Clemson with a QB controversy? Tigers still backing Uiagalelei

Clemson overcomes 4 turnovers to rally past Syracuse (2:26)

Clemson switches quarterbacks in the second half and overcomes four turnovers to beat Syracuse 24-21. (2:26)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- In the aftermath of Saturday's narrow win over Syracuse, everyone at Clemson was careful to stick to the script.

Is there a QB controversy after DJ Uiagalelei was benched and Cade Klubnik led the 7-0 Tigers to a come-from-behind win?

Offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter: "Absolutely not, 1,000% not."

Klubnik: "He's our guy. DJ is going to lead us."

Uiagalelei: "If I was put in [Swinney's] spot, I would've done the same thing."

So, that's the end of the discussion, no harm done, business as usual. Right?


Well, maybe.

It certainly doesn't sound like Swinney's decision to bench his starter midway through the third quarter hurt Uiagalelei's feelings, and in an era when opt outs are expected and the transfer portal offers a welcome respite to every spurned star, Uiagalelei's words after Saturday's 26-21 win offered ample encouragement.

"When a quarterback's not playing good, not playing up to par -- especially how I was playing -- then you've got to be able to make a change like that," Uiagalelei said. "Stats aren't everything. For me, the No. 1 stat is whether you win or lose. Today we got a 'W.' And that's Coach Swinney's No. 1 job. We have 135 guys on this team, and at the end of the day his responsibility is the team, not me."

One thing there should be no doubts about is Uiagalelei's character. His mature reaction to the situation was a perfect example of why Swinney remains so adamant that he's QB1 and why the rest of the team is so eager to get in line behind him.

And yet, it's hard to envision a scenario where Swinney would've made the same move in a similar situation with Trevor Lawrence or Deshaun Watson. There were certainly games when they didn't play their best, but the idea of either being benched was incomprehensible.

For Uiagalelei, however, the narrative isn't the same because, for all his talent and all the success of his first seven games this season, it's impossible to erase what happened in 2021, a year in which he was, statistically speaking, among the worst quarterbacks in the country (97th in Total QBR, 106th in yards-per-dropback, 118th in TDs-per-pass and 103rd in adjusted completion percentage).

To watch Uiagalelei throw a costly INT in Syracuse territory in the first quarter might've been a simple example of a QB trying to do too much.

To witness his fumble on an RPO play that didn't have the QB and running back on the same page could be easily chalked up to bad communication.

But to see Uiagalelei's third turnover of the day -- a floater over the head of his receiver and into the waiting arms of Syracuse's Jason Simmons with 6:27 to play in the third quarter and the Orange up 10 -- was to flashback to 2021 in vivid detail. And that's when Swinney made the change.

"He just told me, 'We've got to make a change. We've got to get some momentum going,'" Uiagalelei said. "That's the way football is."

Klubnik's arrival did provide a spark, though it's debatable whether correlation equated to causation in this instance. Klubnik's first drive was doomed to end with a punt until he was hit along the sideline on a third-and-forever scramble, and the official threw a flag to extend the drive.

But Clemson scored, then scored again, and ended its day with a field goal to cap the comeback.

Klubnik's contribution: Four passes, two completions, 34 total yards. He threw a pick in the end zone on one two-point try and completed another to Joe Ngata. Klubnik's biggest accomplishment was that he didn't give the ball away, as the Tigers had done four times with Uiagalelei on the field.

"Our offense, we were running the ball on them all day," Klubnik said. "They really couldn't stop our offense, but we just kept shooting ourselves in the foot."

The irony is, even at Uiagalelei's worst in 2021, that was never the issue. In 22 career starts entering last Saturday's action, Uiagalelei had thrown just 12 interceptions. The real concern last year was about the lack of pop, the inability to move the football, and that wasn't a problem against Syracuse. Clemson drove into Orange territory on seven of its first eight drives but had just 10 points to show for it.

"It's just really frustrating when you're moving the ball up and down the field and feel like you have control of the game," Swinney said, "and we had at least five trips into plus territory where we got no points."

It was frustrating. But is frustration enough reason to bench the starting QB?

Fans have been clamoring for the move ever since Clemson signed Klubnik, the four-star prospect out of Texas. They pointed to 2014, when Swinney opened the season with veteran Cole Stoudt only to turn the reins over to Watson. They pointed to 2018, when Swinney ultimately benched Kelly Bryant, a QB who'd led the Tigers to a playoff berth the year before, in favor of Lawrence. But Swinney had been steadfast in his support of Uiagalelei at every step of the journey, even lambasting second-guessers as recently as last week, calling the QB debate "embarrassing."

Swinney said Uiagalelei's "special ability" was obvious after his heroic performance in an overtime win against Wake Forest earlier this season. "You just want something else to write about," Swinney said. "Hopefully, everybody can tear up all those articles you've written, or take some ownership for them at this point. This kid's a winner. He is the unquestioned leader on this team."

Well, if those old articles hit the shredder, Swinney's decision Saturday offered ample fodder for a new round of stories, because Uiagalelei is bound to throw another pick at some point, and Clemson is bound to struggle against some other team, and now the world knows that there is a Plan B.

"Everybody on this team knows they have to play well if they want to continue to play," Streeter said Saturday. "But he doesn't have to be perfect."

It's certainly possible this was a one-off, as Swinney and Streeter and Klubnik all stated after the game, and for a lot of teams, that would be the end of it. But Clemson isn't like everyone else. This is a team with national title aspirations, and so even the slightest question over the QB makes for a monumental debate.

And there is precedent here for teams like Clemson.

A year ago, plenty of Michigan fans wanted to see Cade McNamara sit in favor of J.J. McCarthy, though the bulk of that buzz lingered on the periphery of the message boards, and Jim Harbaugh never seemed to lose faith in his starter. The Wolverines won the Big Ten and made the College Football Playoff. They lost, however, and when the 2022 season opened, Harbaugh stacked the deck enough to ensure McCarthy had every chance to take the job.

Georgia, too, had a QB controversy a year ago. Aside from Kirby Smart, there may not have been anyone sold on Stetson Bennett as the guy who could take the Bulldogs to the mountaintop, and after Bennett struggled in an SEC title game loss to Alabama, there were plenty of fans, media and pundits who wanted to see JT Daniels take command of the offense for the postseason. But Smart stuck to his beliefs, and Bennett was a revelation in wins over Michigan and Alabama, claiming the national championship for Georgia.

Or go back to 2017, the Tide had an established starter in Jalen Hurts, who'd led them to an 8-0 start, while fans clamored for a hot-shot recruit named Tua Tagovailoa to get more play. That 2017 Tide team averaged 37 points per game -- exactly what Clemson is averaging now. The Tide made the playoff, and in the semifinals, they toppled Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. All the while, Hurts remained the starter, but Nick Saban knew he had an ace hidden up his sleeve. When Alabama trailed at halftime to Georgia in the national championship game, Saban finally made his move. Tagovailoa entered, Alabama roared back, Saban got his sixth ring.

Perhaps none offer a perfect analogy to Clemson's situation now, but it does suggest there is a path forward -- with or without Uiagalelei as QB1 -- for the Tigers to reach the ultimate goal.

Because ultimately, Uiagalelei is right. Swinney has been his most ardent supporter for the past two years, but the coach's job inevitably boils down to one thing: Winning.

For the first seven weeks of the season, Swinney assured everyone there was no choice to be made. Uiagalelei at QB and winning football games were synonymous. But Saturday's game against Syracuse offered a different path forward, and in the end, Swinney showed he'll always follow the one that leads to a "W."