NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The first few years Clemson coach Dabo Swinney held a "Santa on the roof" gathering for neighborhood kids, St. Nick tossed treats from the roof.
But there was a recurring problem with the candy straying into a tree or bushes. So this year, a long PVC pipe tube was crafted to resemble a candy cane through which Santa sent his treats.
Much the same, Swinney's first full season could be summarized as good, but one that can be improved upon.
Clemson finally won the Atlantic Division title and came within a defensive stop of its first ACC title since 1991. On the flip side, the season was reshaped by the Tigers' loss at rival USC, and Sunday's 21-13 Music City Bowl victory against Kentucky was vital if only to tone down fan venom during the offseason.
"I think the year we had speaks for itself," Swinney said. "We accomplished something that hadn't ever been done. We set the stage and built a really good foundation."
The State examines five questions Clemson faces for the 2010 season:
1. How many points was C.J. Spiller worth?
Rising sophomore Andre Ellington has plenty of promise and is arguably a better running back in terms of how his decisive, "downhill" style fits a zone blocking scheme. And junior Jamie Harper showed the dimension he can add with his game-high 79 yards and touchdown in the bowl.
While Ellington and Harper might be able to make the rushing difference negligible, losing Spiller's value as a receiver and returner put a lot more strain on the offense.
The favorable field position gained by Spiller's return prowess figures to diminish drastically, and opponents defended Clemson strictly to minimize Spiller's big-play burst on the perimeter.
2. In that regard, is there anyone who can stretch the field?
It will bear monitoring whether opponents treat next year's team like the 2006 Tigers, clogging the line of scrimmage until Clemson proves it can move the ball with a middle or deep passing game.
Whereas the quarterback position was the issue then, Kyle Parker will be the strength of next year's offense, presuming he does not give up football for a pro baseball career.
The Tigers lose their top three pass-catchers: receiver Jacoby Ford, tight end Michael Palmer and Spiller. Rising sophomore Dwayne Allen has the potential to pick up where Palmer left off, and Clemson's backs can catch.
But for the first time since perhaps 2002, there is no immediate heir apparent to be the lead receiver among a cast including Xavier Dye, Terrance Ashe, Marquan Jones and Jaron Brown.
Offensive coordinator Billy Napier did a commendable job minimizing the need for receivers, but it remains to be seen whether the offense can get away with that again.
The staff raves about Brown's maturation the past two months. Developing Jones and redshirting Bryce McNeal also should rank high on the to-do list.
3. Where does the defense go from here?
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele refers to "the process" so much that he might owe royalties to Alabama coach Nick Saban, the former boss from whom Steele seems to have taken the concept.
"The process" basically encompasses those things needed to play consistently winning football using the scheme provided. Steele points out the Crimson Tide made a monumental leap in Saban's second year, bolting from a 6-6 regular season to a 12-0 mark entering the 2008 SEC title game, but that defense relied on an infusion of blue-chip recruits.
Steele overhauled the philosophy and scheme in his first year as coordinator, but the overall body of work produced outcomes comparable to that of his predecessor, Vic Koenning - for better and worse.
The Tigers remain loaded along the defensive line and should have formidable personnel in the secondary, especially if safety DeAndre McDaniel returns.
Yet even though Brandon Maye has a year of experience as the unit's quarterback, it seems fair to question how far the "the process" can go until Steele gets the linebacker size and production paramount to his system. And those ranks still look thin.
4. How much better, if at all, will the offensive line be?
Four of five starters return from a group that helped Clemson improve its rushing average by 59 yards per game and reduce its sacks allowed by 15.
The line didn't maul anyone in doing so, but it would be hard to dispute Swinney's notion that progress was made. And considering the youth across the board, it will be interesting to see how good this unit can become.
Veteran Mason Cloy is slated to return from a broken fibula to replace Thomas Austin at left guard, so excluding rising senior left tackle Chris Hairston, this figures to be Clemson's starting line for the next two years.
Cloy, right guard Antoine McClain and right tackle Landon Walker will be juniors, and center Dalton Freeman a sophomore.
Depth is of particular concern at left tackle and both guard spots, and the hope is that redshirting freshman Brandon Thomas develops quickly during the spring.
5. What other personnel matters merit addressing?
Only time will tell what effect having two consecutive lesser-regarded recruiting classes will have, but the immediate impact is that Clemson has fewer answers for depth issues. Still, one of two tight end commitments, Vic Beasley and Sam Cooper, will be counted on as the second-stringer next fall.
As dependent as Steele has been on the nickel defense, another corner must emerge in order to keep Marcus Gilchrist as the slot corner. That corner figures to be sophomore Xavier Brewer.
Spring practice will be big for the development of linebackers Corico Hawkins, Jonathan Willard and Quandon Christian, and it will have to be decided whether Andre Branch or Malliciah Goodman is the optimum fit to fill the bandit defensive end spot.
But perhaps the defensive staff's prime objective ought to be finding the right buttons to push junior end Da'Quan Bowers to be the disruptive force he is capable of being on a consistent basis.