CLEMSON — If the Clemson Tigers are going to find their way back into the College Football Playoff this season, with an opportunity to defend their 2016 national title, one thing must happen and happen quickly -- quarterback Kelly Bryant must start making the layups.

“(Bryant) has made beautiful throws, but he has to make the layups,” head coach Dabo Swinney said earlier this season.

Bryant started off the season making the layups.

In fact, through his first three games, Bryant was drawing comparisons to former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson — who tweeted during Bryant’s performance at Louisville, “He will be better than me!”

And he was better through the first three games -- throwing for more yards (895 to 776 by Watson last season) with fewer interceptions (one to Watson’s three last season) and a better total quarterback rating (82.7 to 61.9 by Watson last season).

Since the hot start, the Tigers have gone extremely conservative.

Through the 2017 season, Bryant has 1,924 passing yards on 277 attempts — with 1,356 of those yards coming in the first half on 196 attempts and 586 yards in the second half on only 81 attempts. In the second half of games, of which Bryant has played nine games where he played through the third quarter and seven where he has played the entire game, he has thrown only one touchdown and two interceptions.

According to co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott, all of the blame does not fall on Bryant’s shoulders.

"The biggest thing right now is getting the connections down the field. We know we can do it because we've done it this year,” Scott said. “We won some big games this year throwing and catching against some very talented secondaries. We do it every day in practice, but unfortunately the last few games we haven't connected on as many plays down the field as we want to. It's not all on the quarterback.

"We've gone back and studied those and there's plenty of blame to go around, but you're not looking for the blame, you're looking for getting it corrected and being able to execute.”

Even though Bryant and the offense have lost some of their explosiveness in the passing game, the coaching staff still has full confidence that Bryant — who is 9-1 as a starter and 9-0 in games that he finished — will only get better as the season comes to a close.

“Kelly’s not been perfect, but man, how impressive is that for him to be 9-1 and win the division in his first year starting with all the pressure and everything on him,” Scott said. “He’s only going to get better because that’s the type of person he is — how hard he works. …”

“We had opportunities with the deep ball that could’ve put the game away (against Florida State) and we didn’t make the plays. That’s kind of who we’ve been a little bit over the past few weeks, but we’ll get that corrected and I have no doubt that we’ve got a lot of trust and faith in Kelly.”

With the Tigers having only two more regular season games, this week against The Citadel (12:20 p.m., ACC Network) and next week at South Carolina (7:30 p.m., ESPN), Clemson will look to find the magic of the first three games before facing the Miami Hurricanes in the ACC Championship Game (Dec. 2).

“It’s not anything complicated — that’s the biggest thing for you guys (media) to understand,” Scott said. “Just stay focused mentally, stay in the moment and be able to execute and I think we will. I’ve seen us do it in practice. You don’t want to continue to have these (type of missed opportunities), but there are some valuable lessons to learn from it and now the next step is to put it together for four quarters so we can play our best football down the stretch here in championship season.”

Zach Lentz is a Clemson University alumnus who got his start working with the Tigers basketball team from 1999-2004. Now a resident of Orangeburg County, he reports on Clemson sports as a correspondent for The Times and Democrat.