On College Football: Clemson’s Gutsy Call at Quarterback Brings Another Championship
Three years ago, after Clemson defeated college football’s signature team, Notre Dame, through a South Carolina downpour, Coach Dabo Swinney coined a kind of motto for his program, describing the attitude that would bring the second school of a smallish Southern state to the sport’s heights.
“Tonight it was B.Y.O.G. — bring your own guts,” he said then.
Monday night’s 44-16 victory over top-seeded Alabama (14-1), which gave the Tigers their second national championship in three seasons, was not so much about guts but domination. The dominance began on Alabama’s first drive — which ended abruptly when the sophomore cornerback A. J. Terrell intercepted Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, and took it 44 yards for a touchdown — and basically never stopped.
The victory came a little more than a week after Clemson (15-0) ran through Notre Dame in the national semifinals. That wasn’t a B.Y.O.G.-type game. Rather, it was a 30-3 demolition.
Yet the roots of these performances lay in an incredibly gutsy decision Swinney made, not amid the playoff’s high drama but during late September’s uncertainty.
Clemson is the plucky underdog whose fans drive around with little tiger tails trailing the backs of their trucks. The Tigers stampeded their way through the season and the College Football Playoff with an outrageously gifted freshman quarterback named Trevor Lawrence, plus plenty of brawn and speed exemplified by a veteran defensive line stocked with future N.F.L. players, and a freakishly talented young receiving corps.
Lawrence was the game’s obvious star, completing 20 of 32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns.
“We’re just little ol’ Clemson,” said Swinney, as though self-conscious of both the narrative and how thoroughly his team had just smashed it. He added: “We’re not supposed to be here, but we are. But we are. And beat Notre Dame and Alabama to do it.”
Clemson had plenty of guts this season; Swinney just showed them very early on. Much the way Alabama Coach Nick Saban swapped out his tried-and-tested sophomore quarterback, Jalen Hurts, during last season’s national championship for the barely seen freshman Tagovailoa at halftime, Swinney exchanged at quarterback a senior who had started the previous season — and won the Tigers their third straight conference title — for a true freshman.
This decision meant everything. Under that earlier quarterback, Kelly Bryant, Clemson was about as badly crushed by Alabama in last year’s national semifinals, 24-6, as Alabama was crushed by Clemson in this year’s final.
Bryant is a fine college quarterback, but even Saban acknowledged that Lawrence’s ability to laser the ball dozens of yards up the field was a game-changer.
“Trevor Lawrence is very good at throwing the fade ball, back shoulders, whatever it is,” Saban said, adding that Clemson receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross, who combined for 234 yards and two touchdowns on nine catches, “are really, really good at making plays.”
Most people watching Monday night’s game had missed Swinney’s momentous decision to go with Lawrence over Bryant, because the decision came not at halftime, but almost four months ago.
And it might have been even gutsier than Saban’s masterstroke last year.
In late September, Swinney announced that Lawrence, who came out of a prominent Georgia high school program as one of the highest-rated recruits ever, would start against Syracuse in the Tigers’ fifth game of the season, over Bryant, who had started the first four.
“All I envisioned was him starting that next week against Syracuse,” Swinney said a few days ago.
Swinney knew the timing of his announcement would enable Bryant to transfer under a new N.C.A.A. rule that permits football players to redshirt (essentially get a do-over) during a season in which they appear in as many as four games. If Bryant stopped playing right then and there, he would be able to play one more season — almost certainly elsewhere.
The co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott confirmed after the game that the redshirt rule was part of why Swinney made the announcement when he did, “to give Kelly an opportunity, if he did want to decide he wanted to go somewhere else and play,” Elliott said.
It was a menschy move by Swinney. It was also incredibly risky.
For one thing, Lawrence was not at that point an obvious improvement over Bryant. Playing limited snaps, sometimes against inferior competition, in those first four games, Lawrence had looked … fine. He accumulated 137 yards and three touchdowns against tiny Furman, and 194 yards, a touchdown and an interception against Georgia Southern.
In Clemson’s toughest game in that stretch — a 2-point road victory over Texas A&M — Lawrence threw the ball just nine times, and in the fourth quarter, with the Tigers ahead by 8 points, it was Bryant whom Swinney sent onto the field to hold the lead.
More important, if Bryant elected to transfer, then Swinney’s Plan B would transfer with him. The new backup would be Chase Brice, a serviceable but far from standout signal-caller. With Lawrence as the starter, Clemson had no real safety net.
It did not matter to Swinney. “My job is to make decisions that put the team in the best possible path to win,” he said Monday night of Lawrence, “and after four games he was the best player.”
So Swinney went with Lawrence, and a few days later, Bryant did indeed decide to transfer. He will play his final season at Missouri.
“The situation was, I got the opportunity to start that week, and that was really it,” Lawrence recalled Monday night.
Lawrence’s success heralds a trend. More true freshmen will start at quarterback for more contenders. Georgia nearly won last year’s title with a true freshman, Jake Fromm, under center.
Thanks to early enrollments, true freshmen are not truly freshmen. At this point, Lawrence has been enrolled at Clemson and practicing with the team for 12 months.
“We don’t really look at it as being a freshman anymore,” Brice, the backup, said last month. “You see tons of freshmen around the country playing early.”
Additionally, college schemes have evolved to resemble high school ones more and more. Quarterbacks benefit from year-round seven-on-seven competitions and private trainers. It all makes the transition to college smoother.
“I think you’ll see more and more young quarterbacks be able to contribute early on,” Saban said Monday.
When Swinney made the decision to go with Lawrence, more was at stake than simply the 2018 season.
Despite the title after the 2016 season, the two championship games and the three consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference titles in a magical three-year run, there seemed something surreal about Clemson in that period. For two seasons, Clemson enjoyed the services of quarterback Deshaun Watson, a two-time Heisman runner-up. Florida State, the traditional power in its division, had been uncharacteristically down.
A flameout this season might have made Swinney’s run seem like ol’ Clemson’s quaint interloping upon the College Football Playoff, the rightful preserve of blue bloods like Notre Dame and Ohio State and Oklahoma and Georgia and, of course, Alabama, Swinney’s own alma mater.
Instead, on Monday night Lawrence solidified Clemson’s place in that pantheon while becoming the first true freshman quarterback to lead his team through most of the season all the way to the national title since Jamelle Holieway did it for Oklahoma in 1985.
Holieway is probably a nice guy and was a terrific athlete, but Oklahoma ran the option, and Holieway was asked to throw the ball 58 times all year (he connected on a little less than half of those attempts). That makes Lawrence’s achievement a pivot point — and it made Swinney’s gambit that much more dangerous, and more gutsy, too.