Difficult decisions at the quarterback position land Clemson, Notre Dame in College Football Playoff
At the start of the season, like Clemson, Notre Dame began the year with a different quarterback than the one it ended the regular season with.
Is it coincidence both teams will play each other in the College Football Playoff? The Tigers and Irish will face off as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 as part of the CFP Semifinal matchup at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“When you make a decision that is that difficult, you are not doing it just for the quarterback position, but the entire program,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said during Sunday’s Cotton Bowl coaches’ teleconference.
Though the Irish had won 11 games with Brandon Wimbush as the starter, including a 3-0 record to start this season, the offense was sputtering under the junior. Notre Dame was averaging just 23.3 points per game and Kelly knew if he wanted his team to contend for a CFP spot, they had to get better at the position.
At Clemson, things were a little bit different.
Kelly Bryant was back for his senior year. He and the Tigers were coming off a 12-2 season where he led Clemson to a third straight ACC Championship at the time and back to the CFP.
Clemson opened the season 4-0 with Bryant as the starter, while sharing time with freshman phenom Trevor Lawrence. Still, the Tigers were playing well, and Bryant even came back in the second half and led the charge in Clemson’s victory at Texas A&M.
But Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney knew he had to make a change by the end of Week 4 when Lawrence threw four touchdowns passes in the Tigers’ 49-21 win at Georgia Tech.
“Yeah, it is tough,” Swinney said.
Swinney saw enough at Georgia Tech to make a change and the next week he named Lawrence the new starter. Bryant did not take the news too well and ultimately left the program.
At Notre Dame, Wimbush was replaced by Ian Book prior to the Wake Forest game in Week 4.Though hard, Wimbush took it well and remained on the team, even starting for the injured Book, who did not play against Florida State, on Nov. 10. He led the Irish to a 42-13 victory over the Seminoles.
“It is never easy when you are pulling a guy out and he was undefeated at the time, but we were looking at the long term,” Kelly said. “We were looking at how many plays our defense was on the field. We were looking at November.
“Absolutely, there was a vision on how we could get to the College Football Playoff, so all of those have to be a part of the decision-making process. It was not ‘How can we score more points?’ It was about how we could make ourselves a better football team in November.”
The Irish (12-0) were definitely better. They averaged 36.6 points per game with Book as the starting quarterback.
At Clemson, once the Tigers got through all the Bryant saga and then the Syracuse game in Week 5, when Lawrence was knocked out of the game with a neck strain, and Chase Brice came off the bench to lead them to a come-from-behind win, the offense really got rolling.
The Tigers (13-0) have averaged 47.4 points and 541 yards per game since Lawrence became the starter.
“After that Georgia Tech game, it was obvious that Trevor was the better player,” Swinney said. “It’s hard but that’s our job, at the end of the day to, to position our team to have the best possible chance to win.
“And I just felt like that, you know, where we were after — we had a competition and after four games, he pulled ahead. And I didn’t anticipate that Kelly would leave, but that was the decision he made. So, we had to move forward. But Trevor has done an amazing job. We scored more touchdowns in school history and he’s been a big reason for that. All we can do is play the best player. And sometimes that’s tough because you have personal feelings for a lot of these guys as individuals, and they all work so hard. But at the end of the day, you got to do what’s best for the team.”
As it turned out Kelly and Swinney were both right and now both coaches will get an opportunity to see which quarterback will get their team to the national championship game.