Within days, the players will be back on campus and gathering for their first official meeting of the 2017 season.
“There will be a new group of seniors sitting in the front row,” Coach Dabo Swinney said. “New challenges, new journey … we’ll start all over.”
With junior quarterback Deshaun Watson stating his intention to leave school early for the NFL, the Tigers face an uphill battle to repeat. If anything, the team they defeated in Tampa on Monday night might have the best shot at next season’s title.
Not that you’ll catch Alabama Coach Nick Saban thinking that way.
“We don’t ever talk about winning a national championship,” Saban said recently. “We basically talk about what we need to do with every individual in our organization to help them be as good as they can be.”
Looking ahead, the Crimson Tide head a short list of potential contenders that includes Florida State and several teams from the Big Ten Conference
USC could be in the mix too, with Sam Darnold a year older. As Coach Clay Helton put it: “I’ve always said that if you’ve got a great quarterback, you’ve got a great team.”
The Crimson Tide will head into next fall minus some of their best players, especially on defense, where Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Reuben Foster have played their final game as seniors.
A few younger starters — such as junior offensive lineman Cam Robinson — could turn pro early.
But freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, who struggled at times this season, will return with a full year of experience. And sophomore running back Bo Scarbrough, who gained 93 yards and scored twice against Clemson before breaking a bone in his right leg, should recover by fall.
“He’s certainly been a bell cow for us,” Saban said after Monday’s loss. “And he certainly, because of his size and durability, he makes it difficult when the defense gets worn down a little bit.”
A lot of questions will be answered early when the Crimson Tide open the season against Florida State, another team hoping to ride a young passer — Deondre Francois — to the College Football Playoff’s final four.
The Seminoles must replace running back Dalvin Cook, the heart of their team in the recent Orange Bowl, but will not have to face Watson in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
“We have a lot of young talent coming back,” Francois said after capping the season with a victory over Michigan. “This off-season will be very important … and we’re just going to focus on details and continue to get better.”
The Trojans expect to return well over a dozen starters but must fill sizeable gaps left by the departure of — among others — receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, offensive tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner, and defensive tackle Stevie Tu’ikolovatu, the transfer player who anchored the front seven.
Veteran leadership can be crucial in college football, so teams’ ability to restock at key positions will make all the difference. A wealth of returning starters could bode well for top teams, especially in the Big Ten.
This was a rollercoaster season for the conference, which dominated the polls through November but suffered losses in major bowl games.
Penn State should benefit from experience on both sides of the ball coming off a resurgent season. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley will lead the way on offense.
Ohio State is similarly well-stocked and should excel if quarterback J.T. Barrett, who will bypass the NFL to return as a senior, continues to improve. The Buckeyes will face a test against Oklahoma early on.
Michigan has quarterback Wilton Speight back. Wisconsin has Alex Hornibrook.
“I’m excited about the growth that Alex took this year and the steps he can take to go forward,” Coach Paul Paul Chryst said after the Badgers defeated Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. “He’s got a lot of football ahead of him.”
Other potential contenders include Washington, Oklahoma — which must get past its growing reputation for underachievement — and Oklahoma State.
As for Clemson, Swinney and his staff have shown they can recruit with the best programs in the nation. That gives the Tigers a chance to hang around the top 10 even without Watson.
On Tuesday, in the afterglow of his school’s first national title since 1981, the coach was already thinking ahead.
“What’s next?” Swinney said. “For us, it’ll be like I said, enjoying this moment but getting excited about coming back and seeing if we can charge back up the mountain next year.”
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