QB Watson’s return may boost Clemson’s premium-bowl hopes

Against Florida State, North Carolina and N.C. State (late September/early October), freshman QB Deshaun Watson (1,176 yards passing, 15 total TDs) accounted for 76 percent of Clemson's offensive output.

Joshua S. Kelly

ATLANTA — So much for easing back into the swing of things.

When freshman Deshaun Watson takes the field Saturday at Georgia Tech’s famed Bobby Dodd Stadium — after a three-game, five-week layoff (hand injury) — the Clemson quarterback will have a slew of eminently crucial items on his plate:

**Making his inaugural college start on the road (relief role against No. 1 Florida State on Sept. 20).

**Encountering a Georgia Tech squad that holds the No. 22 slot in the latest College Football Playoff rankings (Clemson sits at No. 19).

**Facing a Yellow Jackets defense that boasts stellar averages of only 20.3 points allowed and 125 rushing yards allowed in their last three games — all victories.

**For good measure, Watson will be expected to revive a somewhat-sluggish Tigers offense (four-game average: 20.5 points), while also keeping Clemson (7-2 overall, 6-1 in ACC) in contention for a possible Atlantic Division title and/or premium spot in one of the so-called New Year’s Six bowls — Rose, Sugar, Peach, Fiesta, Orange and Cotton (Dec. 31 and Jan. 1).

And that doesn’t even cover what looms for Watson and the Tigers in two weeks: A chance to bust Clemson’s five-game losing streak to loathsome rival South Carolina.

No pressure, huh?

Watson, who supplanted Cole Stoudt as Clemson’s quarterback on Sept. 20 (against No. 1 FSU), had accounted for 1,181 yards passing and 12 TDs in three straight ACC outings during late September/early October — namely a 435-yard, six-touchdown gem against North Carolina (Sept. 27).

In fact, on the morning of Oct. 11, Watson’s electric performance against UNC (two weeks prior) prompted Kirk Herbstreit, of ESPN’s College Gameday show, to hail the Tigers QB as "face of college football, starting next year" — a hair-raising, blood-pumping, but also pressure-filled compliment that had a new level of importance about five hours later … when Watson went down with the aforementioned injury against Louisville.

Yes, in a matter of weeks, the Gainesville, Ga. native had quickly morphed from blue-chip recruit … to possible redshirt with Clemson … to precocious backup (behind Stoudt) … to potentially dynamic starter … to likely program savior … to college football’s next great matinee idol.

That’s a lot for any teenager to digest.

Which brings us to this: Injuries are never a good thing in big-time college football, but it’s reasonable that Watson might appreciate the tempered adulation (at least nationally) in his second go-round as a newbie starter.

There are two intriguing subplots attached to Watson’s heralded Saturday return (12 noon kickoff in Atlanta):

1) Georgia Tech (8-2, 5-2 in the ACC Coastal) and Clemson (2nd in Atlantic) are still alive for a berth in the Dec. 6 conference title game.

Of equal importance, both programs are quality considerations for a New Year’s Six bowl, if they win out (as mentioned above), or warm-weather invite to the Russell Athletic or Capital One bowls — based in Orlando.

(An ACC team would be eligible for the Capital One Bowl, if a Big Ten representative goes to the Orange Bowl.)

"(Georgia Tech’s offense has) has a four-down mentality all over the field, for the whole ballgame," said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney earlier in the week, per The Greenville (S.C.) News. "(Jackets coach Paul Johnson has) been doing this forever. He knows what he’s doing and he’s got answers.

"The bottom line is that we have to physically win our matchups and disrupt what they want to do."

What’s more, Georgia Tech also shares the national lead in rushing touchdowns (34) with undefeated Marshall.

On the flip side, the Clemson offense has a chance to recapture the precision of their first three ACC tilts, when the Tigers cumulatively averaged 37 points against Florida State, North Carolina and North Carolina State.

And within that production comes versatility, in the form of Watson’s return.

"Hopefully, Deshaun can add to what (Wildcat option Wayne Gallman) has established the last few weeks," said Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris on Monday. "With Deshaun back, we’re excited to see what they can do in the zone-read game."

Georgia Tech’s defense has encountered a healthy mix of pro-style and spread-formation offenses this season. But with no Florida State (and reigning Heisman winner Jameis Winston) on the regular-season docket, it’s fair to wonder if the Yellow Jackets have played against someone of Watson’s physical talents — particularly in a zone-read scheme?

On Oct. 18, North Carolina QB Marquise Williams amassed 463 total yards (390 passing) and five touchdowns against Georgia Tech, including the Heels’ game-winning score in the final seconds.

For Saturday, Watson may be equally adept at posting fluid numbers — running and passing — against the Yellow Jackets.

"(Clemson has) the No. 1 total defense in the country, No. 1 in third-down defense," says Johnson, who has a 4-3 record against the Tigers as an ACC coach. "Offensively, they get their freshman phenom quarterback back. I’m sure they’re excited about that. It’ll be a huge challenge for us. We are looking forward to the game.

"By a quirk of the schedule we had to go there for two years in a row, but we are excited to have chance to play them here in Atlanta. Hopefully we can be competitive."

That level of competition likely begins with keeping Watson in check. Of the three games he’s finished past high school, the freshman accounted for 76 percent of Clemson’s offense.