Dabo: Cade Klubnik will start Orange Bowl after Clemson handles UNC in ACC title game


CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Dabo Swinney said freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik will start for Clemson in the Orange Bowl after Klubnik took over for incumbent DJ Uiagalelei and led the Tigers in their 39-10 win over North Carolina in the ACC championship.

“He’s earned the right to start,” said Swinney, who also reminded media in the postgame press conference that Clemson would not have won the Atlantic without Uiagalelei. Swinney said that Klubnik’s early entrance in the ACC title game was planned.

“We made the decision Sunday. I called Cade last Sunday and told him what we were going to do,” said Swinney.

Clemson certainly looked “back to being Clemson” Saturday night. The Tigers, peppered with questions at quarterback and defense less dynamic than fans are accustomed to, dominated North Carolina 39-10 to give Swinney his eighth ACC championship. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Klubnik took over for Uiagalelei after Clemson’s first two possessions, both of which resulted in punts, and did not exit until Clemson put in Hunter Johnson with 8:22 left in the fourth, the game all but sealed.
  • It is Clemson’s seventh ACC crown in eight seasons. The Tigers have appeared in every ACC Championship Game since 2015 except for last season, when Pittsburgh defeated Wake Forest, capping a perfect 7-for-7 in the title game in that span.
  • North Carolina hasn’t won the conference since 1980.
  • Clemson’s eight wins in conference championship games are behind only Oklahoma (11) and Alabama (10).

The Athletic’s instant analysis:

Klubnik will be the starter moving forward, but is he guaranteed to be the Tigers’ QB of the future?

“Moving forward, Cade will be the starter going in and DJ will be the backup and we’ll keep moving forward,” said Swinney. He said that the opportunity for Klubnik to start “could have happened earlier,” but that “guy’s got to earn it.”

“He’ll be the first to tell you he wasn’t ready early (on). But he kept getting ready,” said Swinney, who added he did not regret playing Uiagalelei in the Tigers’ rivalry loss to South Carolina in the regular-season finale. Swinney said that the team thought Klubnik might play extensively against Notre Dame, but Klubnik’s first pass attempt against the Fighting Irish was intercepted. Uiagalelei returned to the game.

Even if Uiagalelei sticks around and wins back the starting job next season, Clemson should be very optimistic about Klubnik. Klubnik’s flitting performances in eight regular-season games might not have blown anyone away, but Saturday’s performance was a hint of what he can be with more experience and development. Klubnik finished 20-of-24 for 279 yards and one touchdown, plus a rushing touchdown.

“It was a great night and a glimpse of our future,” said Swinney. – Thaw

Should Swinney have made the switch earlier?

Klubnik’s dominant performance in his most significant action to date will certainly open questions to Swinney about waiting too long to move on from Uiagalelei, but as Swinney told ESPN’s Molly McGrath postgame: “The reality is: We wouldn’t have won the Atlantic and we wouldn’t have been here tonight without DJ, and we wouldn’t have won the ACC championship without Cade.”

“Sometimes you can put a guy out there too early. … It’s got to be a situation where a guy earns it. When it happens, it happens,” said Swinney.

Clemson’s first loss, at Notre Dame, was a result of the Irish dominating both lines of scrimmage. The Tigers’ second loss, to South Carolina, was more perplexing. Uiagalelei didn’t play well in either of those losses, but there was plenty of blame to go around elsewhere in both games, too, especially as Clemson folks repeatedly insisted privately (and Dabo said publicly Saturday) that Klubnik simply was not ready earlier in the season. To unleash him when he did, Clemson may have teased what’s to come for next year, as Klubnik was at his peak in the biggest moment Saturday. – Fortuna

What do we make of Clemson

Clemson reclaimed its throne as the ACC champion for the seventh time in eight seasons and will go to the Orange Bowl as an 11-2 team. That’s not nothing; the ESPN broadcast noted that this is the first team in a Power 5 conference to win seven league titles in eight years since Alabama won eight SEC titles in a nine-year span from 1971-79.

But given the chaos that happened elsewhere late this season, Tigers fans will certainly have a tinge of regret knowing that had their team simply held on to beat rival South Carolina in the regular-season finale, Clemson would possibly be preparing for the College Football Playoff right now. – Fortuna

UNC’s future remains bright

Drake Maye’s Heisman hype has cooled with up-and-down performances against Georgia Tech and NC State to finish the regular season. Maye should remain part of the discussion in seasons to come. His youth was again on display — a fumble on a handoff with Omarion Hampton in the first; a pick-six with 5:05 left in the third; his next completion a lucky one after it was knocked midair and pulled down by Josh Downs, avoiding a turnover; a turnover on downs with 11:33 left in the fourth after nearly running into a teammate and throwing it to no one in the end zone.

He finished 26-for-42 for 268 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, plus a rushing touchdown. Still, his instincts and intangibles are indisputable, and he more than cemented his status as a tour de force this year.

Said North Carolina head coach Mack Brown after the game: “Drake is the reason we’re in the game. … We’ll all grow from playing a great team. When you play a team that’s been in the Playoff every year for about six out of the last eight, it shows you what you’ve got to do to get where we want to go, and we’re not there yet. We’re better than everybody else because we got here, but we weren’t better than they were.” – Thaw

Highlight of the game

Key stat

Uiagalelei: Punt, punt in two consecutive drives before his benching.

Klubnik: Touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, field goal in four consecutive drives after entering.

What they’re saying

Swinney on Uiagalelei’s future

When Dabo was asked how Uiagalelei handled the news about Klubnik: “He’s a special person. He understood. We hope that he’d play well. But he didn’t have a great series. We stuck with he plan. And the rest is history. Give credit to Cade for that. He came in and took it. Moving forward, Cade will be the starter going in and DJ will be the backup and we’ll keep moving forward.

“He graduates in a week or so. He’s got a bright future. A bright, bright future as a football player. He’s a guy who will always have a special place in my heart. No one has ever worked harder. These guys love DJ and I do too.”

Brown on being unprepared

Brown said the team wasn’t prepared for Klubnik: “Cade had played very little all year and when he went in at Notre Dame, I think he threw an interception, so we totally thought we would see DJ, because they hadn’t changed all year. We stopped them the first two, three times. DJ was struggling. That is exactly what we thought would happen and we were hoping would happen, because he’s played good at times.

“But he didn’t play well last week and he was really struggling. They weren’t trying to run the ball. We thought they’d try to line up and run it down our throat like Notre Dame did, and then Cade came in and hit 20 out of 24 and 10 out of 11 the first half and really played great.”

Required reading

(Top photo: Eakin Howard / Getty Images)


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