TAMPA, Fla. -- In order to win this one, Clemson couldn't forget the last one.
There is a video of quarterback Deshaun Watson walking off the field in Arizona following last year's 45-40 loss to Alabama in the national championship game, and it's a snapshot the team hasn't let go.
"That look on his face," said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, "That look to me was, 'Hey, we gave a valiant effort, but we're going to be back and we're going to do whatever it takes to get back and finish it.'"
Rarely is a sequel as good as the original, but this time, Clemson rewrote the ending in an instant classic that will be remembered as one of the sport's best.
As Watson was ushered through a jam-packed, shoulder-to-shoulder locker room on Monday following his team's dramatic 35-31 upset of No. 1 Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, former Clemson standout C.J. Spiller slipped through the crowd of reporters to the star quarterback and gave him a tight, emotional embrace that physically linked Clemson's past and present. Former quarterback Tajh Boyd was there too, hugging players and congratulating them for finishing what they began when coach Dabo Swinney took over the program in 2009.
Boyd and Spiller were at the national championship game last year too, when Clemson fell short of beating Alabama. The Tigers' appearance in that game and their performance against the Crimson Tide wasn't a fluke. It was the experience they needed to return to this stage and overcome another deficit against that same team and seal the deal on Monday.
"We went into the game last year thinking we could win, and we went in there this year knowing we could win," Scott said. "There was no doubt in our guys. Our confidence level, we had a lot of respect for Alabama because they're a very talented team, but there was zero fear among our guys. That's one thing it takes to beat a team like Alabama; you can't be afraid of them. I think because of our success last year, our guys went into this game knowing it was a big challenge, but not being afraid of them."
This time, Clemson overcame a 14-point deficit to earn the program's first win over a No. 1-ranked team.
Linebacker Ben Boulware, the face of the defense and the game's defensive MVP, was kissing the trophy on the podium on the field after the game, before giving an impassioned speech that captured the meaning of Clemson's first national title in football since 1981.
"It's been 35 long years," Boulware shouted in a voice raspy from celebration. "Clemson, y'all been waiting 35 years! It's finally coming home, baby! It's coming home!"
Moments later in the locker room, Boulware again loomed as large as his personality, as he stood on a folding chair while several of his defensive teammates gathered around defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
"This guy dragged people with him," Venables said of Boulware. "He's uncommon. He's special. His legacy in the Clemson family will be unmatched."
"Congratulations," he told Boulware.
As the clock expired, Boulware said he cried on the field.
"I cried like a little baby," he said. "It's such a satisfying feeling. It's a very overwhelming feeling, just to be a part of the class that brought that trophy back home. I sat there and cried for a little bit and then went to celebrate with my teammates. You feel that weight on your shoulders. You feel such a satisfying feeling for our family, whether it be the guys in this locker room, the fans who are going to travel to the game, fans back home, or the guys who built this foundation -- Stephone Anthonys, Grady Jarretts, Tajh Boyds, C.J. Spillers -- so to bring that trophy back home for them, and our fans and the university, it's just very overwhelming and such a satisfying feeling to see the fruits of your labor pay off."
Last year, in Clemson's first practice following the national title game, the Tigers broke down the game film of their loss to Alabama.
"I guarantee you everybody in our program, even though you may not have spoken it, you thought about it at least once a day, about how you felt," co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "We had some reminders throughout the course of the year to let us know we need to maintain our focus because we're on a bigger mission. I'm just so happy because I had to address that offense after the game [in Glendale] last year, and that's one of the hardest things I've had to do. I told them I'm going to be committed to give you my 1 percent extra, and our slogan was finish with no regrets, embrace the target. These guys embraced the target they had every week, and they found a way to finish with no regrets tonight."