No Deshaun? No problem. Junior quarterback KELLY BRYANT stepped in for the Tigers and has the team in the College Football Playoff looking to repeat
THE BIGGEST question at the start of Clemson's 2017 season was simple: How do you replace a legend?
The Tigers entered the fall facing serious doubts about their ability to remain among college football's elite. When QB Deshaun Watson declared for the NFL draft after leading the Tigers to a national championship, he left behind a void that no single player could have been expected to fill. But Clemson plowed through the regular season in a manner befitting a dynastic juggernaut to enter its third straight playoff.
Clemson's staff knew it would need to reconfigure its scheme for an unproven quarterback and a cast of skill players that lacked a true headliner. In late August, coach Dabo Swinney announced that junior KELLY BRYANT would start the Sept. 2 season opener against Mid-American Conference cellar dweller Kent State. "You don't have to be Deshaun," Clemson coaches told him. "We want you to just be Kelly."
To help him be Kelly, the staff scaled back the passing attack and instead relied more on their deep corps of tailbacks. By leaning on its running game and not asking Bryant to step too far out of his comfort zone as a passer, Clemson kept its offense on track. In his first road start against then No. 14 Louisville, Kelly threw for 316 passing yards and rushed for two TDs. Now with the Texans in Houston, Watson replied to a Twitter user who suggested that Bryant might be the next Watson, "He will be better than me!"
To beat Alabama and win the title, Clemson will rely on a D that is allowing just 12.8 points per game. Clemson's offense is balanced—"I felt like we'd be able to win in the trenches and run the ball more effectively than we did last year," says Swinney—but the Tigers still need Bryant to make big plays. Swinney and his staff have proved this season that they have a sturdy foundation that's capable of weathering the loss of a legend. Now they're about to find out if their new leading man can become legendary.
BY THE NUMBERS
Rushing yards by Bryant. In 2016, Deshaun Watson totaled 629.
Number of Tigers in 2017 who rushed for more than 600 yards.