Even after winning the 2016 national title with Deshaun Watson and a bunch of stars who were playing their final game against Alabama, Dabo Swinney kept saying the best was yet to come.
Sure enough, Clemson took it a step further last season by crushing the Crimson Tide in a 28-point dismantling that still reverberates. In Swinney's 10th season as head coach, the Tigers made a resounding case that they are at the very least Alabama’s equal.
Since a loss at Georgia Tech late in the 2014 season, Clemson has won 58 of 62 games while claiming two national titles and appearing in four consecutive playoffs.
There are major losses from the defensive side of the ball, but there's plenty of talent filling the voids left by Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant and others. The presence of all that star power on offense suggests the Tigers aren't slowing down anytime soon.
Previewing Clemson's Offense for 2019
A year ago, Trevor Lawrence already had a rock-star presence around Clemson after enrolling early and putting forth a stellar spring. It seemed only a matter of time before he’d supplant Kelly Bryant as the starter.
Lawrence, though, exceeded even the rosiest expectations by showing he was the best quarterback in college football by the end of the season. Lawrence simply made it look easy in the CFB Playoff, during which he sliced up Notre Dame and Alabama through the air.
The truly scary part for opponents is that Lawrence is around for two more seasons, and he has an embarrassment of riches around him.
The Tide and Irish couldn't cover Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. The former is back for his sophomore season. The latter is poised to have a stellar junior season and turn pro. Receivers coach Jeff Scott has two more future stars in freshmen Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. Both enrolled early, and Swinney says they’re as ready as any freshmen he’s ever had.
All running back Travis Etienne did was average 8.1 yards per carry last year as a sophomore while amassing 24 rushing touchdowns. Behind Etienne is sophomore Lyn-J Dixon. Clemson could have the most explosive backfield in college football.
Clemson’s star power took a hit in the spring when wideout Amari Rodgers tore an ACL, but Swinney says that Rodgers could recover in time to play in 2019.
The offensive line lost left tackle Mitch Hyatt and center Justin Falcinelli, but the replacements are more than capable. Left guard John Simpson highlights the group of returning linemen.
Previewing Clemson's Defense for 2019
Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant created surprise when they decided to return for the 2019 season. Those decisions were probably worth a national championship trophy, because those were the key figures in Clemson holding Alabama's pyrotechnic offense to 16 points.
In addition to those departures, defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, corner Trayvon Mullen and linebacker Tre Lamar declared for the NFL Draft. But it was crucial that three important players decided to stay: linebacker Isaiah Simmons and safeties K'Von Wallace and Tanner Muse.
Had those three left, Brent Venables would be facing a major rebuilding job in his eighth season as Clemson's defensive coordinator. But Simmons, Wallace and Muse figure to give this defense not just experience and talent but also a calming air of leadership.
The interior of the defensive line is the biggest question after the loss of Wilkins, Lawrence and Albert Huggins. Nyles Pinckney and Jordan Williams are the presumed starters at tackle, but both of them missed the spring with injuries.
The positive of those absences was an opportunity for inexperienced players to get significant reps during spring practice. Xavier Kelly is vying to be in the rotation, and freshman Tyler Davis made an immediate impact upon enrolling early.
Mullen's corner spot, opposite A.J. Terrell, is vacant. Receiver Derion Kendrick moved to corner in the spring and showed immediately that he was one of the top two corners on the roster.
Losing Lamar and Kendall Joseph at linebacker is a big hit, but Venables has several older guys who are ready to start. James Skalski is expected to start at inside linebacker, but the other spot is up for grabs after Shaq Smith left as a transfer this summer.
Previewing Clemson's Specialists for 2019
Placekicker Greg Huegel is gone after starting 48 games over four years. B.T. Potter has a big leg and is competing with Steven Sawicki to be Huegel’s replacement. Punter Will Spiers was inconsistent last season as a sophomore but shined in the national championship game. Rodgers' ACL surgery means the Tigers need a punt returner, and Kendrick figures to be the guy there until Rodgers returns.
Clemson has dominated the ACC, and it appears the gap is widening. The Tigers suffered ACC hiccups in 2016 (Pittsburgh) and 2017 (Syracuse), but it's hard to see that happening this year. The loss of so many great defensive players makes that side of the ball worth monitoring, but a lot of points are going to be needed to keep up with Clemson's frightening offense.
Once again, the Tigers seem on a collision course with Alabama. The difference this time: Clemson knows it's good enough to not merely hang with the Crimson Tide, but humiliate them.