Bad as Clemson’s offense was in the first half Monday – the Tigers hadn’t reached the red zone once – the damage wasn’t beyond salvageable.
The reigning national champions just needed a break, and they got one immediately following halftime, when Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts fumbled the ball on the first play from scrimmage. Clemson’s Kendall Joseph recovered 20 yards from a potential touchdown that could have tied this national playoff semifinal.
The next two plays summed up why Clemson will not compete in a third consecutive national championship game. Quarterback Kelly Bryant lost 2 yards on an attempted draw play. Then, Bryant’s slant pass to running back Tavien Feaster lost 3 more yards. Clemson settled for yet another field goal.
Clemson’s offense went backward, and not just on those two plays. The Tigers had zero total yards in the first quarter of a 24-6 loss that sends the Crimson Tide to Atlanta to play Georgia for the trophy.
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The obvious point about this dynamic is Alabama coach Nick Saban is brilliant at dissecting an opposing offense’s flaws. The subtler observation is Bryant just might not be good enough to close the deal if the Tigers again qualify for the playoffs next season.
Bryant, a junior, embraced the no-win situation of replacing Deshaun Watson, both a top-10 NFL draft pick and one of the most charismatic players in Clemson history.
Bryant proved to be more than a place-holder, going 12-1 to lead the Tigers to the top seed in these playoffs. He was terrific in the 38-3 beat-down of then top-10 Miami in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. There was a mantra, almost a cause, every time Clemson coach Dabo Swinney publicly repeated he recruited Bryant to be Bryant, not Bryant to be Watson.
That’s charming and all, but Bryant finished this game with two interceptions and no touchdown passes. Alabama’s defense sacked him five times for 34 yards of losses. That wasn’t all Bryant’s fault – the offensive line had a bad game, and wide receiver Deon Cain started his night with a terrible drop – but Bryant never thrived.
The previous two matchups, with Watson at quarterback, Clemson totaled 75 points against Alabama. Monday looked nothing like that.
Bryant was good this season, completing 67 percent of his passes for 2,678 yards and 13 touchdowns. But the standard now at Clemson is great – Deshaun Watson great – and there is a guy arriving on campus who has a Watson-like resume.
Trevor Lawrence from Cartersville, Ga., signed with the Tigers. He’s 6-foot-5, with a strong and accurate arm. He arrives in South Carolina’s upstate with as big a reputation as Watson did in 2014.
Lawrence is so talented he has to factor in the coaches’ immediate thinking, after Clemson amassed six points Monday.
Watson didn’t play right away as a freshman. The Tigers initially started Cole Stoudt, who, like Bryant, was more a bridge to the next star than a star-in-the-making.
Watson was inserted into the second half of a road loss at Georgia. He immediately threw a touchdown pass with the kind of velocity and accuracy that changes history.
Lawrence apparently has similar gifts. Monday should send a message to Bryant regarding spring practice:
Get better. Or maybe get out of the way.