With quarterback DJ Uiagalelei playing inconsistently for much of the season, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney scoffed about the idea of making a change when the idea was brought up by the media.
But after the Tigers’ first two possessions of the ACC title game vs. North Carolina resulted in a total of seven yards and two punts, Swinney did just that.
He removed the veteran Uiagalelei in favor of the hyped-up freshman, Cade Klubnik. Klubnik provided an instant spark to the offense and led Clemson to its seventh ACC title in eight seasons.
In the 39-10 win, Klubnik threw for 279 yards on 20-of-24 passing, rushed for 30 yards and combined for two total touchdowns.
Amid its slow start with Uiagagelei at quarterback, Clemson fell behind 7-0 and looked lifeless — until Klubnik came to the rescue.
Clemson marched right down the field and evened the score on Klubnik’s first series on the field. And after a UNC fumble, Clemson was quickly ahead 14-7 with 35 seconds left in the first quarter.
On Clemson’s ensuing possession, Klubnik connected with Cole Turner on a gorgeous deep ball down the left sideline for a 68-yard gain, setting himself up for a one-yard rushing score.
Clemson then added to the lead with a field goal before halftime, turning that early 7-0 deficit into a 24-10 lead at the break.
In the second half, the defense took over. UNC, led by its own star freshman quarterback, Drake Maye, drove deep into Clemson territory in the third quarter. But Maye made a horrible mistake, throwing the ball into traffic on third-and-goal. Nate Wiggins picked off the errant pass and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown.
That defensive touchdown added to a lead that was far too large to overcome as the Tigers completely controlled play in the second half en route to a blowout victory.
While returning to the top of the ACC after falling short last year is something Clemson will celebrate, it’s hard not to wonder what the ceiling of this Clemson team may have been had Swinney made a quarterback switch at some point during the regular season.
Uiagalelei struggled mightily in 2021 as Clemson lost three regular season games for the first time since 2014. With Klubnik, a five-star recruit from Texas, joining the roster, many wondered if the younger QB would be in position to move past Uiagalelei on the depth chart — much like Trevor Lawrence did to Kelly Bryant a few years back.
But that never materialized as Clemson kept winning games. Clemson started the year 8-0 and was ranked No. 4 nationally when it went into Notre Dame on Nov. 5 and got smacked 35-14. Uiagalelei played poorly in the game, but he wasn’t the only issue as Clemson’s vaunted defensive line got physically overwhelmed by the Fighting Irish.
At 8-1, Clemson was still in the national title picture and stayed in it by rebounding with wins over Louisville and Miami. At 10-1, wins over rival South Carolina in the regular season finale and UNC in the ACC title game would have put the Tigers firmly in the mix for a CFP berth.
But South Carolina changed those plans with a come-from-behind 31-30 win in Clemson, ruining Clemson’s CFP hopes. Uiagalelei went just 8-of-29 for 99 yards in the loss. It was not pretty.
On Saturday night, Clemson’s offense just looked so much more crisp when Klubnik was running the show. North Carolina’s defense makes a lot of offenses look good, but Clemson fans will be left wondering what could have been had Swinney changed things up at some point during the season.
Instead of waiting around for its Orange Bowl opponent, Clemson could have spent Sunday waiting to see if it landed in the College Football Playoff field.