CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> The voids to fill were huge and the pressure enormous for both Clemson’s Kelly Bryant and Miami’s Malik Rosier. How would the backups fare when they were promoted to starters?
Quite well. Quite well, indeed.
Bryant leads the top-ranked Tigers ( 11-1, CFP No. 1) against Rosier’s No. 7 Hurricanes (10-1, CFP No. 7) in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship Saturday night, a game likely to determine a spot in the College Football Playoff. Each quarterback is looking to cap a remarkable debut season as starter with a league trophy and the chance to chase a national title.
The Tigers are seeking their third straight ACC title and fourth in seven seasons. Miami was expected to grab plenty of titles when it joined the ACC in 2004.
The path both took to the starting job is remarkably similar. Bryant followed national championship winner and three-year starter Deshaun Watson as Tigers’ leader. Rosier succeeded three-year starter Brad Kaaya for Miami.
“There (were) a lot of questions for me, but I don’t feel like I tried to put any pressure on myself,” said Bryant, who broke the Clemson mark for wins (10) for a first-year starter. “I just tried to go out there and just tried to create my own game.”
Rosier had to outperform two others to succeed Miami’s all-time leader in passing yards in Kaaya.
“I mean, starting off, there was a lot of pressure,” Rosier said. “The competition of quarterbacks behind me was really good. But the more I play, the more comfortable I’m getting in this offense.”
Rosier has looked in control much of the season, tying the Hurricanes’ single-season mark of 30 TDs accounted for, set by Vinny Testaverde in 1986.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney saw Bryant, who backed up Watson and Nick Schuessler the past two seasons, struggle early in the spring with his new role. Swinney said Friday he counseled the junior that the Tigers didn’t need another Watson, but a talented, confident Bryant.
That emerged in week two during a 14-6 win over No. 2 Auburn . Bryant came off the field with an injury and Clemson trailing 6-0 in the first half. He re-entered soon after to guide back-to-back touchdown drives that put the Tigers ahead for good.
“That’s what came from the Auburn game,” Swinney said. Bryant telling himself, “‘Hey, I can do this.’”
Rosier has steadily learned that, too, Miami coach Mark Richt said, his decision-making and his ability to make big plays in crucial situations improves each week.
“I’m really proud of him because I wasn’t sure he was going to be the guy coming into camp,” Richt said.
Things to watch for at the ACC Championship game:
>> Back at the bank: The title game has returned to Charlotte after getting moved to Orlando, Florida last season because of a North Carolina law that limited protections for LGBT people. The law was repealed earlier this year and the ACC ended its ban against championships played in the Tar Heel State.
>> Turnover chain: Miami’s glitzy, bling-filled necklace has gotten as much airtime as any Hurricane player. Miami has forced 21 turnovers its last six games, more than 93 Football Bowl Subdivision teams have had all season. If the chain sees a lot of TV time Saturday, expect Miami’s defense to have its way against Clemson.
>> Injuries: Both teams will be without regulars on Saturday night. Miami has lost tight end Chris Herndon and receiver Ahmmon Richards. Clemson defense will be minus starters in linebacker Tre Lamar and cornerback Mark Fields.
>> Young runner: Clemson freshman tailback Travis Etienne has emerged from a crowded four-man backfield to take control of the Tigers running game. Etienne leads Clemson with 720 yards and 12 touchdowns, surpassing the freshman mark for scores (10) accomplished by 2009 ACC player of the year C.J. Spiller 11 years ago.
>> Coach experience: Hurricanes coach Mark Richt has plenty of experience playing for league titles, just not with Miami. He won six SEC Eastern Division titles at Georgia, winning that league’s crown in 2002 and 2005. Richt believes what will help Miami most is how it has worked this season. “I think that we’ve been preparing to play in a championship game all year long, quite frankly, and so if we can continue to do that, I think it’ll give us our best chance,” he said.