First & 20: No more doubts about Clemson

Anthony Gimino

September 18, 2017 at 1:17 pm.

Sep 16, 2017; Louisville, KY, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Louisville Cardinals during the second half at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. Clemson defeated Louisville 47-21.  Photo Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 16, 2017; Louisville, KY, USA; Clemson Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant (2) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Louisville Cardinals during the second half at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Clemson defeated Louisville 47-21. Photo Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

About the only thing most people knew in the offseason about Kelly Bryant was that he wasn’t Deshaun Watson.

That’s where the doubts about Clemson repeating as the national champion began. Bryant wasn’t Deshaun Watson. Nobody was Deshaun Watson. That was kind of the problem. No Deshaun Watson, no national title.

Three games into the season, it’s time to reconsider.

If you didn’t know which quarterback in Saturday’s Clemson-Louisville showdown was the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, you likely would have picked No. 2 in orange and white. Bryant completed 22 of 32 passes for 316 yards with one touchdown. He did not throw a pick-six like reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson (Louisville) did. He also ran for two scores.

“He was awesome,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of Bryant after the third-ranked Tigers’ 47-21 win over the 14th-ranked Cardinals.

“I’m just really proud of him. It takes poise, preparation, focus, confidence and mental toughness to be able to stay locked in and just do your job. He made some big time throws, too.”

Through three games, big-time Bryant has navigated nerves (his first career start in the season-opener against Kent State), one of the nation’s toughest defenses (Auburn) and a hostile road game against one of the top challengers in the ACC.

Who knew?

Bryant, a junior, entered the season with 18 career passes. Flashier, high-ceiling options at Clemson were redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson, an early enrollee. Bryant emerged from spring ball as the slight leader and re-affirmed that status in fall camp.

“Guys get better and maturity matters,” Swinney said. “He worked his butt off this summer and what y’all are seeing is what we saw in him. It was a competition in every sense of the word. He won it. It wasn’t like, ‘OK, every Thursday there’s going to be a competition.’

“Every week I’m learning something about him, just like y’all.”

Bryant has completed 57 of 83 passes for 733 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception. He has 162 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns.

No doubt, every quarterback should be so lucky to have his cast — a deep group of big-play receivers, a veteran offensive line and a fearsome ‘D’ that will put the offense in favorable situations. But it is the quarterback piece that completes the Clemson puzzle.

Bryant is that piece.

“I was hoping he’d man up on the road and treat them like a worthy competitor, and he did,” Swinney said Saturday night.

“So I’m just really proud of him. It’s awesome to see him having the success that he’s having. He’s putting the work in. No one’s giving him anything. He’s put the time in, he’s learned, he has complete ownership in what we’re doing.”

10 thoughts on Week 3

1. Texas is back. This seems like a knee-jerk reaction based on a double-overtime loss at USC, but losses can be the start of something. The key factor here: Texas’ defensive line finally looks like the ‘Horns have been recruiting 4- and 5-star kids for all these years. True freshman quarterback Sam Ehlinger? He might not keep his job when injured starter Shane Buechele comes back, but Ehlinger has moxie that needs to be further explored by coach Tom Herman.

2. San Diego State is the leader of the Pac-12. No school has as many Pac-12 victories as the Aztecs, who have knocked off Arizona State and No. 19 Stanford on Saturday night. San Diego State is on its way to its third straight Mountain West title and a possible big-bowl berth as the best from the Group of Five conferences. Is there a more underrated head coach than Rocky Long?

3. Be wary of the QB hype. With quarterbacks, you never know until you know. Size, arm strength, speed … those are just practice observations, prone to be overstated. We enter into evidence Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Nebraska’s Tanner Lee, touted in the offseason as first-round talent. Allen has flopped against Iowa and Oregon (a combined 31 of 64 for 238 yards, with three interceptions and no touchdowns) and Lee has fizzled (a national-high seven interceptions) through the Cornhuskers’ brutal 1-2 start.

4. The hottest coaching seat is in Tempe. Arizona State has lost nine of its past 11 games and has given up at least 40 points in 11 of its past 13 games against Power Five conference opponents, dating to the end of the 2015 season. The Sun Devils figure to be underdogs in every game until, maybe, Nov. 18 at Oregon State. Will coach Todd Graham still be around?

