COLLEGE STATION, Texas – We are in the Year of the Quarterback Quandary, as 2018 is unfolding as an unprecedented march of uncertainty under center. It began this spring, raged through camp in the summer and appears destined to last through the College Football Playoff. The three heaviest favorites to win the national title – Alabama, Clemson and Georgia – each have varying decibels of quarterback drama.
Alabama has its coach screaming at a sideline reporter to stop asking questions she didn’t ask. Georgia has a portion of its fanbase wishing their five-star freshman would replace the quarterback who led them to the national title game last season. And then there’s Clemson, the perpetual football anomaly, chugging along with the most heated quarterback duel that’s somehow the least controversial.
The No. 2 Tigers pulled off a 28-26 win over Texas A&M on Saturday amid the boiling cauldron of emotion of 104,794 at Kyle Field. And they leave it with a distinction of being the only true national title contender in memory since the dawn of the BCS willing to play two quarterbacks – steady starter Kelly Bryant and precocious freshman Trevor Lawrence – equal time for the entirety of their season.
Much like Dabo Swinney’s program plays out annually to the “Hakuna Matata” soundtrack, he’s somehow managed to make the most inherently controversial position battle in football essentially worry-free. For now, anyway.
“It’s no different to me than playing multiple linebackers, playing multiple D-linemen,” Swinney said after the game, adding a few more positions as examples. “It just happens to be a quarterback.”
Sounds simple. But nothing was simple for Clemson on Saturday night, as it didn’t secure the game until sure-handed old friend Hunter Renfrow, who has seemingly been in college since the Clinton administration, recovered an onside kick in the waning seconds.
Clemson brought its own guts to College Station, and it needed every rib. The Tigers nearly relinquished a 28-13 fourth-quarter lead, as drastically improved A&M quarterback Kellen Mond led a furious comeback that included two chances to tie the game in the final 2:13.
Clemson needed an interception in the end zone by K’Von Wallace on an attempted two-point conversion with 46 seconds left to prevent overtime. (Credit for that pick goes to Clemson’s defensive line, which lived up to its magazine covers with end Austin Bryant chasing Mond from the pocket and tackle Christian Wilkins drawing a hold on the interior.)
That came, of course, after the previous near-score that also could have tied the game. Texas A&M receiver Quartney Davis dove for the end zone, reached for the pylon with his left hand and had the ball poke-checked out by Wallace to cause a near-fatal turnover with 2:13 left. (The importance of that play was negated after a three-and-out led to a 22-yard punt by Clemson’s Will Spiers, which put the Aggies on the precipice of scoring again.)
In the end, Clemson overcame its fourth-quarter nap and will embark on a schedule where its most difficult remaining game appears to be at Boston College on Nov. 10. “This is the kind of game as a football team you can really grow from,” Swinney said.
And they’ll march forward with the most unicorn of football situations – an uncontroversial quarterback controversy.
There have been no media-day blowups, little second-guessing or speculation about where the veteran will transfer. This is as unusual as nuanced political discourse and spacious airplane bathrooms. (The closest comparisons we could come up with were Tim Tebow as a pinch hitter to Chris Leak in 2006 and LSU’s Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell dueling in 2005.)
And nothing appears to be changing, which in a weird way is an ideal situation for Swinney. He knows that Clemson will need to throw the ball better than it did when Alabama suffocated the Tigers, 24-6, in the College Football Playoff semifinals last season. (Clemson gained just 124 yards that night.) Swinney also knows that Bryant hasn’t played poorly enough to entirely lose the job. (Remember, Bryant was suffered a concussion in the final minute for the first half of their lone regular season loss at Syracuse last year.)
So Dabo has on his hands the perfectly coaching balancing act. He can pitch to recruits that you’ll play right away if you’re good enough. He can keep the locker room by handling the situation deftly and treating Bryant fairly.
“That’s just where we are,” Swinney said late Saturday. “If it changes, it changes. They’re two really good players who earned the opportunity to play because it’s been really close.”
Bryant did little on Saturday night to lose his status as starter, as he strung together two scoring drives in the third quarter that gave Clemson leads of 21-6 and 28-13. It wasn’t perfect for Bryant, as he fumbled a fourth-down snap at the goal line to squander another touchdown opportunity. But when the moment got big, Bryant showed he’s been there.
“Kelly down the stretch in the fourth quarter really settled in and gave us the experience to get us out of here with a win,” Swinney said.
Lawrence did show sparkles of his potential, including a run-pass option on his first snap that ended in a Tee Higgins 64-yard touchdown catch. It was much better than Texas A&M backup Nick Starkel’s lone play, as he went in when Mond cramped up and got ragdolled by Clelin Ferrell, turning the ball over deep in Clemson territory on what may have been the game’s second-biggest play.
Much of what we saw from Clemson was familiar. They compiled four sacks and 10 TFLs, they have freaky skill players like Higgins and remain heavy favorites to win their fourth straight ACC title. And they won a big road game with high stakes as they’ve done so many times in recent seasons. (Credit to Mond, the brightest spot on a night that should generate optimism for A&M. He found gaps of real estate in the Clemson secondary to pass for 430 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-40 passing.)
So for now, Clemson will be a two-headed quarterback team. And considering the diverse skills of the players, the demeanor of the coach and the inevitable victories on the schedule, it’s a crazy enough idea that it just may work. In the year of the Quarterback Quandary, it’s fitting that Dabo has the unicorn situation.
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