Clemson star freshman QB Trevor Lawrence proves worth the risk in standout College Football Playoff effort
Dabo Swinney went with his gut replacing an established star with a true freshman, and it totally paid off
ARLINGTON, Texas -- So this is why Dabo Swinney risked tampering with the delicate balance of a championship locker room. This is why the coach of No. 2 Clemson let his former ACC-championship, title-worthy quarterback walk. This is why Kelly Bryant was, um, expendable.
The ultimate answer to all that scrutiny is a 6-foot-6 gangly former five-star prospect named Trevor Lawrence. You've probably seen the freshman quarterback -- you might even know a little about him -- but at the tender age of 19, this was a debut of sorts.
A College Football Playoff semifinal bears little resemblance to going virtually unchallenged in a down ACC. And yes, whether it was Kelly Bryant or Anita Bryant under center instead of Lawrence, the score probably would have been similar to the 30-3 final against previously unbeaten No. 3 Notre Dame.
Clemson's defense, team speed and ... well, overall talent were that good.
But in his brief nine-game career as a starter, Lawrence had never started and finished a game against a ranked team. Heck, Clemson only played two ranked teams all season.
But now we can see clearly why all the drama was worth it. Judging by early Saturday evening, this is the first of at least three shots Lawrence could have at the CFP.
"He just has poise. It's who he is. He's different," offensive guard Cage Cervenka said. "He's not like a normal freshman quarterback. Every week, every team says they're going to get after him. He really doesn't get rattled. Having a freshman quarterback who has already experienced this is going to be very [helpful] down the road."
We might as well look ahead. With Alabama standing in the middle of the road this year, well, all the better. That rocket right arm might be the difference between CFP berths and CFP championships.
"Trevor, his ball is perfect," said freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross, who had a career day catching Lawrence's throws. "You can't drop it."
It was a career day for Lawrence, too, even if not statistically. There's a big difference between throwing for 393 yards against South Carolina (his prior career-high) and throwing for 327 yards and three touchdowns in a national semifinal.
"He's making calls that is sometimes hard for us veteran guys to go out there and do," Cervenka said. "He's doing that as a true freshman? It's good to have a guy like that out there."
Even if Bryant stayed, he wasn't the future, even with a 16-2 record as a starter and having led the Tigers to the playoff last season. Earlier this month, Bryant went to Missouri as a graduate transfer.
"It brought our team closer together," Cervenka said. "They were rotating in anyway. It wasn't like 'boom' it happened. They were both competing. The best player ended up earning the spot. We're all behind the decision. We understand it's a hard decision to make getting rid of a veteran like that."
The possibilities now seem endless. Lawrence-to-Ross should have been trending hashtag. Ross, a fellow 19-year-old freshman for the Tigers, had a career day with six catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns.
"It's been special to watch unfold," slot receiver Hunter Renfrow said. "When Kelly was here and they were battling out, Trevor was the same guy then that he is now. He's never changed who he is and how he goes about things. … Obviously, Kelly wasn't the reason we lost last year [in the semifinal]. … You don't put it on him. But we just felt like Trevor gave us the best chance to win at that time, and he's proven us right so far."
Notre Dame's defense took a hit when cornerback Julian Love suffered a blow to the head in the second quarter. Love returned in the second half but the damage was done. The Irish could never make up for even the brief loss of their All-American. Backup defensive back Donte Vaughn entered and was immediately targeted by Lawrence.
"Twenty-seven is not in," Clemson receiver Tee Higgins recounted, referring to Love's number. "Let's attack No. 8 [Vaughn]."
Lawrence bored in like a surgeon. Vaughn was the victim on neatly-placed 52-yard bomb from Lawrence to Ross that broke a 3-3 tie. Two possessions later, a Vaughn holding penalty extended a drive that led to Lawrence's second touchdown pass to Ross, this one 42 yards.
But it was third and final scoring pass that should have indicated to the Irish it was not their day. Vaughn was draped all over Tee Higgins in the end zone. Vaughn tipped Lawrence's pass with his left hand, but it ended up being cradled in Higgins's right arm as he fell out of the back of the end zone. That made it 23-3 with two seconds left in the half. Two touchdowns in 102 seconds for the Tigers doomed the Irish.
"We noticed Love didn't come back out there after a few plays," Lawrence said. "We didn't know if he was hurt for sure. Then he stayed out for a while. … We identified that, but it didn't change much. We still attacked them in ways we thought were best."
Whether Love returned didn't seem to make any difference; Notre Dame had no offensive life. The best defensive line in the country terrorized QB Ian Book (six sacks).
That contributed to a CFP trend. Of the first nine semifinals during the five-year life of the CFP, seven were decided by at least 17 points.
The 27-point loss was the worst for Notre Dame since a 33-point point shellacking at Miami last year.
Asked what it's going to take to get over in these big games, ND coach Brian Kelly said simply, "It's really too much to get into right now."
It may as simple as Clemson being in the running for guys like Lawrence -- the nation's No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2018 -- and the Irish not at that level yet. But sooner or later, the kid whose playing resume was the only thing longer than his hair had to start carving out a legacy.
This was his moment. For now, he and Clemson can settle for carving up Notre Dame.
"I met him as a freshman in high school, really watched him as a sophomore," Swinney said. "I knew he was really gifted. And then when he committed to me, no drama, nothing. He didn't care who was here, didn't care who was committed.
"He was confident in himself."
Thanks to Lawrence, the Tigers' fourth consecutive trip to the playoff will result in their third trip to the CFP National Championship.
Rather than the stage being too big, Lawrence stepped up and owned it. The Irish were sent back to the wintry environs of northern Indiana devoid of a national championship for the 30th consecutive year.
It was Lawrence who snatched the starting job from Kelly before Game 5. It was Lawrence's emergence that caused Bryant to transfer. It was Lawrence -- and Ross and the defense -- that had Clemson fans scrambling for flights late Saturday to Santa Clara, California, for the CFP title game.
"It makes it a lot easier on me when you have guys al around you that are just great players and take that load off you," Lawrence said.
While experience might mean something in these playoffs -- witness those four consecutive playoff appearances -- having a cannon for an arm makes a bigger difference.
"That was kind of Trevor's goal from Day 1," Cervenka said. "His goal wasn't to be the starter or dominate. His goal was to earn our respect and build a bond. There's guys with high maintenance and low maintenance. He's no maintenance."
On his way out of AT&T Stadium, Swinney was given a hint about his next hurdle. He was told No. 1 Alabama had a big lead on No. 4 Oklahoma.
"Big shocker," he said.
Alabama-Clemson IV will be a treat. But no matter how far this season goes, Clemson WR Armani Rodgers knows this is only the beginning for that gangly, long-haired quarterback.
"You have to love it," Rodgers said. "You know you're going to get at least two more years of him, and it's going to be special. I'm looking forward to it."
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