GLENDALE, Ariz. — Almost before the gold-tinted confetti stopped falling, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and quarterback Deshaun Watson were prepping for another run at the national title next year.
It’s more than just wishful thinking on their parts.
Led by the transcendent Watson, the Tigers seem like a strong bet to return to the College Football Playoffs.
Clemson came up one game short in its quest to make history and go 15-0 with a national title, cut short by Alabama’s 45-40 defeat in the title game Monday night.
“There’s no doubt that we will be back,” Swinney said. “It won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back, I promise you that.”
Of course not all the current Tigers will be back.
All-American defensive end Shaq Lawson, who notched two more sacks against the Crimson Tide to finish the season with 12.5, has declared for the NFL draft. Clemson also loses linebacker B.J. Goodson, the team’s top tackler with 156 stops.
On offense the losses are mostly along the offensive line where left guard Eric Mac Lain and right tackle Joe Gore are graduate students. Receiver Charone Peake, second on the Tigers with 44 catches this season, is also a fifth-year player.
But with Watson in control, the Tigers will have a chance to be legitimate contenders.
Watson was this season’s ACC player of the year, eclipsing the conference mark for total offense that was held the past 13 years by San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, who set the record while at North Carolina State.
Watson turned in another stellar performance Monday night on the biggest stage of his career. He threw for four touchdowns and 405 yards. He also rushed for 73 and directed Clemson to its 11th straight game with 500 or more yards.
Watson had to go through surgery rehab last offseason. He’s got no such restriction this year and expects to return to the practice grind as quickly as he can. Watson wants to get stronger and improve his accuracy, which sometimes led to costly interceptions — like his first-half pick that set Alabama up for a tying TD when Clemson had seized momentum.
Watson expects things to fall into place again next season — and the Tigers to once again be playing for the title.
“You’ll see us in Tampa next year,” Watson said.
Things to watch for Clemson in 2016:
NFL DECLARATIONS: Clemson has several third-year players considering declaring for the NFL draft, and defensive end Shaq Lawson has already said he is going to turn pro. Cornerback Mackensie Alexander and safety Jayron Kearse could go, as could running back Wayne Gallman, who set Clemson’s single season rushing mark with 1,527 yards. Defensive end Kevin Dodd, who had three sacks against Alabama, is also considering a move to the pros. Clemson got good news when junior tight end Jordan Leggett, who led the team with seven TD catches, said he’d return next season.
WILLIAMS RETURN: Clemson’s best receiver, sure-handed deep threat Mike Williams, missed all but the first quarter of the first game with a neck injury. But Williams chose to return next season and should quickly become Watson’s favorite long-ball target.
DEFENSE REBUILDING: Clemson should be stout again up front with players like Austin Bryant, Christian Wilkins and Albert Huggins playing a larger role. The Tigers also brought in five-star defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence from North Carolina as an early enrollee.
LOOKING FOR LINEBACKERS: Clemson relied on B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware to carry the load at that position, but will have to plug some holes next season with Goodson’s departure. Backups Dorian O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph got more playing time as the season wore on. Clemson also added highly sought linebackers Rahshaun Smith and Tre Lamar as early enrollees.
GOING YOUNG: If Gallman returns, he may get some company as Clemson’s featured back. Speedy five-star running back Tavien Feaster of nearby Spartanburg, South Carolina, is a commit who rushed for more than 2,000 yards his senior season in high school. Gallman’s grinds with Feaster’s break-away talent could make for a crowded backfield next fall.