Still winning

Clemson overcomes changing personnel to stay in hunt for College Football Playoff berth

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CLEMSON -- Not this year, no way. Defending national champion Clemson had lost too much, the thinking went, on offense to post another serious threat to the title. But with the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season done, the Tigers are exactly where they want to be - on top of the ACC Atlantic and poised for another deep run.

"Never had a doubt about those guys," Clemson defensive end Austin Bryant said of his teammates, many of them first-year starters, on the other side of the ball.

The group is erasing doubts week after week.

Entering the season, the Tigers looked like they would need time to grow on offense with national title stars like quarterback Deshaun Watson, receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott, and tailback Wayne Gallman all jumping early to the NFL. In all, Clemson had seven new starters to blend into the attack - leaving plenty of doubters dismissing the Tigers chances.

"Nobody really picked us to win the league this year, and not many picked us to win the division," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "So I'm glad my guys didn't get that memo. They just went to work. We've had a lot of guys step up and earn it."

Particularly on offense.

Kelly Bryant was a tall, untested quarterback whose only experience the past two years was at the end of big, big blowouts. The backfield appeared a mishmosh of lumbering veterans like C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice, and youngsters filled with potential yet short on experience in Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne.

Tight end, center, slot receiver - all had new faces taking over and had ACC opponents licking their chops dreaming of payback after getting run over the previous two seasons by the dynamic Tigers.

Instead, Clemson merely snapped the ball and kept going, defeating four top-25 opponents on the way to their third consecutive trip to the ACC championship game after a 31-14 victory over Florida State this past Saturday.

The Tigers look to make it three straight league crowns - and trips to the College Football Playoff - when it faces No. 2 Miami in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Dec. 2.

It hasn't been easy. The Tigers were shocked at The Carrier Dome last month with a 27-24 victory by underdog Syracuse when Bryant left early with a concussion. They were tied at 7-all with Boston College entering the fourth quarter of what finished as a 34-7 win. And Bryant lost two fumbles, including one that set FSU up on the Clemson 40 with 6:46 left in the game and the Tigers up 17-14.

Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott the new Tigers are growing into their roles, the same way as Watson, Williams and the others did before their big moments on college football's biggest stages.

"You don't want to continue to have these" close calls, Scott said. "But there are some valuable lessons you learn from it and now the next step is to really put four quarters together to play our best in the championship season."

Bryant, a gangly, smiling junior , has had moments he'd like to forget. He came out early with a left ankle sprain against Wake Forest in early October and came out to play the following week at Syracuse before the concussion-causing hit sent him to the sidelines.

He's continually compared to Watson, one of his good friends who acted as a sounding board at times for his pal as Bryant adjusted to the responsibilities of leading the defending champs.

"I didn't feel like we did anything different," Bryant said. "We, as a team, just have to do what got us here."

No matter how unlikely that seemed a few months ago.