CLEMSON — Kelly Bryant knew there were questions.
Questions about how he, as Clemson's new quarterback, might play against a Power 5 team in only his second career start. Questions about how Clemson as a whole might perform under a national spotlight in its first true test of the season.
Outsiders wondered how Brent Venables’ defense might handle a new Auburn offensive coordinator, a new Auburn quarterback and a running back Clemson did not see a year ago.
Saturday night, there were answers.
No. 3 Clemson knocked off No. 13 Auburn, 14-6, in front of a crowd of more than 80,000 and a national television audience at Memorial Stadium on Saturday night. It was a major statement on the national stage, the Tigers showing that they intend to make another run at the playoffs despite losing many of the players who led them to the national championship last season.
"This is a great opportunity for us to grow. Extremely excited that the guys found a way to win," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "Especially offensively, we didn't do a great job of complementing the defense. We put them in some tough situations early. We never really got a rhythm. But when it counted, they dug deep, they bonded together and found a way to win."
The sparkplug of Clemson’s first real test of the season: Bryant, the junior quarterback.
As the night opened and hip hop music blared over Memorial Stadium’s loudspeakers during pregame warmups, Bryant grinned, danced and joked around with his teammates on the field. He looked loose. He oozed with confidence. It proved to be the difference maker in what became an up-and-down night for the Clemson offense.
Clemson struggled to find any rhythm early in the game as the ACC Tigers opened their first four drives of the game with two punts, a Ray-Ray McCloud fumble and a missed field goal. With each mental miscue or sloppy decision, Death Valley grew quieter. Auburn, meanwhile, took a 6-0 lead with two field goals early into the second quarter under new quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who finished the night 13 of 24 passing for 79 yards.
But Bryant bailed out his struggling team, impressing with both his often-criticized arm and his speedy legs. The junior quarterback completed 19 of 29 passes for 181 yards, and rushed for a team-high 58 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
“This week, tough defense, like an old school football game, not a lot of yards. But you’ve got to win some games like that," Bryant said. "It just says a lot about the team and the chemistry (that) we've got to stick it out and get our rhythm."
Clemson took its first lead of the night when Bryant returned to the game after he had the wind knocked out of him for a few minutes in the second quarter. Clemson promptly marched down the field on a 12-play, 88-yard drive. Bryant threw a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Deon Cain, then connected with McCloud on a 29-yard pass that McCloud snagged over his shoulder in traffic. To cap it off, Bryant scored on a 3-yard run.
About three minutes into the third quarter, Bryant took off for 27 yards and a touchdown, giving Clemson a 14-6 lead as the stadium came alive. Backed by its dominant defense, Clemson never relinquished the lead.
"I’m so proud of him. That second touchdown was all grit," Swinney said. "Now I think he’s answered a lot of questions. We thought he would do that. It’s one thing to think it, it’s another thing to experience and see it. There’s no question — I think his confidence will really climb for that. That was just what we needed and just what he needed early in the season to have some adversity, have to battle, have to grit it out. And he did."
As Clemson turns its attention to Louisville next week, its first road trip of the season, questions still linger. Clemson was forced to punt six times. The offense fumbled twice and looked sluggish early. Dabo Swinney admitted there was a miscommunication on third-and-one that he found unacceptable. Swinney knows his team cannot afford to repeat such mistakes on the road against reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and the Cardinals. But if Saturday was Bryant's and Clemson’s first true test, consider it one they passed. For a night that had so much on the line in terms of Clemson's identity, Swinney's team took a major step in the right direction.
"I'm just thankful that we had an experience like this to really prep us like this as we get into conference play," Swinney said. "Absolutely, this is something we can build on. It's a hard-fought, gritty tough win early in the season where you've got to find a way to get it done. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't beautiful in all areas ... (but it was) certainly something we can gain some confidence from."