: The Tampa party is over, but here's what remains

By Martin Fennelly, Times Sports Columnist
Published: January 10, 2017 Updated: January 11, 2017 at 07:52 AM
Clemson Tigers wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud (34) after the College Football Playoff National Championship on Monday January 9, 2017 at Raymond James Stadium, in Tampa, Fla. Clemson Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 35 to 31.

TAMPA — Sometimes, it isn't until you take something apart that you realize how big it was.

The deconstruction of College Football Playoff weekend was underway Tuesday. Party tents were being broken down outside Raymond James Stadium. The great concert stage and fencing and gates at the downtown Tampa concert were being dismantled. Water was being emptied from police barricades outside the Alabama team hotel. Eventually the barricades ran dry, as the Crimson Tide had a few hours earlier.

But some things will last forever.

Clemson is national champion, and deconstructing how Dabo Swinney's Tigers did it, how they pulled it off, shows work to be appreciated. The finish to Clemson's extraordinary, one-second-left, 35-31 win in the title game rematch with defending champion Alabama will be replayed for years.

Deshaun Watson to the rescue. Those amazing defensive stands. Those stupendous catches by receivers Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett. Former walk-on Hunter Renfrow, who looks about 12 years old, making the winning TD catch with that one tick left.

Call it anything you want, just don't call it an upset.

Swinney was adamant.

"This was no upset," he said. "That's the last thing I told them before we left the locker room. The only upset is we don't win this dadgum game. You know, with this game right here, we beat the last seven national champions, all of them this year. I don't know who tweeted that out, but I appreciate that nugget right there."

Alabama. Auburn. Florida State. Ohio State.

Clemson beat all of those teams this championship season.

How do you break down just how far Swinney and Clemson have come since 2009, Swinney's first full season as head coach? Clemson hadn't won the ACC title in 20 years. Now it has done that three times. Clemson hadn't won 10 games in a season since 1991. Now the Tigers have done it six years running. Clemson last won a national championship 35 years ago. Now it has its second.

Clemson was an underachiever, a team that couldn't get over the top. Swinney was seen like that, too.

Look now.

It took years of building, years of recruiting, getting top players like Watson, a five-star recruit who delivered Monday night on the game's biggest stage. It took twists and turns and realizations, like Swinney making a change after Clemson was smashed in the 2012 Orange Bowl, allowing 70 points to West Virginia. Swinney went and hired defensive coordinator Brent Venables from Oklahoma. You didn't need someone holding up a sign to know Venables was key.

And so was Dabo's daring. Deconstruct that game he coached Monday. Him going for it on fourth and 1 early on, which backfired, or him quick kicking Alabama deep into its own territory, which turned the game around, or him going for the win, Watson to Renfrow, with just six seconds left.

Swinney could have settled for a field goal and sent the game to overtime. Time could have run out if that pass play had taken one second longer and been incomplete.

"Our mentality was to play for the win," Swinney said.

They'd come too far.

And so Clemson built something, something elite.

Swinney said the best is yet to come.

Monday morning, after an hour's sleep ("I watched the sunrise"), he mentioned his program's new football operations complex, a 140,000 square-foot facility set to open in a few weeks.

"On our practice field each day, we watched the facility get built," Swinney said. "But this was something special being built right here on this field. They're putting the finishing touches. We're putting the finishing touches on this season."

Building and more building.

They were deconstructing the College Football Playoff all around Tampa on Tuesday.

The stages, the tents, the barricades.

Championships stand forever.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.