There is a steadiness to the playoff preparation around Clemson this year. When the Tigers were picked for the College Football Playoff in 2015, the fever pitch of excitement included fans filling up Memorial Stadium for a pizza party promised by Dabo Swinney. Now, four playoff games and one national championship later, Clemson has a road map that lays out the steps necessary for reaching the top of the sport in this new 15-game playoff era.
Only Alabama, the Tigers' foe in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, has more playoff experience, and as we prepare for the epic rubber match, it's time for bold predictions, so here's one: Clemson won't only defeat the Tide, but repeat as national champions.
Here's three reasons why:
1. The Clemson defensive line is the best individual unit of any of the four participants: I'm excluding quarterback from this discussion, with Baker Mayfield representing the best individual player not only in this playoff, but in the country. Nick Saban took part in ESPN's GameDay coverage live from Charlotte, North Carolina -- the site of the ACC Championship Game -- and sang the praises of that unit, knowing full well that the tenacity and relentlessness of Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and the rest of that group played a big role in the Tide's third quarter offensive drought in the title game last season. But the scary thing about that group is not just the size, athleticism and star power -- it's the depth and level of play that can be maintained with fresh bodies getting rotated throughout a game.
When it came time to start voting for individual honors and All-America teams, we here at CBS Sports joined with other outlets in recognizing an elite group, but struggling to isolate just one or two players to elevate above his teammates. The entire front four earned All-ACC honors from the coaches -- Wilkins, Lawerence and Clelin Ferrell on the first team, Austin Bryant on the second team -- and some of those players are fresher now thanks to getting rest during the leadup to the semifinal.
"I think we're a pretty fresh team. We've been able to use our depth and develop a lot of guys. Dexter Lawrence was awesome out there tonight, but we had to give that big boy a couple weeks off," Swinney said after the ACC Championship Game. "He was beat up after the NC State game. Man, whew, he's a grown man. He just needed a little break. Now he's starting to hit his stride.
Managing the roster and building depth through the season for a 15-game schedule is something that Swinney and his staff have come close to perfecting. When the game gets tight and that depth is tested, Clemson will have an advantage that could make the difference with competition expected to be decided by the smallest of margins.
2. Kelly Bryant is ready to be a superstar: All of the talk heading into the year regarding the quarterback position at Clemson was about who would replace Deshaun Watson, and I think we're overlooking the potential that Kelly Bryant has to be much more than "Deshaun Watson's replacement."
Swinney first saw Bryant in high school when the star quarterback was playing against one of Swinney's sons. One game was all he needed to be sold, and he has made it clear that Bryant was not recruited to be like Watson. "I recruited him to be Kelly Bryant," Swinney has pointed out.
"Nobody has had more pressure on them than Kelly Bryant, nobody. I mean, he wasn't even supposed to be the guy. He was supposed to be playing another position. If you listen to everything that's written or said or whatever," Swinney said. "But this kid has put his blinders on and he's stayed focused and he's had an incredible belief in himself."
Bryant actually broke Watson's ACC Championship Game record for consecutive completions when he started the game 15 for 15 against Miami, and his mastery of this offense is as impressive as Watson's during the past two College Football Playoff runs. Bryant brings different skills to the table and the offense doesn't run the same plays, but his control and confidence with the up-tempo attack has improved so much from the first week of the season that it's hard to remember when anyone wondered if Clemson's offense was going to be a liability.
A big part of that has been building the offense around that skill set. Bryant, a backup to Watson for two years, knows the system through and through, with all the checks and audibles. Clemson stresses defenses by allowing Bryant to read the defense and make a decision with options to check into the screen game, quarterback runs and other running plays at the line of scrimmage based on where the offense has a numbers advantage.
According to Pro Football Focus, more than a quarter of Bryant's completions have been screen passes. The deep passing game hasn't been highlighted as much (no Watson, no Mike Williams), but the combined threat of quarterback run and Bryant's ability to break the pocket and scramble still creates those one-on-one matchups on the outside that allow Clemson's skill position players to break open explosive plays.
Here's a breakdown of each of Bryant's 384 attempts, via PFF.
So a team that was set to ride on its strength in the trenches and an elite defense now has a quarterback who is playing at a level high enough to go win a CFP title. Bryant doesn't have to be Watson, but given his recent play, he has a chance to accomplish everything Watson did a year ago.
3. Logistics, recent performance and a little bit of New Orleans voodoo: Swinney will be back in Sugar Bowl for the first time since he was a player for Alabama competing against Miami for the national championship. Swinney's relationship with Alabama has been well-documented, and this rubber match will have a firm impact on both coaches moving forward. While the Tide are more dangerous than ever, with a revenge factor and a chip on their shoulder after missing out on the SEC Championship Game, I think Clemson showed more of a championship caliber in November and December than the Tide. Alabama is always going to have one of the best teams in the country, but watching its play down the stretch -- particularly in the Iron Bowl against Auburn -- was like listening to an album from your favorite band that didn't quite live up to the hype or expectations set by their last record.
Then I think Clemson, or even Alabama should the Tide win in the semifinal, will have a logistical advantage against the Rose Bowl winner. The way the calendar falls this year, there is less time between semifinal and the national championship game. Georgia might have a home field advantage in Atlanta, but the players will have just a few days to recover from beating Oklahoma and making the cross-country trip home on Monday. Oklahoma won't have the home field advantage, and will likely spend less than 72 hours in Norman before packing up the trucks and making their way to Atlanta before practices and walk through work at the end of the week.
It's a small, travel-related advantage for sure, but in a College Football Playoff where any of the four competitors seem like a possible winner, it could end up making the difference.