Clemson offered the spring after Watson's freshman year. He committed to the Tigers in 2012. It was not until one year later that Georgia offered the rising star. By then, it was too late. Watson says the staff did not put on the hard sell until his senior year.
“I had my mind made up I was going to Clemson,” Watson said recently. “I was enrolling early, so I didn’t want to do any changes.”
Watson ended up leading Clemson to the national championship game last season and is a preseason favorite to win the Heisman. Then-Georgia coach Mark Richt is now at Miami, his fortunes perhaps changed because he and his staff were too slow on Watson.
“I told (then-offensive coordinator Mike) Bobo, that guy is going to take somebody to the national championship,” Richt said recently. “That kid right there, he’s got it. Clemson did a great job of getting on him young. We were slow. We were too slow. That was a great job by them. They just whupped us.”
It is pretty amazing how one decision could have such a domino effect on college football. What if the Bulldogs had been on Watson from the beginning? Would Watson have gone to Georgia? Would it be Georgia playing in a national championship game with Watson behind center? Would Richt still be the head coach?
They are interesting "what ifs" to ponder, but rather than play a hypothetical guessing game, let’s take a look at what Watson’s decision to go to Clemson has done to four different programs.
Clemson Tigers: The Tigers became one of the best stories in college football last season, going undefeated through the regular season and then beating Oklahoma to make it to the national championship game against Alabama. Watson was the biggest reason, gaining over 5,000 yards of offense and nearly single-handedly beating the Tide, giving Clemson its best season since it won the national championship in 1981. Clemson is now a favorite to make it back to the College Football Playoff. You can bet Nick Saban does not want to face Watson again.
Georgia Bulldogs: Are those groans coming from Athens over the one that got away? Since Watson arrived at Clemson in 2014, Georgia has had absolutely no stability at quarterback. Hutson Mason started in 2014. Then the Bulldogs needed to go the transfer route, starting Greyson Lambert in 2015. This year, the Bulldogs might be starting a true freshman in Jacob Eason. Injuries at running back also hampered the Georgia offense in Richt’s final two seasons, but the fact that Georgia had nobody elite at the quarterback position was probably an uncomfortable reminder that they let Watson get away. Richt was let go at the end of 2015.
Miami Hurricanes: Watson was behind center when Clemson embarrassed Miami 58-0 last October, handing the Hurricanes their worst home loss in history. That game ended up being a huge catalyst for the entire Miami program. The following day, embattled coach Al Golden was fired. Athletic director Blake James set his sights on Richt but proceeded through the coaching search, believing his No. 1 choice would remain at Georgia. When Richt was let go, James pounded. Now Miami has a coach who has galvanized the program, and that happened thanks to Watson leading the way at Clemson.
South Carolina Gamecocks: Since Watson became the starting quarterback at Clemson, the fortunes for the two in-state rivals have gone in opposite directions. In 2014, Watson played on a torn ACL and still led Clemson to victory, ending a painful five-game losing streak to the Gamecocks. Clemson finished that season 10-3; South Carolina went 7-6. It was the first time since 2010 that both teams were not ranked headed into the game. Then last season, Watson led a 37-32 win, helping Clemson to its first undefeated regular season since 1981. South Carolina finished 3-9, its worst season since going 0-11 in 1999. The gap between the two programs is now at its largest since Dabo Swinney took over.