Somehow, someway, we’re just days away from the first full Saturday of the college football season!! And after spending the last few months breaking down every angle in the sport, it’s now, finally time to talk about the most important aspect of the entire season: The true, national championship contenders. Therefore, go ahead and step aside, Purdue. Deuces, Iowa State. See ya later Oklahom --- oh wait, Bob Stoops’ club is actually really good. Still, over the next few days, FoxSports.com will break down all the true contenders for the National Championship and give you a couple reasons why, yes, they can win it all. Last week we kicked things off, starting with Ohio State last Monday, hitting the Washington Huskies on Tuesday discussing the Houston Cougars Wednesday, the Tennessee Vols Thursday and the TCU Horned Frogs Friday. Now, it’s time to head to the ACC, home of last year’s runner-up: Clemson. That’s right, business is booming for Dabo Swinney, and here are five reasons the Tigers might not just get back to the title game, but win it all.
They’ve got DeShaun Watson and you don’t
I know, I know, you didn’t click on this article for me to tell you how good DeShaun Watson is. You already know this. You also know that the sky is blue, grass is green and Jimbo Fisher doesn’t magically regrow his hair every off-season. At the same time, when breaking down the Tigers’ title odds it’s impossible not to discuss the single most dynamic quarterback in the sport.
Last year was Watson’s breakout year, a season in which he threw for 35 touchdowns and over 4,100 yards, on his way to finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting and becoming a household name for even non-college football fans. What made Watson a legend, of course, is that in the biggest game of the season, Watson was at his absolute best, throwing for 405 yards and four touchdowns against Alabama in the title game. It prompted Nick Saban to call Watson the best player ‘Bama has faced since Cam Newton, and also brings up another interesting question: Watson did all that last season after missing spring practice with injury. With a full spring, and a year of natural progression, how good could he be in 2016? Especially when you consider…
Getty ImagesTyler Smith
The talent around Watson on offense is phenomenal
What makes this Clemson offense so scary isn’t just Watson, but the talent that returns around him. Frankly, a case could be made that the Tigers have the best across-the-board offensive personnel of every true title contender in college football this season.
Let’s start on the edge, where since Dabo Swinney took over, Clemson has become “Wide Receiver U.” Not only has the school produced star pros like Nuke Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, but as Dabo likes to point out, the Tigers have had at least one All-ACC receiver every single season since he’s been on campus. This year it’s no different, with Artavis Scott back after tallying 93 catches in 2015, and Hunter Renfrow too, after a breakout season where he caught 33 passes as a redshirt freshman. Tight end Jordan Leggett provided a solid red-zone threat with eight touchdowns last year, and oh, don’t forget that the uber-talented Mike Williams returns after missing all but a few snaps last season. After injuring his neck in the first game of 2015, Williams is fully healthy and ready to pick up where he left off in 2014, when he had 57 catches, including 10 touchdown grabs. And finally, who could forget Wayne Gallman --- one of college football’s pleasant surprises last year --- who rushed for 1,500 yards in his first full season of action. Point being, this offense is absolutely loaded.
At this point, the question isn’t if they can score, but how often they will. And what opponent has any chance to keep up?
Getty ImagesStreeter Lecka
The defense is young, but it was last year too
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that the Tigers’ defense is the biggest hole in my “Why Clemson can win the title” argument. After losing Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd (both first-round picks) as well as a couple other key players off last year’s squad, this group will be young and inexperienced. At the same time, let me ask you this: Didn’t we say the same thing about the Tigers at this time last year after they lost Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony and others to the NFL? Exactly. It’s also why I’m not as concerned as everyone else about the defense. The simple truth is that Clemson has recruited as well as anyone in the ACC not named “Florida State” the last few years (with three Top 15 classes in four years according to 24/7 Sports), and when you recruit at the level of a Clemson, LSU, FSU or ‘Bama, you’re going to lose a lot of good players to the NFL. It’s also why I believe they will be able to reload like those others teams too. No, you might not be familiar with names like Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins or Kendall Joseph, but all were highly ranked coming out of high school, and all should be able to step in and fill the void left by those behind them (just like Dodd, Lawson and others did last year). Add in veterans like linebacker Ben Boulware and corner Cordrea Tankersley, and while this Tigers’ defense might not be as good as last year, it won’t fall as far as many are projecting either.
Getty ImagesChris Trotman
By ACC standards, the schedule is “easy”
Look, this isn’t a cheap shot, or to say that ACC football is lousy (I actually think the conference as a whole is on the rise). At the same time, in terms of how everyone else’s schedule plays out, the Tigers’ is actually pretty easy.
For starters, they don’t face arguably the two best teams in the ACC Coastal, North Carolina and Miami, at all. They also get Atlantic division (and college football playoff sleeper) Louisville at home. For comparison’s sake, Florida State --- the Tigers’ unquestioned toughest competitor in-conference --- has to play all three of those teams, with both the Hurricanes and the Cardinals on the road. Speaking of which, we all know that the Florida State game will define both team’s seasons, and while that matchup is in Tallahassee, the Tigers' three other road ACC games are at Georgia Tech, Boston College and Wake Forest. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Clemson even being challenged in any of those games (outside of FSU of course), let alone coming close to losing one. That also means that --- thanks to those schedule breaks --- there’s a very logical scenario where, even if the Tigers lose to Florida State, they could still find themselves with one loss and potentially in the conference title game.
Point being that sometimes it isn’t just who you play, but who everyone else does. And in that regard, Clemson has a very manageable path this season.
Getty ImagesStreeter Lecka
Dabo Swinney remains the most underrated coach in the game
It seems insane that a coach whose team played for the title eight months ago remains the most underrated in the sport, but the crazy thing is, he still is. Pull out a list of the “best” coaches in the sport, and names like Saban, Meyer and Harbaugh at the top, with guys like Patterson and Dantonio constantly getting credit for doing “more with less.” But no one has quite elevated a program from “perennially decent” to “consistently elite” quite like Dabo has over the last six or seven years.
There are the obvious factors (wins, NFL Draft picks, etc.) but just think about what this program was prior to Swinney’s arrival: A good but not great team, one which always had the talent to compete with the best teams but rarely did, and always seemed to fall on their faces when the expectations were the highest. Now, let’s look at what the program has become. Since Dabo really got things rolling, the Tigers have slowly climbed college football’s totem pole, from “good” to “very good” to “an annual co-favorite in the ACC” to where they finished last year: “Able to play with anyone in the country.” In the process they’ve won at least 10 games five straight seasons, have beaten LSU and Ohio State in bowl games, and become an NFL factory, with over 40 players on NFL rosters.
Frankly, I can’t ever remember a more natural evolution for a college football program than what we’ve seen over the last few years at Clemson. It’s also why Dabo remains the single most underrated coach in the sport, and why --- above all else --- the Tigers can absolutely win the title in 2016.
Aaron Torres covers college football for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or e-mail ATorres00@gmail.com.