The 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game is over. Clemson, the No. 1 team in the country for the latter part of the 2015 season, came up just short in a 45-40 loss Monday in Arizona.
No, this wasn't the return of "Clemsoning." The Tigers lost by five points to a perennial power and now arguably the greatest college football coach of all time in Nick Saban. They fought until the absolute end, failing to convert an onside kick that would have given them a chance at a Hail Mary.
The loss stings for Clemson, but this is not the peak moment for this program. This is not the end.
"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," head coach Dabo Swinney said, via Cory McCartney of FoxSports.com.
Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee agreed:
Clemson will be back in the title picture. With all their key players returning next year, projecting the Tigers to return to this very game isn't unfathomable. In fact, it's perfectly reasonable.
Not all teams are created equally. You know this. I know this. In any given year, there are a handful of schools capable of winning a national championship. For the sake of this discussion, Alabama, Baylor, Clemson, Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford were given long looks based on returning players and coaches.
Every team will have question marks. This is unavoidable. For example: Alabama will need to replace quarterback Jake Coker and members of the best defensive front seven in college football in memory. The good news for the Tide is even the backups are outstanding.
And when you're an NFL factory like Ohio State, can the 2016 team pick up where the 2015 version left off? There's no Joey Bosa at defensive end and no Ezekiel Elliott at running back to anchor the defense and offense, respectively.
Of all the teams examined, the one that kept coming up was Clemson. It might seem too safe—boring, even—to select the Tigers to return to the national championship game, but there are a plenty of reasons to like them.
Strengths: It Starts with Quarterback Deshaun Watson
Watson is a once-in-a-generation type of talent for Clemson. That in and of itself gives the Tigers an edge over other teams in consideration.
There's a tremendous amount of value in dual-threat quarterbacks at the college level because that ability gives one of the best athletes on the team the ball on every snap.
Watson isn't just an athlete playing quarterback, though. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. He made significant strides as a passer during his sophomore campaign. In September, he threw for 213.7 yards per game. By November, that number increased to 319.6 yards per game.
In a year without much star power at quarterback, Watson finished third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Against Alabama, Watson threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns, and he rushed for another 73 yards. In the words of offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain, there's not much Watson can't do:
Watson was ready to play from Week 1 of his freshman season. That didn't mean he was going to play at a high level right away, or consistently, but he was unquestionably the best option in 2014. In his third game—a 23-17 loss to Florida State in which he took over for Cole Stoudt—he threw for 266 yards. The following week against North Carolina, he tossed six touchdown passes.
He's only going to get better by the 2016 season. Watson will be a third-year player and in his second year as a full-time starter. The arsenal of weapons around him will return almost entirely intact. Leading receiver Artavis Scott will be a junior as well, and the offense's best deep threat, Deon Cain, will be a sophomore.
The rapport between Watson and Cain blossomed as the season progressed. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 28, Cain had a touchdown in five straight games and caught 19 passes.
Though he was suspended for the playoffs for violating team rules, he's already enrolled in spring classes, according to the Associated Press (via ESPN.com), which is a good sign he's ready to compete again.
Cain is hardly the only explosive playmaker returning. Receiver Mike Williams, who missed practically the entire season with a neck injury, will be back. Aaron Brenner of the Post and Courier reported that tight end Jordan Leggett will be back as well:
Running back Wayne Gallman announced on Twitter that he's considering his options but would like to win a national title:
For all the skill guys coming back, though, the more important group will be the offensive line. It's a team effort, but the Tigers gave up just 18 sacks in 15 games. The two big losses will be guard Eric Mac Lain and tackle Joe Gore, but three starters will be back, including freshman sensation Mitch Hyatt at left tackle.
Winning up front is paramount, and it can be difficult to keep an offense playing a high level when there's excessive turnover in the trenches.
The 2016 Clemson offense should strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators and opposing coaches everywhere. The amount of talent returning is almost unthinkable.
Weaknesses: 2 Key Areas Might Need to Be Rebuilt on Defense
By now, defensive coordinator Brent Venables deserves the benefit of the doubt. Heading into the 2015 season, the primary concern about Clemson was the defense. The entire D-line had to be replaced, as well as a handful of other starters.
Statistically, this was the best unit in college football in 2014, giving up a mere 4.03 yards per play.
All Clemson did this year was finish second in the country in sacks, tied for 24th in scoring defense and tied for 24th in total takeaways. So, yeah, Venables did a remarkable job with players who didn't have a lot of starting experience.
The good news for the Tigers is they won't have to go through the same type of defensive overhaul for 2016. Defensive end Shaq Lawson will enter the NFL draft, and NFL Network's Rand Getlin suggested in December that cornerback Mackensie Alexander is expected to do the same.
Much of Clemson's returning defense depends on a couple of key decisions involving safety Jayron Kearse and defensive end Kevin Dodd, who told Tony Crumpton of TigerNet.com that he's on the fence about leaving:
I have submitted my papers. I want some feedback. Just to see where I stand. I'm willing to come back next year and take that leadership role. If that's not the case, then it's not the case. But I have been in this program four years. I felt like I have contributed well. I'm not saying I am leaving but if I did, I don't think I would be selfish. But I do want to come back and have that dominant season, but I do want to see where I stand.
If Dodd leaves, that means Clemson will have to replace 25.0 percent of its sack production and 16.2 percent of its quarterback hurries. That's a monumental blow to the pass rush.
Then again, Vic Beasley accounted for a significant chunk of Clemson's pass rush in 2014, and Venables showed the production could be replaced.
All things considered, Alexander would be the biggest loss. The 5'11", 195-pound redshirt sophomore is the team's top shutdown corner. For what it's worth, Bleacher Report draft guru Matt Miller believes Alexander could work his way into the top corner spot for the draft:
As David Hale of ESPN.com noted last month, Alexander had the lowest completion percentage allowed per target (31 percent) of anyone in major college football. Replacing that is no easy task.
Why the Tigers Will Win
In the end, Swinney has made us ask "Why not?" rather than "Why?"
The 2016 national championship tilt was a game between one of the sport's greatest coaches (Saban) and one who's carving his own path to greatness (Swinney).
Since losing the 2012 Orange Bowl to West Virginia, an undeniable turning point for Clemson with the benefit of hindsight, Swinney has beaten Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma (twice), Notre Dame and Florida State.
The list of coaches able to say as much in such a short time span is, at best, short.
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Swinney is recruiting at a championship level, too. For the past five years, Clemson has averaged a top-15 class. That's just good enough to compete for a national title.
With less than a month to go before Feb. 3's national signing day, the Tigers have the No. 11-ranked class nationally. Should verbal commits hold, blue-chip players like all-purpose back Tavien Feaster, defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence and defensive end Xavier Kelly should be in positions to compete for playing time right away.
But before looking ahead, you have to go back—back to Clemson's 24-22 win over Notre Dame in monsoon conditions.
In an interview with ESPN after the Oct. 3 victory, Swinney said his players had to B.Y.O.G: Bring Your Own Guts. It was a mantra for the Tigers during their undefeated run all the way up to the national championship game.
When you win that much, guts aren't the only thing required. In 2016, Clemson will be B.Y.O.E: Bring Your Own Expectations. Despite losing a heartbreaker to Alabama, the Tigers will have high expectations next year. The pieces are certainly there to fulfill them.
For the first time in a while, Clemson knows defeat in the worst way. Those coming back will make it their mission to never feel like that again.