Written by: Josh Gutbrod
Many were surprised when the Clemson Tigers navigated through one of the tougher schedules in the country on their way to the #1 seed in this year’s College Football Playoff standings. The team managed to battle their way back from losing their leading passer, rusher, and receiver among others from 2016-17 and place themselves squarely in National Title contention for the third straight season.
That’s about where the good times ended. The Tigers changed up their offense in 2017, running the ball much more behind new starting quarterback Kelly Bryant as opposed to the more balanced downfield assault seen the previous two seasons with Deshaun Watson. The change in scheme had some thinking the Tigers were actually better without Watson, as the run-oriented offense gave Clemson’s talented defense more time to rest during games as the offense chewed clock and pushed down the field.
Yet the reason for the change in scheme would ultimately come back to bite the Tigers, as it showed their limitations offensively. The running game was not made the focus out of choice, but necessity. Bryant simply does not have the skills as a passer that Watson had, forcing the offense to feature Bryant’s strength as a runner to win throughout the season. The idea still worked, as the Tigers finished the regular season 11-1 and won the program’s third straight ACC Championship, but it was only a matter of time before someone exposed the Tigers.
Alabama did just that, completely shutting down the Clemson offense en route to a 24-6 victory that was closer than the score shows. The game was actually only 10-6 in favor of the Tide in the 3rd quarter. As the game played on and time became more of a factor, Bryant was forced to throw more and mistakes were made. After two turnovers, one a pick six to push the lead to 18, suddenly the game seemed out of reach. The strengths Clemson rode all year long are not strengths that make a comeback easy, as the team is no longer constituted to score quickly. Clemson’s final drive, which ended late in the fourth quarter on fourth down, took over four minutes off the clock which all but guaranteed Alabama the victory whether the Tigers scored on the possession or not.
There was something about realizing the Tigers could not come back that was evident on the Clemson sidelines. Dabo Swinney knew it, Brent Venables knew it, Kelly Bryant knew it. As great as Kelly Bryant had been all year at what he can do, it was what he cannot do that ended the Clemson season in heartbreak. The convincing defeat should serve as a learning experience for Bryant, who will likely return as the starter for the Tigers in 2018-19. Bryant will need to improve as a passer, especially down the field, if he hopes to become the next Tigers quarterback to bring a championship to Clemson.