LOUISVILLE — A few minutes past midnight Sunday, Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant arrived for his postgame news conference, nattily attired in a dark blue suit. The junior had just directed the second-ranked Tigers to a 47-21 win over Louisville, then No. 14, in what had been billed as a potential Heisman Trophy showcase for Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Instead, Bryant performed as if he were staking a claim to college football's most prestigious individual award, outdueling Jackson, the reigning Heisman winner, through most of three quarters. Bryant's one-yard touchdown run, his second of the game, with 2:16 left in the third quarter produced a 33-7 lead and all but sealed the outcome.
Bryant completed 22 of 32 passes, including 6 of 9 on third down, for 316 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions in the ACC opener for both schools. Bryant also contributed significantly to the team's 613 yards of total offense on the way to putting the Tigers (3-0) in place for a run at a second consecutive national championship.
"He settled in and just played a heck of a game," Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. "He made some big-time scrambles with his legs, made some nice runs. He's a problem, and when you complement him with our backs and our ability to get the ball on the edge, we can be tough to defend, especially when we take care of the ball."
Bryant's performance through the first three games has validated Swinney's decision to name him the starter following the departure of Deshaun Watson, the offensive MVP in the national championship game in which Clemson defeated Alabama, 35-31.
But entering training camp, it was unclear who would be taking over for Watson, with Clemson auditioning three candidates. Bryant had the most experience, but there were concerns about his accuracy. The other two hopefuls in the competition were redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and freshman Hunter Johnson.
Roughly three weeks into camp, Swinney announced Bryant had earned the starting job. In his debut as the starter, Bryant completed 16 of 22 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown in a 56-3 season-opening win against Kent State. He also rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown on seven carries .
That efficient outing was particularly affirming for Bryant given he had been third string behind Watson and Nick Schuessler the past two seasons, leaving some Clemson loyalists to wonder if he indeed was the right man for the job.
"Just let them sleep on me," Bryant said. "I've always been doubted pretty much for my whole career."
Watson, currently the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans, offered a ringing endorsement of Bryant on social media during Saturday night's nationally televised game at Cardinal Stadium that drew an announced crowd of 55,588, the second-largest in stadium history.
Watson tweeted: "He will be better than me!"
Bryant indicated he and Watson remain in touch primarily through text messaging. But Watson's influence continues to manifest itself in how Bryant practices and prepares for games.
Bryant's poise comes in part from having witnessed Watson's steady demeanor in pressure-filled situations. Take, for instance, the national championship game when Watson completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns against major college football's top-ranked defense.
The stakes were nowhere near as high for Clemson in its second game this season, but Bryant's 240 total yards of offense and two touchdowns without a turnover in a 14-6 win Sept. 9 against then-No. 13 Auburn, ranked second nationally in defense, again served notice the program has been moving along just fine without Watson.
"I was hoping he would take what I'd seen in practice to the opening game. He did," Swinney said of Bryant. "Then I was hoping he would respond against Auburn with some adversity and things like that, which we knew was going to come, like I've seen him respond against our defense. I didn't know. I hoped he would.
"Then I was hoping he would man-up on the road [against Louisville] and lead these guys like a dang competitor and a confident dude, and he did."
Bryant's rousing beginning to the season has Clemson positioned with the inside track on winning the ACC's Atlantic Division. The only ranked opponents remaining on Clemson's schedule are No. 13 Virginia Tech on Sept. 30 in Blacksburg, Va., and No. 12 Florida State on Nov. 11 in Clemson, S.C .
The Seminoles, considered perhaps a national championship contender at one time, are without starting quarterback Deondre Francois for the rest of the season after the redshirt sophomore injured the patella tendon in his left knee during a season-opening loss to No. 1 Alabama.
Francois, according to reports, underwent surgery Sept. 5 to repair the damage, with a recovery time estimated at four to seven months.
The Hokies, meanwhile, have lost three in a row to Clemson, including last season's ACC championship game, 42-35.
"It's a good start," Bryant said. "In the division, in the ACC, we're 1-0. We're right where we want to be, but we've got a challenge next week at home [against Boston College], so we've got to come ready to play each and every week."
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