With Kelly Bryant's emergence, Clemson looks like a title contender yet again

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Kelly Bryant has been trapped in a hype vacuum, unable to escape, until now.

Here he comes, America.

The Clemson quarterback has been overlooked, underrated, doubted and dismissed. Haunted by the past and dogged by the future, there has always been someone else to talk about instead of Bryant.

The consensus coming into 2017 was that he would never be Deshaun Watson, the guy he replaced, the guy who led the Tigers to the national championship, the first-round NFL pick, the best player in school history.

Not only that, a whole lot of people figured Bryant was merely the placeholder QB on this Clemson team, temporarily manning the position until five-star freshman recruit Hunter Johnson got up to speed and took it from him.

And down the road? Forget it. The nation’s No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2018, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, is committed to Clemson and will render any competition moot by next August.

Certainly, Saturday night, Bryant was The Other QB. The guy on the opposite sideline was Lamar Jackson, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner, off to another electric start this season. The Louisville junior is who everyone was tuning in to see, not Bryant.

Which was OK with Bryant, who appropriately enough wears No. 2.

“Let ’em sleep on me,” he said. “I’ve been doubted pretty much my whole career.”

Kelly Bryant and Clemson had plenty reason to celebrate during their win over Louisville on Saturday. (Getty)

Then they played the game, and the Kelly Bryant alarm clock went off. He broke the vacuum seal, and broke out in a big way.

In his first college start on the road, the junior threw for a career-high 316 yards, ran for another 26 and accounted for three touchdowns in a 47-21 Clemson beatdown of the Cardinals. He played as well as Watson did most of last year, and better than Jackson did last night. He was, at last, The Man.

“Kelly was awesome,” said Tigers coach Dabo Swinney. “He is a problem. … I was hoping he’d man up and lead them on the road like a doggone competitor, and he did. So I’m just really proud of him.”

Bryant certainly looks the part, standing 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, athletically gifted. It was only during postgame interviews that he showed the slightest vulnerability, pursing his lips and lowering his eyes while answering questions.

It was almost as if he’s not used to being in this spotlight. Because he’s not.

“All eyes were on the other quarterback,” said Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “Just the calm, collected poise he had – those were the questions everyone had coming into the season. He’s just proving everyone wrong.”

If Bryant is going to play like this, everyone might as well get comfortable with the idea of Clemson returning to the College Football Playoff. The Tigers have a ferocious defensive front, a veteran offensive line, three high-quality receivers and a stable of backs. And now if you add another dual-threat weapon at QB to the mix, look out.

After beating Auburn and Louisville in successive weeks, the College Football Playoff path is clearing up nicely. A trip to Virginia Tech on Sept. 30 will be interesting, and an Oct. 7 home game against unbeaten Wake Forest now looks more intriguing than expected. If Florida State struggles to replace injured quarterback Deondre Francois, the much-anticipated meeting in Clemson on Nov. 11 could be a Tigers walkover. At this point, Dabo Swinney’s team would have to play its way out of the bracket – and Bryant would have to play his way out of a starting job many believed he’d never hold this long.

His ascendancy has been steady since spring practice. He performed well enough to reach the top of the depth chart in open competition with Johnson and Zerrick Cooper, then strengthened his grip on the starting job by mid-August.

“He just won the competition,” Swinney said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen in the spring, but he just came out ahead. Then he worked his butt off all summer, and he won the competition. Every week I’m learning something about him.”

Bryant was dynamic in a low-stress opener against Kent State, got better as the game went along last week in a slogfest against Auburn, and then was sharp almost all night against the Cardinals. He dropped a play-action bomb to Ray-Ray McCloud for a 79-yard touchdown, and averaged a fat 9.9 yards per attempt. Bryant completed six of nine passes on third down, continually keeping drives alive with clutch plays.

Jackson, on the other hand, was nowhere near as sharp in those situations. The Cardinals didn’t convert a single third down in the first half while falling behind 19-7.

“You know you are playing a national championship team, they’re ranked No. 3,” Jackson said. “You try to knock them off their throne, you get over-excited and it gets you out of the game.

“The offense did a horrible job tonight. It’s on all of us.”

Jackson will perhaps pay the biggest price for Louisville’s offensive failings. His bid to repeat as Heisman winner might have met its demise Saturday night.

With the debate raging about Jackson’s ability as a pure passer, he did not do anything to eradicate that criticism. The junior completed just 3 of 8 passes in the first quarter and 12 of 20 in the first half, looking unsettled in the pocket and inaccurate on several intermediate throws.

With Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma and Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State off to blazing starts, Sam Darnold’s winning streak alive and Saquon Barkley showing off in State College, Jackson and UCLA’s Josh Rosen fell behind the lead pack in defeat Saturday.

With more performances like this, it might even be time to include chronically overlooked Kelly Bryant in the Heisman watch.

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