First & 20: Clemson will be back at the top next fall

Anthony Gimino

January 12, 2016 at 6:20 pm.

Deshaun Watson (4)  played an amazing game against Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship Game. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Deshaun Watson (4) played an amazing game against Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship Game. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Clemson narrowly missed winning its first national championship in 34 years on Monday night.

There’s always next season.

“It won’t be 34 years before we’re going to be back, I promise you that,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney after the Tigers’ 45-40 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship Game.

That’s a promise Dabo should be able to keep.

Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination on our part, but to pick out the likely best teams for 2016, just hold a mirror up to 2015.

While Alabama coach Nick Saban will chasing Bear — one behind Bear Bryant’s record six national titles in the wire service era — Clemson is simply loaded for bear.

Several high-profile players had yet to announce their intentions regarding the NFL Draft as of Tuesday afternoon, but there’s enough clarity to think the Tigers will be the team to beat next season, when the national title game will be played in Tampa, Fla.

Just think about what the Tigers did this season: They were replacing a combined nine starting linemen and still managed to post a 14-1 record. So, yes, while they will have key departures — such as defensive end Shaq Lawson — this has become a plug-and-play program that is going to have a potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.

That would be quarterback Deshaun Watson, who put up 478 yards of offense Monday night against Ala-Freaking-Bama. If you see Clemson and Alabama in that mirror, the quarterback gives the edge to the Tigers.

Watson will get back talented receiver Mike Williams from a neck injury to lead what might be the most talented group of wideouts in the country, plus running back Wayne Gallman.

“Our team is built to sustain success,” Swinney said. “We’ve got the right ingredients from a toughness standpoint, talent standpoint, and then just the will to win and the culture that we have in our program. …

“I think we can take great confidence from this season. There’s a lot of things we can learn, and that’s what we’ve got to do with this.”

5 more top teams for 2016

Beyond Clemson, we have …

1. Alabama. Expect anything different? Don’t worry about the schedule or who’s leaving or anything like that. There has never been a machine like this in the modern era of college football.

2. Oklahoma. The Sooners discovered the offensive formula in coordinator Lincoln Riley’s first season. Quarterback Baker Mayfield and running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon are back to take it to another scary level.

3. LSU. Coach Les Miles beat back the wolves after going 9-3 with a young team, and he could exact vengeance on anyone in his path in 2016. We hear that Fournette kid is pretty good. As for the QB … fingers crossed?

4. Michigan. Jim Harbaugh did good Harbaugh things in his first season, and he will be looking to topple reloading Ohio State in his second. Houston transfer John O’Korn could be the talented new guy at quarterback, and the defensive line and secondary are already up to the coach’s tough-dude standards.

5. Baylor. Someday it is all going to fall into place for the Bears and their gazillion points and less-stressful path to the playoff.

5 top Heisman candidates

1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson. Despite Alabama running back Derrick Henry (assumed to be leaving early) winning the 2015 stiff-armed trophy, remember that recent history has overwhelmingly favored a quarterback on an elite team.

2. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford. Probably should have won in 2015. Voters no longer have the excuse of “Well, Stanford’s games are on too late.” You’ve seen him. Believe what you see.

3. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. Honestly, can’t believe he’s this low. Only hole in his 2015 resume was getting shut down by Alabama, which does have a tendency to do that to opposing backs.

4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State. If you told us that Cook is actually the best running back in the country, we’d have no good counter-argument. He’s that good.

5. J.T. Barrett, QB, Ohio State. On the down side, he won’t have as much help as he did this season. On the plus side, it’s his show.

Five more: Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma; Seth Russell, QB, Baylor; Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia; Samaje Perine, RB, Oklahoma; Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon.

5 offseason thoughts

1. Nick Saban is crazy if he even thinks of going to the NFL. There’s not enough money. No need to scratch that itch a second time. At 64, Saban claims he’s having fun and there is photographic evidence of him even smiling after winning his fifth national title. Just say no.

2. Houston is still the best of the “Group of Five” conference teams. The Cougars stepped up to keep coach Tom Herman around for a second season — a contract extension worth about $3 million annually — and will be back for more after going 13-1, beating Florida State in Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and finishing No. 8 in the final AP poll. The Cougars are more stable than Texas or Texas A&M. Go figure.

3. The ACC Coastal got way more interesting. New coaches at Miami (Mark Richt), Virginia Tech (Justin Fuente) and Virginia (Bronco Mendenhall) awakens sleepy programs and a comatose division.

4. The Pac-12 North is stacked. This half of the conference has won all five league championship games, and it is poised to carry the flag again in 2016. Stanford, Oregon, Washington State and Washington are all Top 25 timber.

5. Buzz begins on Tennessee. Perhaps you have heard this before, but the Vols are back. No, really. Quarterback Josh Dobbs leads a team with a projected 17 returning starters after it went 9-4 — losing three games by a combined 10 points and another in double overtime to Oklahoma.

5 games to whet your appetite

It’s a long way until the first Saturday of next season, but it should be worth the wait. Plan on being in front of the TV all day on Sept. 3.

1. Alabama vs. USC (Arlington, Texas). No need to sell this beyond a great matchup of all-time programs, with the national champions trying to launch another title run. But in case you needed another slice of heaven, Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin goes against the school that fired him at the airport after a loss.

2. Clemson at Auburn. The Tigers you know about. Meanwhile, it’s a crucial year for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, who has four new assistants on staff, including defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.

3. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Green Bay, Wis.). The game is at Lambeau Field, folks. Lambeau. How cool is that?

4. Oklahoma at Houston. Whoever scheduled this game for Oklahoma, can you please report to head coach Bob Stoops? Thank you.

5. Notre Dame at Texas. Just a little ol’ game that might mean a few things for the future of third-year Longhorns head man Charlie Strong.

Bonus game: UCLA at Texas A&M. The Aggies swiped offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone from the Bruins after the season. UCLA sophomore quarterback Josh Rosen could show him what he’s missing.