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EARLY KEYS TO CLEMSON'S TITLE DEFENSE

Dabo Swinney

One month ago, Clemson celebrated its long-awaited ascent to the top of the college football world.

Clemson won the national championship in stunning fashion, throwing a touchdown pass with one second left to beat Alabama. The game ended late, pushing past midnight into Jan. 10, and not long after the celebration ended, Dabo Swinney had to head to the Tampa Convention Center for the morning-after press conference. It was only the beginning. In college football, there is no break in January; coaches spend the ensuing weeks finalizing their recruiting classes, and the Tigers' celebration bled into preparations for the future.

Last Wednesday, Feb. 1, Swinney and Clemson signed a recruiting class of 2017 short on quantity -- by necessity, with a young roster returning -- but high on quality, landing 11 four- or five-star recruits out of 14 signed, according to the 247Sports composite rankings. The Tigers signed big-time prospects, but most of the discussion that day, including on ESPN's signing day live broadcast, was centered on the opening of an amenity-filled new football complex, a fitting next step in Clemson establishing itself as a national power and one of college football's trendiest programs.

With signing day having come and gone, the page has been turned from 2016 to 2017. Offseason workouts are underway, and it's time to start focusing on the possibility of defending a national championship, something that has been done only once in the past 20 years (or twice, if you include USC winning the AP poll but not the BCS in 2003).

It's a fascinating title defense, because Clemson is in a much different position than any of the previous five champions: It's not going to be a preseason favorite to repeat. After losing the 2015 title game, Clemson faced immense pressure to get back to the playoff, knowing that it had only one more shot to do it with Deshaun Watson, the greatest player in school history. Now, after actually winning the championship, the pressure has been lifted, especially with Watson off to the NFL.

The 2016 Clemson team had more in common with the recent teams that have had to defend their titles. It had the weight of impossibly high expectations. After winning the 2011 title, Alabama opened the next season ranked No. 2, but because it's Alabama, many expected it to repeat. It did. That led to a preseason No. 1 ranking in 2013. The same was true for Florida State, Ohio State and 2015-16 Alabama, national champions that still stood atop the polls the next season.

Clemson will have more in common with 2006 Texas or 2011 Auburn: talented teams that won the championship, then said goodbye to transcendent quarterbacks. The '06 Longhorns, after losing Vince Young, opened the season ranked No. 3 and finished 10-3. Meanwhile, '11 Auburn was barely on the radar after winning the national title, dropping to No. 23 in the preseason with Heisman winner Cam Newton and most of the starting lineup gone. It finished 8-5.

The Watson effect should place Clemson somewhere in the middle of those two in the preseason, likely in the top 10 but without the expectations that it will be the school's best team ever or a frontrunner for the playoff again. There's room to take a breath for a year before trying to get back to the mountaintop.

Still, given the way it has recruited recently, Clemson does have legitimate hopes of at least getting back to a major bowl game What does it need to do to at least make an attempt to defend its national championship?

  1. Find a quarterback. Never before has Clemson had a more difficult player to replace. Watson was a two-time Heisman finalist, who threw for 10,168 yards and 90 touchdowns and rushed for 1,934 yards and 26 touchdowns in three years. He tormented Alabama in the national title game two years in a row, leading the Tigers to victory last month. He was a five-star recruit, and Clemson spent a long time planning to build around him. He was the obvious quarterback of the future the moment Clemson landed him. Suddenly, the Tigers have options now. With backup Nick Schuessler also gone, the most experienced quarterback will be junior Kelly Bryant, who has attempted only 18 passes but has the early leg up on the competition entering spring practice.

Bryant is expected to have two main challengers who have yet to take a college snap. Redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper was a four-star recruit and the No. 7 dual-threat QB in the class of 2016, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. They've already been joined by early enrollee true freshman Hunter Johnson, a five-star recruit and the No. 2 quarterback in the class of 2017. (If this wasn't enough, the Tigers have an early verbal commitment from the class of 2018's No. 1 QB, Trevor Lawrence.)

Among the current players, Johnson is probably the long-term favorite for the job, but that doesn't mean he'll get the call in Week 1 of 2017.

  1. Rebuild the supporting cast. Clemson had four players leave early: Watson, plus tailback Wayne Gallman and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott. Throw in tight end Jordan Leggett, and the Tigers are losing a two-time thousand-yard rusher and their top three pass catchers. That doesn't mean there won't be experience returning. Watson had a deep group of skill players to spread the ball around to, and Hunter Renfrow, Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain will be back to lead the receiving corps.

The loss of Leggett can't be overlooked, as he made fantastic strides over the course of his career and was the only tight end who was a factor in the passing game in 2016. Redshirt freshman J.C. Chalk will join a competition that features juniors Garrett Williams and Milan Richard. Of course, the biggest loss in the receiving corps is easily Williams, who may have been the best receiver in the country. Immediate help could come in the form of five-star freshman Tee Higgins, when he arrives in the summer to join another long list of young but unproven players.

Gallman and Watson got the overwhelming majority of rushes in the backfield, with Tavien Fester, C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice all receiving under 50 carries, so the competition to replace Gallman is wide-open.

  1. Replace Ben Boulware and Cordrea Tankersley. The Tigers have experienced massive attrition on defense the past couple years, and yet it hasn't mattered. They've kept coordinator Brent Venables, and he's been able to reload. In 2016, Clemson replaced five of its top six tacklers and top cornerback Mackensie Alexander, and yet it still finished fifth nationally in yards per play allowed. Only four seniors contributed to the defense -- Boulware, Tankersley, Carlos Watkins and Jadar Johnson -- and they're all All-ACC players who will be missed. But the defensive line will be the strength of the entire team even without Watkins. This is going to be a more experienced defense, and the key is replacing the leadership of Boulware at linebacker, in addition to solidifying the situation at cornerback with Tankersley gone, with Marcus Edmond possessing the size and experience to embrace a larger role.

  2. Navigate a difficult schedule. Clemson's 2017 schedule will look a lot like the one it just saw, only with a road trip to Virginia Tech instead of playing the Hokies in the conference title game. The quarterback situation will have to be sorted out quickly: After opening with Kent State, the Tigers host Auburn in Week 2 in an intriguing matchup against a team that hopes to be on the rise with Baylor transfer QB Jarrett Stidham coming in. Then, Clemson goes on the road in two of the next three weeks to meet Louisville and Virginia Tech. That's a tough start to the season, combined with a November that features Florida State at home and N.C. State and South Carolina on the road. Florida State is likely to be the preseason ACC favorite, and Louisville returns Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

  3. Avoid complacency. It's the same challenge that any national champion faces. Swinney has successfully changed all previous narratives about Clemson football. It is no longer a program that is perceived to be a team that chokes in big spots. It is not longer an underachiever. It is no longer any sort of sleeping giant. It is a giant, one that recruits at a high level, won a national title, nearly won another and has claimed three of the past six ACC titles. Now that the ultimate goal has been achieved, Clemson will try to avoid a letdown and keep up the intensity.

Of course, nobody is going to be particularly upset if Clemson goes 9-3 in 2017. The pressure is gone, and a new, post-Watson, post-championship era begins. The last time Clemson won the national title in 1981, it went 9-1-1 each of the next two seasons but didn't finish better than No. 8 in the AP poll again until 2015. Even if it doesn't happen immediately, the wait to contend for a championship again is likely to be a lot shorter this time.

Contact Matt at matt.brown5082@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @MattBrownCFB and Facebook.

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