Would Swinney bench his starter in a national title game like Saban did?
I have been asked this question all day. What would Dabo Swinney have done had Clemson been down 13-0 at halftime in the national championship?
We don’t really know. But, perhaps we have an idea.
We know what Nick Saban did. He benched a guy who was 25-2 as a starter and brought in a true freshman quarterback Monday to lead Alabama to its fifth national championship in nine years with a 26-23 come-from-behind overtime win over Georgia.
Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench at the start of the third quarter to complete 13-of-24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including an impressive 41-yard toss to DeVonta Smith in overtime to win the Crimson Tide the national championship.
What Saban did took a lot of guts. But he knew if Alabama had any chance at winning the game, he had to take two-year starter Jalen Hurts out of the game and go with the lefty. The call to the bullpen paid off for Alabama as Tagovailoa energized an Alabama offense that had 94 yards and four first downs at halftime.
But here is where Saban’s genius comes into play. This is why he is the greatest head coach in the history of college football. He had Tagovailoa ready to play just in case they needed him.
That was also the case in last week’s Sugar Bowl win over Clemson, too. Tagovailoa, who is a much better passer than Hurts, took a lot of reps with the first-team offense during bowl prep and was prepared in case things went wrong against the Tigers. Obviously, because of Clemson’s own struggles on offense, Alabama did not need his services in the Sugar Bowl.
However, Saban knew he would need him at some point in the national championship game, and the gamble of giving his backup quarterback quality reps in practice paid off.
So this all brings me back to the question I had been asked all day. What would Swinney have done if faced with the same situation as Saban on Monday night?
More than likely, Swinney would have stuck with his veteran quarterback, Kelly Bryant, and probably lost the game. That is what happened in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama when the Tide was daring Bryant to throw the long ball, but he could not.
Clemson perhaps needed a change of pace in the game, bring in a guy who could get the ball out of his hand quickly and still has enough mobility to get away from pressure if need be.
Does that sound like anyone Clemson has on its roster?
I’m not saying the Tigers would have won the game, but maybe if someone was prepared to come off the bench, just maybe they would have had a better chance.
But, no one was ready so Swinney had no choice but to stick with Bryant, who had played well all season. Honestly, the blame of that loss goes on the offensive line more than anything Bryant did or did not do.
Regardless, unlike Alabama where Saban had Tagovailoa ready to go in case he was needed, Clemson had no one prepared it could turn to and trust to get the job done.
Zerrick Cooper played in mop-up duty all season, except for the time he came in vs. Syracuse when Bryant got injured. True freshman Hunter Johnson, a 5-star recruit coming out of high school, was not prepared either.
You always hear the backup quarterback is supposed to be prepared to play no matter what, and that is true. However, it also helps if he is given reps in practice to prepare him for such a situation as Tagovailoa came in to on Monday night, especially if the starter has some limitations in his game.
I can’t say if Cooper and Johnson would have been prepared to do such if Clemson had been in the same situation, but isn’t that what makes Saban so good as a head coach. Even a quarterback who is 25-2 as a starter will get benched in the national championship game if Saban feels the other guy will give them a better chance to win the game.
Win it comes to winning, loyalty takes a backseat with Nick Saban.