As the gold confetti fell from University of Phoenix Stadium deep into the Arizona night on Monday, Deshaun Watson ran off the field not in the jubilant celebration he had imagined as a little kid, but in defeat after an opportunity lost. It marked only the second time Watson has lost as Clemson's starter.
By any metric, Watson’s 2015 was one for the ages, as he led his team to an undefeated regular season, an ACC title and a playoff berth. Individually, Watson made it to New York for the Heisman Trophy presentation and became the first college football player ever to pass for 4,000 yards and run for 1,000 yards in the same season, per B/R Insights.
And in the end, as the calendar had shifted to 2016, the precocious signal-caller came just a few plays away from slowing the Tide dynasty and bringing a championship to Howard’s Rock.
While the 45-40 final score was not what Watson was hoping for, his sublime individual performance likely made him the new face of college football heading into 2016.
“He's special. He really is,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said in his postgame press conference, per Bleacher Report's Christopher Walsh. “That's one of the things Coach [Nick] Saban was talking to me about after the game. This guy, he's special. Again, he's got great toughness, great heart, a great mind for the game, and just made some huge plays all the way to the end.”
With apologies to fellow superstar Christian McCaffrey and his video-game moves for Stanford, it will be Watson who will headline preseason Heisman lists and magazine covers in a few short months. That much was clear in his heroic attempt to lead a bruised and battered Tigers team to the verge of immortality against an Alabama juggernaut and one of college football's best defenses.
Coming into this game, Watson was a household name among college football fans, but he lacked the national buzz of a Derrick Henry or Cardale Jones of last year.
Now everybody knows his name.
Almost 10 years to the day after Vince Young hypnotized the country on his way to a national title for Texas, Watson nearly did the same in a different shade of orange. Casual fans and college football diehards saw Watson throw for 405 yards and four touchdowns and rush for another 73 on the ground.
Even though it was in a losing effort, breaking Young’s historic mark for total offense in a championship game will not be lost in anybody's mind over the coming months.
“At the end of the day, I wanted the W. All the stats don't really matter to me. I just wanted to get the win and do something that we haven't done in 34 years,” said Watson, per Walsh. “But at the end of the day, I love my teammates, love my brothers and you'll see us in Tampa next year.”
What Watson did, going toe-to-toe with one of the best defenses in recent memory and continually outfoxing one of the best coaches of any era, was simply one of the most amazing championship game performances of all time.
And he had to do it nearly by himself, too.
Wide receiver Deon Cain missed the two bowl games after being suspended. Fellow wideout Mike Williams was lost on the opening drive of the season. Against Alabama, running back Wayne Gallman was injured and ineffective in the second half. Watson had to deliver every possession.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough in a game with a handful of missed opportunities down the stretch for the Tigers.
“Going into this game, I was expecting to win. I thought we should have won,” the quarterback said, per Walsh. “But like Coach Swinney said, there was a few plays that we didn't really capitalize on, and I missed some throws, we dropped some balls...and just had some...miscues. Just some little things like that are going to really force you in a hole, and it's hard to beat a team like Alabama if you make those mistakes.”
But those mistakes could be the fuel Watson needs to climb over the hump this offseason as Clemson enters 2016 the favorite to make it back to the College Football Playoff and capture yet another ACC title. They are no longer a team mocked for “Clemsoning” at inopportune times, but one that rightfully is among the sport's elite programs—now and for the foreseeable future.
A big reason for that is Watson, of course, who will return to a tiny South Carolina town on Tuesday as a hero in defeat and a player the program can continue to chase a national title with.
The bulk of his young receiving corps returns next season, as does his offensive line and the typically terrific Gallman. The defense will take a few hits, but Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables has proven to be a master at reloading in the face of loss.
“It will really start when we get back to school, start watching this film, fix some of the mistakes I made and just getting back rolling. Putting on some weight, getting in the weight room some more and taking that next step in my game and level,” said Watson, per Walsh.
“I talked to Derrick Henry after the game, and we're going to try to link up after the offseason (so I can) learn from him and just really build that relationship. He's the Heisman winner, national champion, so I'm trying to do the same thing and just learn from guys who have been there and done it.”
Clemson lost to a dominant force on Monday night, but the team pushed Alabama to a point where even Crimson Tide fans were rightfully amazed at what the dual-threat quarterback from Gainesville, Georgia, could do with the football in his hands.
There’s a special player in that orange No. 4 jersey, and all of college football knows it now. Even with an ending he’d just as soon forget, the encore to an amazing 2015 might just be Deshaun Watson warming up.
Bryan Fischer is a national college football columnist at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.