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The morning after the confetti had been cleaned up in Glendale, Arizona, Nick Saban was all smiles. Flanked by title game MVP O.J. Howard and Eddie Jackson, the Alabama coach was on top of the game at the end of the season for the fourth time in seven years. Even from his throne, college football’s king had to give props where props were due.

“Deshaun Watson is a fantastic player, probably had as big an impact on the game as any single player in the game,” Saban said on that celebratory January morning. “So to get ahead I think when you’re playing against a player like that is really, really important, and I think [the onside kick] helped us change the momentum of the game.”

Watson totaled 478 yards of offense — that’s more than the 467 Vince Young had against USC — and scored four touchdowns. He and the Tigers challenged Alabama in a way that we have never seen in a title game under Saban. The Tide previously squeezed the life out of Texas after Colt McCoy’s injury, shut out LSU in the Superdome and obliterated a previously undefeated Notre Dame team.

A few months later, Saban made headlines again when he compared No. 4 to Cam Newton on ESPN.

“That guy’s the most significantly dominant player we played against since Cam Newton in 2010. … That guy coming back for that team is going to make them a very, very competitive team in terms of being in the championship arena again,” Saban said.

So what goes into making this college football superstar who has the total attention of Saban and compares to Newton? And what is realistic to expect from him in 2016?

An unparalleled commitment

“I’ve known Deshaun since the ninth grade, and he committed to us a year later,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said earlier this month. “I told him, ‘Whoa, you’re only a sophomore, that’s a long time to commit.’ I actually didn’t want him to commit at the time, but he never wavered.”

Commitments don’t mean a ton in recruiting anymore, but commitment, as a value, creates the separation between talent and individual greatness. Watson not only stayed committed to Clemson but also to his original plan of earning a degree in two-and-a-half years. He sacrificed the spring semester of his senior year to enroll early at Clemson in January 2014 and fought his way back the field after multiple injuries during his first year in the program.

Speaking of sacrifice and his commitment to that plan: Watson squeezed in 17 credit hours over the summer while also participating as a college counselor at the QB Retreat in San Diego, Elite 11 in Los Angeles and Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, Louisiana. He’s five credits short of his degree and already leaning on mentors in the NFL.

“Me and Cam are really close,” Watson says. “Had the opportunity and privilege to meet him as a junior in high school, playing for his first 7-on-7 team. Ever since then we became close friends — communicate all the time, text, call. He just gives me good advice pretty much off the field saying be true to who I am, listen to the coaching staff, buy into the process, don’t get yourself distracted with the outside things.”

A potential place in history

Given everything that Clemson is bringing back, it’s worth keeping an eye on where this offense will (or can) rank among the best units in modern college football history. Three teams have put together the kind of overwhelming campaign to be in the discussion that Clemson could enter: 1995 Nebraska, 2005 USC and 2008 Oklahoma.

TeamYards Per GamePoints Per GameSeason Result
1995 Nebraska556.353.2National Champions, W vs. Florida
2005 USC579.849.1National Runner-Up, L vs. Texas
2008 Oklahoma547.951.1National Runner-Up, L vs. Florida

Clearly, Clemson would rather be Nebraska in this situation than the Trojans or Sooners since they’ve already reached the game’s biggest stage and fallen just short. Watson knows a stat-stuffing and potentially historically productive offense is in the cards given the team’s personnel, but there’s no promises or guarantees coming from the reigning Heisman finalist.

“On paper it’s there, but it’s something we have to go and earn,” Watson said. “They’re not just going to give us 40 points ever Saturday just because of the talent we have on our team. We have to execute and perform at a high level. That’s going to start by preparing and grinding throughout the week each and every day at a high level so we can go out there on Saturday and show what we’ve got.”

The encore

Watson says he’d love to win it all: Heisman Trophy, ACC Player of the Year (again) and more. But he’d trade it all for a victory in that final game. Playing 15 games in one season is something Watson and his Clemson teammates could only dream of prior to last season. After seeing the national title slip away because of a few high-leverage special teams situations, offensive records and ranks aren’t going to be on anyone’s radar inside that building. Clemson in 2015 reached No. 1 in the AP Top 25 for the first time in 34 years; now all that matters is finishing the season in that top spot.

A big part of that focus and that vision is the program’s architect. Swinney is a players’ coach in a game that’s increasingly bending itself to cater to the players. He’s benefited from the changes, and you’ll see him continue to thrive if those trends continue. Between the locker room dances, “B.Y.O.G.” (Bring Your Own Guts), putting “Clemsoning” to bed and holding a pizza party in Death Valley, it was a banner 2015 for Swinney’s stock, just as it was that of Clemson and Watson.

Deshaun and Dabo’s encore will be the most fascinating story of 2016 in the ACC. The spotlight will be as bright in Death Valley as anywhere in the country. It’s a situation that can break plenty of ways for college football teams made up of athletically gifted but otherwise normal college-aged students.

Swinney and his staff prefer a big-picture approach to discussing the program (46 wins over four years, they’ll be fast to point out), but it will be hard to avoid the scrutiny of the minutiae in 2016.


Source: CBS Sports / Blink and you’ll miss it: Watson, No. 2 Clemson could make in history in 2016