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Big Sugar Bowl spotlight will be on Clemson's Kelly Bryant and Alabama's Jalen Hurts

Big Sugar Bowl spotlight will be on Clemson's Kelly Bryant and Alabama's Jalen Hurts
Kelly Bryant led the Clemson Tigers to a win against the Miami Hurricanes in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. (Bob Leverone / Associated Press)

At some point before kickoff, maybe in the locker room or out on the field, Kelly Bryant plans to spend a few seconds by himself.

The Clemson quarterback wants to savor the moment.

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“Take a deep breath,” he said. “And enjoy it.”

For better or worse, the first-year starter will be a focal point when the top-ranked Tigers (12-1) face No. 4 Alabama (11-1) in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Monday night.

This rubber match between the teams, who have split the last two national championships, will differ from years past in several ways, starting with Bryant and his counterpart, Jalen Hurts.

Call it a tale of two quarterbacks.

Bryant must fill the enormous shoes of the departed Deshaun Watson, who was not only a dynamic playmaker but also the heart and soul of the Clemson program.

On the opposite sideline, Alabama doesn’t seem quite as invincible in the trenches this season, which puts more pressure on Hurts.

The sophomore has an impressive track record but faces lingering questions as he returns a year older and wiser than the teenager thrust into last season’s title drive.

“I just have to stay true to myself,” he said. “Do what’s gotten me here.”

The passers won’t be the only storyline in New Orleans.

The battle between Clemson’s fierce defensive line and Alabama’s top-10 running game will be crucial.

The Crimson Tide’s vaunted defense will need to overcome injuries that have persisted all season, especially at linebacker. Two of the starters ruled out for the Sugar Bowl are defensive signal callers, which could be a particular drawback against an up-tempo opponent.

Though the Tigers hold the higher ranking, they are slight underdogs who suspect they have something to prove, namely, that they can win it all without Watson and other key players now in the NFL.

“Not a lot of people gave this team a chance,” Bryant said. “So we took that doubt and ran with it.”

It would have been impossible for the new quarterback to fully replace Watson, who passed for 8,702 yards and 76 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Coaches gave Bryant a simpler goal: Just be yourself.

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Clemson has dialed back on its passing attack this fall, running the ball 55% of the time. The shift has allowed Bryant to showcase his mobility.

His 646 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground helped the Tigers go nearly unbeaten, the loss coming when he was forced to leave the Syracuse game because of a concussion.

As his confidence grew, so did his pocket presence. He finished the regular season as the fourth most-accurate passer in the nation, completing 67.4% of his attempts for 2,678 yards and 13 touchdowns with six interceptions.

“I don’t really see a drop-off,” Alabama defensive back Ronnie Harrison said when asked to compare Bryant to Watson. “They are both efficient on the ground and through the air. They both make the offense go.”

Just as important, Clemson players say, Bryant has taken command of the huddle.

“Always calm and collected,” offensive lineman Mitch Hyatt said. “Never flinches at anything.”

In Tuscaloosa, there were no questions about the leadership ability of Alabama’s returning starter.

Barely 18 at the start of the 2016 season, Hurts took over a few series into the opener against USC and never relinquished the job, guiding the Crimson Tide to victory in his first 14 games.

“You can’t really put it into words when you have a guy as versatile as he is,” Clemson defensive lineman Clelin Ferrell said. “When you have a guy that can do a little bit of everything and does it well … it really is more of a whole unit and a team effort as far as the defense to stop him.”

But there were doubts after the loss to Clemson in last season’s title game, doubts that re-emerged when Alabama dropped its regular-season finale at Auburn in late November.

Hurts has always been considered more of a runner than a passer. People have wondered whether the Crimson Tide need someone better-rounded.

“As the quarterback for Alabama, anything less than absolute perfection is a disappointment,” offensive lineman Jonah Williams said. “I think that’s probably an unfair position to put someone in.”

Coach Nick Saban is adamant about Hurts, who ranks 11th nationally in passing efficiency and 13th in yards per completion.

“Jalen has always been a guy that, because of his athleticism and his ability to run the ball, has made a lot of plays with his feet,” Saban said. “But I also think we’ve been able to help him develop as a quarterback in terms of his decision-making in the pocket.”

Clemson players agree. To a point.

“He’s doing a lot of good things for their offense as a whole,” cornerback Ryan Carter said. “I think at the end of the day, I would want him to throw the ball more than scramble.”

Questions about passing ability don’t seem to bother Hurts, who shares with his coach a deadpan manner and a quiet, burning drive.

“Me and coach Saban are like, when it comes to things like that … kind of being our own biggest critic and then kind of the perfectionist,” he said. “You want to do things right all the time.”

The Sugar Bowl should provide a fitting test.

In a matchup that figures to be close for a third consecutive year, a handful of plays might decide the outcome, sending the winner to the championship game in Atlanta next week.

The pivotal moments could take the form of long gains or costly mistakes. And that could come down to Bryant or Hurts, a couple of quarterbacks eager to show what they can do.

“It’s something every kid that grows up watching football dreams about — playing in a semifinal game against a team like Alabama,” Bryant said. “I’m ready.”

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