5. Five other coaches we wouldn’t want to be right now: UCLA’s Jim Mora, Nebraska’s Mike Riley, Tennessee’s Butch Jones, Missouri’s Barry Odom, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin.

6. Stanford isn’t good enough up front. That’s weird to say. But the defensive line has been pushed around by USC and San Diego State in consecutive losses, and coach David Shaw shuffled the offensive line last week, looking for answers that didn’t come in the loss to the Aztecs. Stanford running back Bryce Love is absolutely fabulous, but there’s not enough else going on in the trenches, where the Cardinal usually makes its hay.

7. Jeff Brohm is making Purdue fun. The signature Big Ten hire in the offseason was P.J. Fleck, hauling his rowboat from Western Michigan to Minnesota. A smaller transaction was the Boilermakers bringing in Brohm from Western Kentucky, where he made football a blast while winning 30 games in the past three seasons. Look at him now. Purdue scared Louisville in the opener and smashed Missouri on the road Saturday to improve to 2-1. With Brohm, Purdue won’t be what it has been recently: boring.

8. The Heisman watch. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield; Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph; San Diego State RB Rashaad Penny; Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald; Oregon RB Royce Freeman.

9. Cal can play defense. That was optional in recent years under Air Raid guru Sonny Dykes. So, the Bears brought in Dykes’ opposite, Justin Wilcox, who made his bones coordinating big-time defenses all over the country. He has the Bears off to a 3-0 start, including wins over the ACC (North Carolina) and SEC (Ole Miss). A bigger test comes at home this week against USC.

10. Every game should be USC-Texas. Or Alabama-Clemson. Yeah. USC-Texas or Alabama-Clemson. That’ll work.

5 record-setters from Saturday

1. Ohio State QB J.T. Barrett. On Saturday, the senior broke the Big Ten record, set by former Purdue quarterback Drew Brees, of 106 touchdowns responsible for in a career. “The heart of a lion,” Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer said of Barrett’s bounce-back from the home loss to Oklahoma. “And toughness. One of the toughest players I’ve ever been around. That’s pretty good characteristics to have with a guy touching the ball every snap.”

2. Louisville QB Lamar Jackson. He broke the ACC rushing record for a quarterback on Saturday night, had 381 yards of total offense against Clemson and leads the nation with 463.7 total yards per game. But, fair or not, the loss was a direct hit to his repeat Heisman hopes. Sorry, Lamar, looks like you’re going to have to beat Florida State again.

3. Washington State QB Luke Falk. The senior, who left the previous week’s game due to injury, came back Saturday and fired a career-high six touchdown passes against a banged-up Oregon State secondary. Falk is the first WSU quarterback to have eight games with at least five touchdown throws.

4. Virginia Tech WR Cam Phillips. He set a school record with 14 catches for a career-high 189 yards, all in three quarters before shutting it down in a rout of East Carolina. The takeaway here is that the Hokies have found a top pass-catch combination — freshman Josh Jackson and the senior Phillips — answering one of the team’s biggest preseason questions.

5. Washington PR Dante Pettis. The senior has a punt return for touchdown in each of the first three games, tying the NCAA career record of eight. The next punter to give him a returnable ball loses his job.

5 games to watch in Week 4

1. TCU at Oklahoma State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET) — Let’s get this Big 12 race started.

2. Mississippi State at Georgia (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET) — QB Nick Fitzgerald makes most things possible for Mississippi State, coming off a salty defensive effort in a 37-7 stomping of LSU.

3. North Carolina State at Florida State (noon ET) — The Seminoles get back to action after a Hurricane Irma-induced two-week break. FSU true freshman quarterback James Blackman makes his first start for injured Deondre Francois against a Wolfpack team that drew offseason notice as an ACC sleeper.

4. Penn State at Iowa (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET) — It’s a night game at Kinnick Stadium between 3-0 teams. Early concern: The health of the Hawkeyes’ running backs.

5. Alabama at Vanderbilt (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET) — In the past 10 games, the Commodores have defeated Georgia, Tennessee and, on Saturday, No. 18 Kansas State. The Tide resides in nearly a league of its own, but it’s not crazy talk that Vandy could turn this into a low-scoring slugfest.