Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney’s gridiron shakeup, 49 months old exactly on Saturday, further cemented the Tigers’ spot among college football’s elite. One of the highest-rated collegiate prospects of all-time, then-true freshman Trevor Lawrence, replaced Kelly Bryant as the team’s starting quarterback after splitting playing time in the first four games of the season. Bryant never played another second for Clemson after the switch was made, and transferred to Missouri in the first offseason where the transfer portal ran rampant on college football. Lawrence led Clemson to a national championship and rarely lost in college under center.
Did we see deja vu on Saturday in South Carolina? After DJ Uiagalelei’s stronghold on the Clemson starting job since Lawrence’s departure to the NFL, he was benched by Swinney on Saturday in favor of Cade Klubnik, another true freshman who was the top quarterback prospect in his recruiting class. After Uiagalelei was intercepted twice and fumbled the ball to Syracuse for a 90-yard scoop and score, his backup reignited Clemson’s offense with three scoring drives to survive the Orange and keep control of its path to the College Football Playoff. Swinney was asked about a permanent switch behind center moments after the final whistle: “DJ is our quarterback. Ain’t no question about that.”
Are you sure Dabo? It’s later in the season than when the Bryant-to-Lawrence switch happened, with Clemson having played double the amount of games with Uiagalelei starting (eight) this season, compared to Bryant’s four in 2018. Receivers and the offensive line work with all quarterbacks during the week, so it’s not exactly like you’d be starting over by making the switch to Klubnik. Uiagalelei is much more experienced at the college level and Lawrence had a play-now aura to a level no one else has seen in the sport. Klubnik might be an NFL-caliber quarterback one day, but the can’t-miss potential isn’t at the same level of the current Jacksonville Jaguars starter.
After losing in the CFP semifinals (quarterbacked by Bryant) in 2017, Clemson felt like it was on a redemption tour of sorts for a program where anything less than a national-championship appearance seems inadequate. The Tigers’ last appearance in a title game was against Joe Burrow. In the two years since, they were outclassed by Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and relegated to the Cheez-It Bowl, defeating Iowa State by a touchdown and ending the season with an underwhelming 10 wins. A banner year for most college football programs. Sighs and groans in the Palmetto State.
By controlling its own destiny to a CFP return, four November games separate Clemson from an ACC Championship Game appearance. All of them are winnable games against programs not on the Tigers’ level, including two conference clashes. Notre Dame, Miami, and Louisville are all trending down. In-state rival South Carolina is on the rise, but has dozens of steps to go to catch big brother Dabo. A win, likely against North Carolina, would send Clemson to the CFP. There’s just one problem with that scenario. It’s getting smashed right now in the last four. The Tigers survived at home against a Syracuse team that was lucky to be No. 14 in the country. In reality, the Orange are nowhere close to a top-20 team. Give me a majority of the SEC over ‘Cuse head-to-head.
If Clemson plays like it did Saturday, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, or Tennessee would smash it. The Tigers have one of the most talented defensive lines in the country and are a great team. They’re joking to think they have a chance at a national championship right now. That’s why a switch at quarterback might be the right move. Clemson is sitting ducks in the CFP semifinals to superior teams, much in the same way Cincinnati and Michigan were one year ago. We’ll see how fast Swinney retracts his comments about Uiagalelei being QB1. At the first sign of further adversity, he wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger again.