Way back in September, when many connected to Clemson football wondered whether this Kelly Bryant could make it at quarterback, his predecessor proclaimed the following:
“He will be better than me!” Deshaun Watson tweeted from Houston, where he was winning the Texans’ starting job as a rookie.
This was fantasy at best, blasphemy at worst, right? How could this guy, who some recruiting pundits predicted would end up at a different position, run Clemson’s offense anywhere near as dynamically as Watson did for three seasons?
It didn’t look so preposterous at the outset of Clemson’s 38-3 victory over Miami Saturday at the ACC Championship Game. Bryant completed his first 15 passes, pushing the top-ranked Tigers to a 21-0 lead. That broke an ACC title-game record for consecutive completions.
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The guy Bryant eclipsed? Watson, who completed 13 in a row a couple of years ago here in Charlotte against North Carolina.
Bryant isn’t Watson, but as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney repeated all week, he didn’t recruit Bryant to be anyone but himself. Bryant is 12-1 as a starter, and the Tigers figure to be top seed in the four-team College Football Playoffs field, to be announced Sunday.
“Kelly has answered all the questions,” Swinney said post-game at Bank of America Stadium. “Every week there was a question. There aren’t any more questions.”
Bryant is good enough to steer the Tigers to another title game (the site this season is nearby Atlanta) and maybe all the way. He pressed in spring practice to look like Watson, before making peace with being himself.
He can’t make all the spectacular throws Watson can, but he also hasn’t thrown the perplexing interceptions Watson sprinkled in. He is the right quarterback for this team, this situation.
“I’m just trying to do the job,” Bryant said, after being named the ACC title game’s Most Valuable Player. “Like coach Dabo says: Be the best Kelly Bryant I can be.”
The term “game manager” always sounds like backhanded praise. But managing these games is what Clemson needs from its quarterback. All four of the Tigers’ defensive linemen will play in the NFL. The linebackers are quick, rugged and intuitive. The secondary has steadily improved.
If Bryant continues to minimize interceptions (he totaled six in 333 regular-season attempts), gain first downs and digest clock, there’s a formula here. There’s no reason this Clemson team can’t beat anyone in its way on a neutral field.
Bryant beat the dreaded Turnover Chain, the coolest gimmick in this college football season. Miami (10-2 and possibly headed to the Orange Bowl) entered this game with the best takeaway-giveaway ratio in FBS. That turnover chain – a gaudy gold bauble with an orange-and-green "U" at its base – goes to whichever Hurricanes defender picks off a ball. Bryant minimized Miami’s jewelry fun; the Hurricanes committed three turnovers to the Tigers’ one.
Bryant’s night was done early in the fourth quarter, with the Tigers leading 38-0. His stats: 23-of-29 for 252 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, zero interceptions. He also ran for an 11-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
It’s not as if Bryant never tested Miami’s defense: By the end of the third quarter, he had completed passes to 10 different Tigers. He led Deon Cain perfectly on a 27-yard throw into the end zone with about a minute left in the third quarter.
Maybe the hardest hit Bryant experienced Saturday was from teammate Christian Wilkins. He winced at the podium when Wilkins, a gigantic defensive lineman, slapped him hard on the back.
“Kelly has been true to himself the whole time,” Wilkins said. “He’s proven he can play, but he didn’t let it go to his head. Still that goofy Kelly.”
That goofy winner, Kelly.