Clemson went into Louisville and toyed with the Cardinals for a bit before salting them away with 26 straight points in a 47-21 victory. Kelly Bryant, the Tigers’ junior quarterback making his third career start, may have outplayed reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. All the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder has done since inheriting the reins is win. First against Kent State. Then against Auburn. Now in a hostile arena against another team with national title aspirations.
Bryant hasn’t been as good as Deshaun Watson. That, of course, is a high bar to clear. But he has been damn effective and secured the same type of results. He’s completed 35 of 51 passes on the year for 417 yards and two touchdowns. It’s on the ground, though, where he’s shined.
Bryant fought for two rushing touchdowns against Louisville to bring his season total to five. What he lacks in style, he makes up for in pure grit. Watching him carry the football is less symphony and more speed metal. He is not a Ferrari in the open field but a Oldsmobile at a demolition derby willing to sustain contact.
No one has had higher praise for Bryant’s play than Watson. Here he was on Twitter late last night, suggesting the unthinkable:
There’s real reason to be cautious. If Bryant is to ascend to Watsonlike heights — and higher — he must rise exponentially. He is, after all, a junior and not a freshman with plenty of good years ahead of him. And all signs point to the two being different types of players. Watson showcased a more reliable and powerful arm, more pure speed and more panache. Bryant is tremendously gifted, but more raw and gritty.
Perhaps the salient point in all of this is that Clemson doesn’t need Bryant to be as good as Watson, and certainly not better. A suffocating defense has allowed only 30 points through three games. Bottling up Jackson in his own backyard is an impressive feat. Ask Florida State what happened during their last trip to Kentucky.
Dabo Swinney appears to have ascended to the upper echelons of the college football world — where the rich stay just as rich even as transcendent players leave. Having Bryant in the back pocket to replace Watson in the actual pocket is a great blessing. Having a complete team able to withstand NFL departures and not miss a beat is a testament to the program.
Things are different at Clemson this year. The results are the same.