CHARLOTTE — Once upon a time — like, say, over the summer — there were serious questions across the Piedmont as to how Clemson, newly crowned as national champion, would replace Deshaun Watson, the Georgia kid who became a South Carolina legend as the Tigers’ quarterback. This was a serious matter because, when the goal has been defined as winning the whole dang thing, such decisions are the topic not just at barbecues and beach parties but in board rooms and beyond.
Think back on those times, Tigers fans, from the comfort of your seat at Bank of America Stadium, which has become something of a Tigers lair up I-85. Seems silly now, what with Kelly Bryant feeling the pressure, rolling out and calmly slinging footballs into the waiting hands of Clemson receivers.
The Tigers will be back in the College Football Playoff when the field is announced Sunday because they waxed Miami, 38-3, on Saturday night here in the ACC championship game, their third straight victory in this stadium for precisely these stakes. They will be favored when that field is announced regardless of who else is in it because they are loaded at just about every position, because years from now — when these bullish Clemson linemen are playing in the NFL and racking up honors there — scientists still will be studying how on earth they lost to Syracuse.
It doesn’t matter now. The Tigers also will be favored in the ensuing playoff because Bryant — who beat out redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and much-hyped true freshman Hunter Johnson back in August — has not just ably replaced Watson. The junior is now in command of Clemson’s machine, able to run or pass, to read and react, to improvise or play between the tackles.
Now, there’s a worldview in which Bryant could be a star, leading the Tigers to a title rather than just managing his way there. His final numbers against a Miami team that feasted all year on passes that were even slightly wayward — you may have heard of its “Turnover Chain,” a fashion statement that swept across South Florida — were this: 23 for 29 for 252 yards with one touchdown in the air and another on the ground. Most importantly: zero interceptions for the eighth time in 13 games, and he completed at least two-thirds of his throws for the seventh time in eight outings.
“Kelly’s answered all the questions,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “Early in the year, every week was a question.”
Consider that by the time Bryant threw his first incompletion against Miami, Clemson already held a 21-0 lead. Consider, too, that after those 15 straight completions to open the game, there was this little bit of meaninglessness that somehow felt significant: Bryant’s string of complete passes was more than anyone had thrown in the 13-year history of the ACC title game. The previous mark was 13, set by Watson two years ago against North Carolina.
“When I recruited him, I didn’t recruit him to be Deshaun,” Swinney said in the days before the game. “I just recruited him to be Kelly Bryant.”
Which turns out to be just fine.
“We had a lot of questions going into the season about a lot of guys that left last year,” Bryant said. “But having the guys around me, having the coaches believe in me, I’m just trying to do my job like Coach Dabo said, to be the best Kelly B I can be.”
Now, Bryant, a 6-foot-4, 220-pounder from Calhoun Falls, S.C., is not alone in this pursuit. The Tigers are dangerous because they can come at you with flotillas of talent. The game was, in effect, a national quarterfinal because the winner was sure to advance to the playoff. And as recently as last week, it appeared it might be between the top two teams in the playoff rankings — that is, until Miami inexplicably lost to Pitt in rather lackluster fashion.
Still, none of the dozen versions of this game came with this weight. But the Hurricanes, whose best wins came in back-to-back weeks against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, simply couldn’t match Clemson’s strength and depth. After one quarter, the Tigers had 164 yards, Miami 22. At halftime, Clemson had 231 yards, Miami 64. Clemson’s defensive line — which seems as if it could show up on a Sunday in an NFL stadium somewhere and compete admirably — harassed Miami quarterback Malik Rosier so relentlessly that, when the Hurricanes got the ball back trailing 31-0 in the third quarter, Miami went to a wildcat formation, having freshman running back DeeJay Dallas take direct snaps from center in hopes of getting some rhythm offensively.
And then, when Rosier got back to take a shotgun snap, he was drilled, and Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph stepped in for an easy interception. So it went.
Bryant didn’t account for the overwhelming nature of this affair, not the entirety of it. But take some snapshots from the evening, and it’s pretty clear he’s not going to hold the Tigers back in any way. In the second quarter, already leading by three touchdowns, Bryant was flushed out of bounds when he might have thrown the ball away. But why do that when you don’t yet have an interception?
That sack resulted in a third-and-16 situation for the Tigers. Bryant’s response: rolling out, improvising and then floating a pass to the sideline, right where junior receiver Ray-Ray McCloud could catch it. Eighteen yards. First down.
And then, after Joseph’s interception, with the game well in hand, Bryant sent the softest little pass over the Miami secondary. He has so many weapons, and one — this time Deon Cain — had slipped free. The ball dropped in his hands, an easy-as-pie 27-yard touchdown pass.
That was Bryant’s last toss of the night. Clemson’s advantage was so massive that Johnson came on in relief for the fourth quarter.
So now, he’s entrenched as the starter, and becoming a Watson-like fixture himself.
“He hasn’t let all that go to his head,” junior defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “He’s still the same goofy Kelly. . . . Now, he’s being even moreso of a leader.”
All that was left was for the Tigers fans to party here, party back down I-85, party all the way to one of the national semifinal games in New Orleans or Pasadena. And in all the discussion to come about the next matchup and the parties that will be staged to discuss it, those Tigers fans can think back to the summer and how they wondered and worried about who might replace the irreplaceable Watson. Those discussions will end with a chuckle and a sip of a holiday cocktail because Clemson has talent all over the field and a calm, efficient weapon under center.
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