Special teams and a big game by a little-used tight end helped No. 2 Alabama knock off No. 1 Clemson 45-40 to win the college football playoff championship, the Crimson Tide's fourth national title in the past seven seasons.

Alabama joins Notre Dame, which won four titles from 1943-49, as the only school since 1936 to win four national championships in seven years. For Alabama coach Nick Saban, it is his fifth national championship, leaving him only one short of former Tide coach Bear Bryant for the most all-time. It is the Tide's 10th national title in the poll era, more than any other school.

The game turned with 10:34 remaining after an Alabama field goal tied the game 24-24. On the ensuing kickoff, Crimson Tide kicker Leigh Griffin tried a high, short onside kick that was recovered by Marlon Humphrey to set up Alabama near midfield.

Two plays later, quarterback Jake Coker hit O.J. Howard for a 51-yard touchdown pass that game the Tide the lead for good. It was the second touchdown reception of the game for Howard, who finished with 208 yards and five catches, his finest game as a collegian. 

Clemson responded with a 31-yard Greg Heugel field goal with 7:27 to go, but Kenyan Drake electrified the crowd with a 95-yard kickoff return to give Alabama a 38-27 lead.

The Tigers, who suffered their first loss of the season and finished 14-1, came back with a 15-yard touchdown pass from DeShaun Watson to Artavius Scott to cut the Alabama lead to 38-33.

But Coker hit Howard on a 63-yard catch-and-run that brought the ball to the Clemson 14. Six plays later, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry powered over from a yard out for the clinching score.

Watson threw another touchdown pass, but would not get another chance. Clemson's onside kick went out of bounds. Coker took a knee and Alabama's dynasty was very much alive and well.

In all, Alabama scored four of their six touchdowns on plays covering 50 yards or more. For his part, Watson, who finished third behind Henry in the Heisman race, gave Alabama all it could handle, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns. However, he also threw a crucial first-half interception that set up Alabama's second touchdown, making the score 14-14 at halftime.

The Tide hit Clemson early with Henry, who scored the game's first touchdown on a 50-yard burst through the middle. He finished with 158 yards on 36 carries. 

After Watson and walk-on Hunter Renfrow hooked up for two touchdown passes to give Clemson a 14-7 lead at the end of the first quarter, Henry tied it up with a 1-yard plunge set up by Watson's interception.

Throughout Alabama's unprecedented run under Saban, the Tide was hardly challenged in a championship game. Alabama pulled away from Texas after the 2009 season for Saban's first Tide title. Alabama blanked LSU for No. 2 in 2011 and crushed Notre Dame to repeat in 2012.

Trying to become the first FBS team to go 15-0, Clemson did not crumble under the force of Alabama's might. But all those five-star recruits and future NFL players that dot the Alabama roster showed they also have plenty of resiliency and toughness. And Saban, the quintessential CEO coach, showed he had a little riverboat gambler in him.

That onside kicked stunned the stadium and Clemson, and brought a big grin to the face of the country's most serious coach.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.