TAMPA, Fla. -- In a game that featured three lead changes in the final five minutes, Clemson got the last play -- and the College Football Playoff national title.
Deshaun Watson's third touchdown pass of the game, a 2-yard toss to Hunter Renfrow with one second remaining, lifted the Tigers to a 35-31 win over Alabama in a classic championship game Monday night.
The Tigers avenged a 45-40 loss to the Crimson Tide in last year's final at Glendale, Ariz., capturing their first title since 1981.
"Thirty-five years," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "Hopefully we can win a few more before they put me out to pasture. I'm so thankful. I'm proud of these seniors. They've been unbelievable, the way they worked and fought all year."
Watson completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards, and the junior quarterback also ran for a touchdown. He threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns in last year's championship-game loss. Four Clemson players -- Jordan Leggett, Mike Williams, Deon Cain and Renfrow -- topped 90 receiving yards Monday.
The Tigers (14-1) scored twice in the final four minutes, and they rallied back after Alabama (14-1) took the lead with 2:01 to play.
"Don't call it an upset," Swinney said after ending top-ranked Alabama's 26-game winning streak. "We expected to win this game."
Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts put the Crimson Tide on top 31-28 on a 30-yard touchdown run. Alabama converted a fourth-and-1 from its own 41, then got a double pass from ArDarius Stewart to tight end O.J. Howard for 24 yards. That set up Hurts' wild scramble through the Clemson defense for the go-ahead score.
"I have to say that I'm extremely proud of our team for what they were able to accomplish this entire season," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I don't think one game defines who you are, you know, as a person, as a competitor or as a team, and certainly not define what this group of young men was able to accomplish this year."
Watson guided the Tigers on a nine-play, 68-yard drive for the win. Watson threw 24 yards to Williams, then 17 yards to Leggett, and a pass-interference call in the end zone gave the Tigers time for one more play with six seconds left, jeopardizing a potential field goal that would have sent the game to overtime.
"It was calm," said Watson, the Heisman Trophy runner-up. "No one over there panicked. I said, 'Let's be legendary, let's be great.'"
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Clemson, starting from its 12-yard line, got a 17-yard pass to Leggett and then a 26-yarder to Williams, with a 15-yard penalty tacked on to put the Tigers at the Alabama 16. Watson ran 15 yards to the 1, and Wayne Gallman dived in from for a 28-24 lead with 4:38 to play.
Down 24-14 to start the fourth quarter, Clemson got back within three on a 4-yard touchdown from Watson to Williams with 14:00 left.
Twice before, the Tigers had the ball down three in the fourth quarter, but they couldn't get beyond their own 35-yard line each time.
Howard, who scored two long touchdowns in last year's championship win against Clemson, came through again Monday, catching a 68-yard touchdown in the third quarter to give the Tide a 24-14 lead.
Clemson had pulled within three points after trailing 14-0 early, but the Tigers left Howard wide open, and Hurts found him for the long touchdown with 1:53 left in the third quarter.
Watson was the key to Clemson climbing within 17-14. He set up a touchdown drive with a quick kick on fourth down from the Alabama 43, which was downed at the 5-yard line. After a three-and-out, Clemson got the ball at the Tide 42, and Watson threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Renfrow to pull the Tigers within a field goal.
Alabama linebacker Ryan Anderson forced and recovered a fumble from Gallman on the opening drive of the second half, returning it to the Tigers 16-yard line. The Crimson Tide had to settle for a 27-yard Adam Griffith field goal and a 17-7 lead.
Scarbrough, who put away Washington with a 68-yard touchdown in Alabama's semifinal win, was back at it Monday night. His scoring runs of 25 and 37 yards against the Tigers produced a 14-0 halftime lead.
Clemson was held in check early, producing 72 yards on its first five drives, before coming alive in the second quarter. Watson hit Cain for 43 yards on a short screen, then converted a third-and-10 with a 26-yard pass to Leggett. Watson capped the drive with an 8-yard scoring run to pull the Tigers within a touchdown.
Clemson moved the ball in the second quarter well enough to be outgaining Alabama 203-183 at the half, though the Tigers trailed on the scoreboard.
The game's first break came when Clemson decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 at the Alabama 41-yard line in the first quarter. The Tigers pitched wide to Gallman, who was dropped by defensive back Tony Brown for no gain, turning the ball over on downs.
Alabama got 20 yards on a scramble by Hurts. Two plays later, Clemson's Clelin Ferrell was flagged for roughing the passer, and Scarbrough followed with a 25-yard scoring run for a 7-0 lead with 9:23 left in the opening quarter.
Watson fumbled a third-down snap late in the first quarter, and Alabama's Ryan Anderson recovered to set the Tide up at the Clemson 40. The Tigers' defense stepped up, however, and after a penalty, a 2-yard loss and two incompletions, Alabama had to punt.
"Well, like Coach (Saban) always says, it's going to be a 60 minute game, so that's basically what it was," Howard said. "We couldn't get the ball going a lot on offense, but we had to stay patient and keep working hard, trust our offense, and they went down and scored, we came back and scored with two minutes left. So it was just an up-and-down game ... but that's football.
"Clemson is a great team, and we knew it was going to be a tough game. Basically that's just football, you've got to go out and play for 60 minutes."
NOTES: Former Florida coach Steve Spurrier and former Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, announced earlier Monday among the new class for the College Football Hall of Fame, were on the field for the coin toss before the game. ... Clemson last beat Alabama in 1905. The Tigers won the first three meetings between the schools, but none since, including last year's national championship game. ... Clemson S Tanner Muse was credited with a partial deflection of a first-quarter punt, which still went 25 yards for Alabama.