CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant has done what few around the country thought was possible before the season started.
The Tigers making the College Football Playoff was expected. The surprise is that Bryant kept the quarterback job in the drive to a third consecutive postseason appearance by the Tigers.
Few believed Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney when he said back in August, “Kelly Bryant is the starter. He has earned it and I am proud of him. It has been a great competition, but this part is over.”
Few believed Swinney when he continued to tell anyone who would question his decision that Bryant, “… gave Clemson the best chance to win.”
And win Clemson did -- capturing a third straight ACC championship Saturday night with a dominant 38-3 performance over the seventh-ranked Miami Hurricanes. Bryant was finally able to silence the doubters as he stood on the podium and received the title game MVP trophy.
“It’s great to see all the work I’ve been putting in in the offseason just to be in this moment right now,” Bryant said. “It’s special ‘cause we had a lot of questions going into the season, a lot of guys that left last year. But, you know, just having the guys around me, the coaches believe in me, just been really great to see.
“I’m just trying to do my job, like Coach Dabo said, be the best version of Kelly B that I can be.”
The “best version of Kelly B” shone through in the ACC title game, as Bryant completed his first 15 passes -- breaking the previous record of 13 straight held by former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson — and finishing the game 23 of 29 for 252 yards and a touchdown.
But it is not only his play on the field that has the Tigers sitting at No. 1 in the country, it is his personality.
For Bryant, part of being “Kelly B” is being himself — a loose, fun-loving, smiling, always-looking-on-the-bright-side kind of guy. That kind of leadership is rare and not unnoticed.
“Kelly has just been great all year. Just the guy he's become. Just stayed his-self, been true to himself the whole time,” Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “Have all this hype, now he's proven he can play, hasn't let that go to his head. He's still the same goofy Kelly. Now he's emerging as a leader for us even more.
“Knew he had to step up and be a leader, contribute on the field. Now he's even more so of a leader. Guys looking up to him. He's one of the first guys to come over and congratulate the defense when we get a three-and-out, make big plays like that. That doesn't go unnoticed. He's great with that. He's really embracing it. He's been great for us all year.”
With the Tigers continuing their seemingly annual journey to the College Football Playoff and a seemingly annual matchup with the Alabama Crimson Tide, who the Tigers will face for a third straight postseason, Bryant has the full attention of the nation and Alabama coaching staff.
“I think Kelly Bryant is a different kind of player in some ways than Deshaun Watson, who was, I thought, the best player in college football,” Saban said. “This will be by far the best team we played all year. And we’ll certainly need to play our best to have any kind of chance to be successful in the game.”
While Bryant, along with the Clemson team, is peaking at the right time, Swinney’s message to his starting quarterback will remain the same no matter how big the stage gets for the Tigers — keep being Kelly B.
“I just told him I didn't recruit him to be Deshaun Watson. He was recruited to be Kelly Bryant,” Swinney said. “We felt like he had a skill set to be a great quarterback. I just needed him to be who he was. That's been his focus all along. I think he just embraced the competition, because it was very competitive in the spring. He has grown into a really good quarterback."