SI’s Pete Mundo thinks Clemson will make easy work of Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
CLEMSON – For the third consecutive year, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and Alabama coach Nick Saban shared a stage at the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta. Before they fielded questions in the College Football Playoff news conference, Saban posed a simple question to Swinney.
“He was asking me if I was staying for the show after the press conference,” Swinney recalled, alluding to the College Football Awards Show, during which the winners of the prestigious individual trophies were honored.
Swinney stayed for the show during the previous two years. Deshaun Watson won the Davey O’Brien Award, presented annually to the top quarterback, in both of those seasons.
However, among the four teams selected to the Playoff this year, Clemson was the only one without a major individual player award. That gave Swinney less incentive to stay for the subsequent show, but it gave him a humorous response to Saban’s question.
“I was messing with him,” Swinney said with a grin. “I was like, ‘No, we didn’t have anybody good enough to win any of these awards this year. It was kind of a rebuilding year for us.’ ”
Swinney can carry that satisfying grin now, but he was not smiling prior to the season, when he was asked the same question ad nauseam in interviews, teleconferences and casual conversations.
How would Clemson compensate for the exceptional players it lost, including Watson? How far from that national championship pinnacle would the Tigers plummet?
Swinney repeatedly dismissed the preemptive excuse that Clemson would endure a rebuild. He asserted that the Tigers’ standard would not slip. He continually articulated confidence in emerging players, including new starting quarterback Kelly Bryant.
The questions kept coming. Swinney’s answer never changed. He simply needed 13 games to convince everyone outside Clemson’s locker room.
Too polite to mock doubters with an incessant string of I-told-you-so’s, Swinney can sit with that satisfied, sarcastic grin. Back on the same stage. In a chair many forecasters prematurely designated for Florida State. In a position to a match a feat merely two teams achieved through the previous 35 years.
Consecutive national titles.
Clemson would be the only team to repeat as champion over that span with a different starting quarterback. Nebraska had Tommy Frazier in 1994 and 1995. Alabama had A.J. McCarron in 2011 and 2012.
Clemson had Watson. Now Clemson has Bryant. Clemson has a new identity. And Clemson has a chance.
Bryant is the most explosive runner Clemson has enjoyed at quarterback since Woodrow Dantzler. He facilitated Clemson’s improved rushing attack. Steered by Bryant and running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne, the Tigers have averaged 204.1 rushing yards per game. Clemson closed the season over that 200-yard benchmark in two of the previous 16 years.
Additionally, Bryant polished his passing and recorded his three highest efficiency ratings against bowl subdivision competition during the previous three games.
Bryant has flourished simply by remaining himself. He has relied on the plethora of playmakers and dominant defense Clemson has compiled. Playing within his comfort zone has helped him frequent the end zone.
Too polite to mock his detractors with a ceaseless sequence of how-you-like-me-now’s, Bryant simply stands with his signature smile. In a role many disparagers assumed he could not handle. In a position to write a chapter in one of college football’s most thrilling three-part sagas.