Dabo Swinney’s adamant that he’ll lead Clemson to a national title, and with quarterback Deshaun Watson and most of his playmakers returning, the Tigers should have as good a shot as anybody to win it all next year.
Clemson came just short of winning its first national title in 34 years Monday night, falling 45-40 to Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game, a back-and-forth contest. In Watson, the Tigers return the Heisman frontrunner in 2016, who as a sophomore became the first player in college football history to pass for 4,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in one season.
Watson expects Clemson to play for a national title for a second consecutive year, with the game being held in Tampa next season.
“All the stats doesn’t really matter to me. I just wanted to get the win and do something that we haven’t done in 34 years,” Watson said. “But at the end of the day, I love my teammates, love my brothers, and you’ll see us in Tampa next year.”
Swinney didn’t guarantee a trip to Tampa, but said the Tigers will play for another national title sooner rather than later.
“There’s no doubt that we will be back. It won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back, I promise you that,” Swinney said. “Our team is built to sustain success. We’ve got the right ingredients from a toughness standpoint, talent standpoint, and then just, again, the will to win and the culture that we have in our program.”
Clemson also has the best quarterback in the country, who torched Alabama’s defense for 405 passing yards and four touchdowns, as well as 73 rushing yards. The Crimson Tide entered Monday’s game second in the country, allowing only 257 total yards per game.
“He’s special. He really is,” Swinney said. “He’s got great toughness, great heart, a great mind for the game, and just made some huge plays all the way to the end. … I’m glad he’s on our team. Glad he’ll be back next year.”
While Watson, a sophomore, will return to Clemson, several underclassmen could opt to leave early.
Tight end Jordan Leggett said following Monday’s game he’s planning to return, but defensive end Shaq Lawson and linebacker Travis Blanks have already announced plans to enter the NFL Draft. Defensive backs Mackensie Alexander, Jayron Kearse, T.J. Green and Cordrea Tankersley could join them. Defensive end Kevin Dodd and running back Wayne Gallamn are also considering leaving early.
On offense, the Tigers will lose left guard Eric Mac Lain, right tackle Joe Gore and wide receiver Charone Peake to graduation. Defensive starters D.J. Reader and B.J. Goodson will also be lost to graduation.
Clemson will get back Mike Williams, who was injured in the opener against Wofford after leading the Tigers in receiving in 2014. Swinney said he believes Clemson has all of the pieces it needs to continue to perform at a high level, no matter what decisions are made as far as the NFL Draft is concerned.
“I think we can take great confidence from this season. There’s a lot of things we can learn, and that’s what we’ve got to do with this,” Swinney said. “I think win or lose, you have to continue to grow and challenge yourself to get better, and that’s what we’ll do. We’ll go back to work and challenge ourselves and have a great off-season, great spring, finish up recruiting. We’ve got a bunch of guys coming back next year, and we’ll have a chance to have another heck of a team.”