NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had a strong message to deliver soon after his top-ranked Tigers were eliminated from the College Football Playoff — the run is not over.
Clemson, without NFL first-rounders in quarterback Deshaun Watson and receiver Mike Williams, were picked second in the ACC Atlantic this past summer. But the revamped Tigers rolled to a third consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference title and berth in College Football Playoff.
Clemson fell to No. 4 Alabama 24-6, its new faces on offense finally looking overmatched with something to learn against the Crimson Tides’ suffocating defense.
It was a disappointment for sure, Swinney said. But one the team will learn from, grow from and return from.
“My expectation is to be right back here next year, right back in the middle of it, right back in the thick of it,” Swinney said. “We have got a heck of a team coming back.”
Particularly on offense where quarterback Kelly Bryant,tailback Travis Etienne and receivers Ray-Ray McCloud, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers will have another year of experience. Bryant filled in capably for Watson, leading a changed attack that saw more emphasis on the ground instead of the air as Watson did in Clemson’s national title season of 2016. Guard Taylor Hearn has said he’ll go pro instead of playing a final season with the Tigers.
Defense could be a bit trickier, depending on how many of Clemson’s defensive line opts for the NFL. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell, the team’s sacks leader this fall, and tackle Christian Wilkins are consensus first-round draft picks. Defensive end Austin Bryant, another underclassmen, is also weighing his options. The only certain to return is disruptive tackle Dexter Lawrence, a junior.
Players have until January 15 to declare for the NFL draft.
Bryant, who was second on the Tigers with 11 rushing touchdowns, was upset about the defeat. He had little doubt, though, about his team’s resolve heading into next year.
“The mindset over there,” he said of the Tigers. “We stick together.”