Clemson aiming for College Football Playoff again

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) When Clemson came back from its national championship loss to Alabama, coach Dabo Swinney showed his Tigers a handful of plays that could have changed the result.

''And none of them,'' Swinney said, ''were in special teams.''

Most remember that Clemson's fortunes in the 45-40 loss to the Crimson Tide turned on two special team plays - a dramatic onside kick in a tie game and Kenyan Drake's kickoff return touchdown soon after that gave Alabama an 11-point lead the Tigers could not overcome.

Swinney says his team will shore up special teams areas. More troubling were the mental busts that led Alabama tight end O.J. Howard to two, long touchdowns - little mistakes, Swinney said, with big consequences.

Swinney wants his team prepared should that national championship chance come around again.

''I think for the past several years we've been good enough and I think we're good enough again this year,'' Swinney said. ''But every year is a grind. There are no free passes.''

The Tigers have an offense, led by top Heisman Trophy hopeful Deshaun Watson, that could render any defensive questions - Clemson lost eight starters from last year - moot. Watson became the first Bowl Subdivision player to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000. More so than his ability is the junior's poise and knack for making the right decision.

Watson has added about 16 pounds (he's 218) since January and says he is just as fast and nimble. ''I think it makes me better,'' Watson said.

Watson's hardest choices this fall might be wondering where to go with the football. Also back are tailback Wayne Gallman, who set Clemson's single-season rushing mark last year; tight end Jordan Leggett, who had 40 catches and eight touchdowns; and Mike Williams, the 1,000-yard receiver who missed most of last season with a neck injury.

For Watson, it's about achieving the goal the team fell short of last season.

''We want to do everything we can and as top-notch as we can,'' Watson said. ''We want to finish the drill.''

Other things to watch this season:

DEFENSIVE ISSUES

Clemson lost two starting defensive ends, two starting safeties and a starting cornerback as early entrants to the NFL draft. Sound hard to replace? Perhaps not. Sophomore defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Austin Bryant are primed to fill roles left by Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd. Cordrea Tankersley is the lone holdover in a secondary where the Tigers have stockpiled talented prospects the past three seasons. Ben Boulware should take over the linebacker role left by last year's top tackler, B.J. Goodson.

And there are few better in the game at drawing out the best than defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who reshaped last year's defense after losing all four defensive linemen from 2014.

KEY GAMES

The Tigers will get a test right out of the blocks when they open at Auburn on Sept. 3. The ACC Atlantic and probably the league title should get decided at Florida State on Oct. 29. It seems unlikely Clemson will be pushed by anyone else on its schedule.

SEASON OPENER

Clemson starts at Auburn, where it last played in 2010 and dropped an overtime game to the eventual national champions and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. This time, it's Clemson that is loaded.

PREDICTION

It's hard to envision, after a close win in Tallahassee, Florida, not going 12-0 and rolling back into the College Football Playoff.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.