Clemson's new stars prove they belong in the playoff

Clemson earns ACC title with win over Miami (1:48)

Kelly Bryant and No. 1 Clemson make easy work of Miami to claim their spot in the College Football playoff in a 38-3 win. (1:48)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kelly Bryant swaggered onto the field for Clemson's walk-through at Bank of America Stadium on Friday looking a lot like Cam Newton, the other quarterback who calls the place home.

Bryant wore gold-rimmed sunglasses, a purple velour jacket, a gold belt buckle and loafers without socks. Photographers crowded around him, and Bryant seemed oblivious. He gazed off at the skyline that showed above the top deck, joked with some teammates and soaked it all in.

Three months ago, Bryant was the problem, the reason no one seemed eager to pick Clemson to complete this run back to the College Football Playoff for a third consecutive season, as the Tigers did with a dominant 38-3 win over Miami on Saturday, likely securing the No. 1 ranking in the process. He was the unheralded understudy to Clemson's once-in-a-generation star, Deshaun Watson, and getting here with Bryant seemed a long shot.

But Bryant is a star now. He looked the part on Friday in street clothes, and on Saturday, he played the role in Clemson orange, connecting on his first 15 throws to set an ACC championship game record, snapping the mark previously held by ... of course, Watson. Now, Bryant will lead his team to the same promised land that Watson delivered in 2015 and 2016.

"It's special because we had a lot of questions going into the season, a lot of guys that left last year," Bryant said. "I'm just trying to do my job, like Coach Dabo [Swinney] said, be the best version of Kelly B that I can be."

Ryan Carter was an afterthought too. The buzz five years ago was Clemson (12-1) only signed him in hopes of landing his pal, Robert Nkemdiche. The Tigers got Carter. They lost out on the big-name recruit.

On Saturday, Carter was Clemson's starting cornerback. He forced a fumble, picked off a pass and broke up another. No need for a turnover chain. No need for hype. Carter is headed back to the playoff.

Ray-Ray McCloud lived in the doghouse for two years. He was Swinney's favorite target for criticism, much of it deserved. He was the kid with too much talent and swagger to provide so little in return.

On Saturday, McCloud fumbled away a punt return early; but he responded, as he has done all season, with maddening production, catching six balls for 100 yards and serving as Bryant's favorite target. That fumble would've defined his performance a year ago. Now, it's a footnote in his journey back to the playoff.

There's Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne and Adam Choice, the trio of runners who took over for Wayne Gallman. They each scored as Clemson dominated Miami (10-2) on the ground in the red zone. They'll offer an offensive foundation as Clemson returns to the playoff.

Linebacker Jamie Skalski filled in for injured starter Tre Lamar, and Skalski helped torment Miami quarterback Malik Rosier. Tanner Muse, K'Von Wallace and A.J. Terrell -- they all chipped in on defense, holding Miami to less than 100 yards well into the third quarter. None played a significant role a year ago.

This team wasn't supposed to win the ACC, wasn't supposed to make the playoff, wasn't supposed to be No. 1 in the country, all because of the names who weren't here. But on Saturday, Clemson showcased just how much resolve, how much resilience, how much talent remains.

"It's been 25 years since I've been to the Sugar Bowl," said Swinney after the game, a nod to the place where he won a national championship as a player at Alabama. "I don't know who we're going to play, but we're ready to go."

No, this isn't the same Clemson team that has played for the past two national championships. There is no Watson, the engineer of the most famous drive in team history, the one that brought home the trophy in January. There's no Gallman or Mike Williams or Ben Boulware. And the players who remain have heard those names again and again since they hoisted that trophy 11 months ago.

But the message that Bryant & Co. have preached at every turn is that those guys had their turn and this group is ready for theirs.

After Saturday's game, Bryant snapped dozens of photos, sprinted the length of the far end zone to celebrate with fans, then perched on the edge of the stage set up for Clemson to receive its trophy, an MVP award resting in his lap, confetti dusting his shoulders and a championship ball cap tipped sideways on his head. He stared up at the video board, watching highlights of his dominance, a wide smile painted on his face. The video showed no Watson touchdown throws, no Gallman runs. This was Bryant's team, his moment.

"I've known him since high school, and he's always had people doubting him," Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph said of Bryant. "What you see is that swag, that chip on his shoulder from people telling him he couldn't do it. He doesn't forget that."

What that means for the playoff is worth debating. That's what will happen for the next few weeks, as Bryant and Carter and McCloud and the others are put through the ringer once more. They'll be asked about Watson, asked about last season, asked about how they'll handle this next big stage.

Their answers will be the same as they were in August. Maybe now, though, we'll believe them.