Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney runs onto the field with one of his friends before last week's victory over rival South Carolina. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Photo: Sean Rayford/AP
Photo: Sean Rayford/AP

All grown up, Clemson is bigger than any one player

The Tigers seem to think that you and all your football-centric friends had cast them aside once the Gainesville Gasher, quarterback Deshaun Watson, left for the NFL.

And, surely, if Clemson was some one-hit wonder of a program, it would have collapsed into the vacuum created by the exit of this program’s most singularly significant player ever. It would have enjoyed the fortunes that came with snatching up a generational talent that the Georgia Bulldogs overlooked, ridden Watson to consecutive national championship games – winning the second – and then returned to the fringe to await the next alignment of planets in a couple decades. 

But here Clemson is again, No. 1 in the playoff rankings, playing the Miami Hurricanes for its third straight ACC Championship Saturday night and a spot in the bigger tournament. Now, it’s Kelly Bryant at the controls, fully demonstrating that the Tigers are larger than any dependence upon a single player. Proof of a program that has discovered the secret of perpetual motion (football version). Proof that Clemson is more eternal flame than signal flare. 

Still, they’re sure you didn’t recognize that Bryant could do this, that the 6-foot-4, 220-pound junior couldn’t emerge from nowhere to be an efficient-enough thrower and a superior runner. They are certain you believed all thoughts of a Clemson repeat also left town along with running back Wayne Gallman, tight end Jordan Leggett and wide receiver Mike Williams. 

That’s Dabo Swinney’s theme, and he’s sticking to it.

“Last year’s team was picked to win it and they won it. And there’s a lot of joy that comes doing something like that,” Clemson’s coach said.

“Then you have a team like this that’s not picked to win the league or the division, to see them come together and still find a way to do it, and it is very gratifying. It’s a credit to the leadership on the team, their buy-in and belief, their belief in themselves and belief in the program. I’m incredibly proud of them.

“This has been an incredibly gratifying journey this year. We’re going to have a year somewhere when we’re 8-4. And you know what? I’m going to love that, too.”

Uh, coach, which millennia exactly is that 8-4 coming?

While it’s not exactly true that this Clemson team was as overlooked as the ugliest stray in the pound – ACC writers in the preseason picked it second to FSU in the Atlantic Division, just like the season before (they really should have their credentials checked) – there seems to be a small degree of glee in these parts that they’ve proven the whole world wrong.

By the way, preseason predictions really are fake news. 

The Tigers knew they had the defensive heft coming back this season to make themselves scary. How good is that unit? Well, this week when Swinney was reaching for a way to describe how good Miami’s defense has been, the only comparable he could come up with wears orange. “Defensively (the Hurricanes) are really, really, really, really good. They look like Clemson. It looks like our practice tape when I watch this defense,” he said.

Offensively, who really knew, given the great skill drain?

Said defensive end Clelin Ferrell: “I did have some questions, what was our identity going to be. We had a lot of guys returning on defense, but a lot of guys leaving on offense. I did have question what offense’s identity going to be, and they have exceeding my expectations tremendously. They’re playing really, really well right now.

“I knew they could do that, but when you have a new bunch of guys out there you got to wait until you get onto the field and do it.”

This is why the recruiting never stops: Clemson’s remodeled offense is top 25 in the nation in both yards per game and scoring.   

Clemson is nobody’s surprise.

It fits no template of the undervalued champion, all respect void as if it were an expired coupon, its roster just so much depleted uranium. 

No fly-by-night outfit, it is the last team that needs to play the us-versus-the-experts card. It’s so much better than that.

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.