By PETE IACOBELLI
AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Kelly Bryant long ago laughed off those worried he couldn’t succeed Clemson’s national championship icon Deshaun Watson this year.
How’s the ACC championship game MVP look now?
Bryant ran for a touchdown, threw for another and passed for 252 yards to help the top-ranked Tigers (12-1, No. 1 CFP) claim their likely spot atop the College Football Playoff poll with a 38-3 victory over No. 7 Miami on Saturday night.
Bryant, the smiling, lanky, 6-foot-3 junior has shaken off defenders the way he’s pushed aside concerns he would not match Watson’s success. But Bryant’s shown week after week, he’s more than up to the challenge.
Bryant proved it once more against the Hurricanes (10-2, No. 7 CFP). He set a championship game record by completing his first 15 passes – topping the mark held by teammate you know who from two years ago – and putting the Tigers ahead 14-0 on his twisting, 11-yard TD run in the opening quarter.
“We had a lot of questions about the guys who left,” Bryant said. “Having the guys around me who’ve believed in me has helped. And like coach Dabo says, just be the best version of Kelly B I can be.”
The best of Bryant certainly points to another title run for the defending champs.
Oh, no, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, corrects, “We’re the attacking champs. We’re attacking to try and win another one.”
Swinney said amidst the postgame celebration he hadn’t been to New Orleans since going with Alabama in 1992, the then wide receiver part of that national championship squad. This time, the Tigers as top seed get their pick of sites and Swinney left no wiggle room about what he’ll choose.
“Get ready, Sugar Bowl,” he shouted. “Here we come.”
Bryant capped his game with a 27-yard TD pass to Deon Cain on the way to Clemson’s third straight ACC crown.
“It’s just in our DNA. We’re built for moments like this,” said Bryant, named the game’s MVP.
Clemson’s defense made things stand up against a Hurricanes team that has been spurred on to its turnaround season by their glitzy, bling-covered “Turnover Chain” – jewelry worn by any Miami player with a pick or a fumble.
Instead, it was the Tigers who won the turnover battle (3 to 1) and held Miami to its fewest points and yards of the season to spoil the Hurricanes’ first appearance in the contest since the one-time powerhouse joined the league in 2004.
Bryant and receiver Ray-Ray McCloud even mocked the Miami necklace, McCloud pantomiming putting an invisible chain around Bryant’s neck after the quarterback’s TD run.
Clemson’s Travis Etienne opened the scoring with a 4-yard touchdown before Bryant’s twisting, 11-yard run for a 14-0 first-quarter lead. It was essentially over after that as the Hurricanes (10-2, No. 7 CFP) have lost two straight after rising to No. 2 in the CFP two weeks ago.
“Obviously, it didn’t go well at all,” Miami coach Mark Richt said. “It just shows they’re the class of our league and they’re the measuring stick.”
Miami fell apart in the third quarter with a pair of Malik Rosier interceptions leading to 10 points for the Tigers. The Hurricanes, who had averaged 440 yards a game this season, finished with 214 yards. The broke the shutout on Michael Badgley’s 29-yard field goal with 3:29 to go.
Miami: The Hurricanes showed they still have some growing to do to catch up with the ACC’s elite program. Miami let early chances get away – a long pass to an open receiver overthrown by Rosier, a recovered muffed punt in Clemson territory – and paid for it as the Tigers relentless offense and dominating defense took control. “They came out and from the beginning, they jumped us,” Miami receiver Braxton Berrios said.
Clemson: The Tigers have methodically proven themselves at every turn this year when the doubters were sure they’d falter with so many (11 new starters) fresh faces after last year’s national championship. Once more, Clemson answered the questions and will head to its third straight College Football Playoff, a likely No. 1 and favorite to win a second consecutive crown.
Clemson joined Florida State as the only teams to win three straight ACC championships. The Seminoles had their run from 2012-2014, right before the Tigers got going with their current streak. Clemson’s win also made it seven in a row for Atlantic Division teams over Coastal opponents.
The Tigers set an ACC championship game mark with four different players scoring rushing touchdowns. Along with TDs by Etienne and Bryant, Clemson’s Adam Choice had a 1-yard scoring run and Tavien Feaster had an 11-yard scoring run.
The title game came back to Charlotte after a year in Orlando, Florida, due to the ACC’s ban on awarding championships to North Carolina for a law that limited protections for LGBT people. The law was repealed earlier this year, the ban lifted and the contest restored to Bank of America Stadium.
Miami will most likely head to the Orange Bowl in the ACC’s usual spot.
Clemson should maintain the top spot in the CFP rankings and, with the option to choose location, will certainly choose the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans over the Rose Bowl to ensure it gets a strong crowd in the stands for the national semifinals. Its opponent will be announced Sunday.
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