The title has been won, so where do the Tigers go from here?


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Clemson fans will continue to celebrate the National Championship
Clemson fans will continue to celebrate the National Championship

Spring practice begins next week, and when head coach Dabo Swinney and his coaches gather with the players it will mark the beginning of the 2017 college football season.

The confetti, as great as it was, is gone. The championship trophies are in place in the new football complex, and many of the players (and two coaches) who were key cogs in the run to the National Championship have moved on.

Dan Brooks is enjoying the life of a retired coach, Marion Hobby is prepping for a return to the NFL and players like Deshaun Watson, Jordan Leggett and Mike Williams are busy preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine. Yep, things will be different in Tiger Town.

Fans certainly aren’t ready to put the National Championship in the rear view mirror. Every day on social media I see where fans replay the entire game, the last quarter or the game-winning drive. They want to revel in their team’s success for as long as possible. It’s natural. And, Clemson will be the champion for another 11 months or so, until another team wins the title (or Clemson wins it again).

But for the coaching staff and the players, the focus has to turn to 2017 quickly. The wins and successes of 2016 and in the College Football Playoff will have little or no bearing on the new season. They all have to leave 2016 behind, even if the fans will enjoy the rewards of a title-winning season for a little while longer.

Following the loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl – in what seems like an eternity ago – I wrote an article that asked the question: Where does Clemson go from here? There were so many things going right in the program, but it also seemed like for every few steps forward, there was a step backward.

As the Tigers head into the spring, I think I can once again ask that same question………….where does Clemson go from here? Sure, the easy answer is back to the playoff or another national championship. But when dealing with teenagers and the competitive state of college football, the answers are not always as easy.

Since a magical night early in 1982, the Clemson football team has entered spring practice with the goal in mind of winning another national title. Once head coach Dabo Swinney arrived on campus, his focus has been on building a national title contender, and he has goals laid out that ensure his program will win championships if those goals are met.

As Swinney so eloquently put it in the aftermath of the win over Alabama, Clemson has planted a flag on the mountaintop. Swinney, the team, the school, the fans – they’ve all reached the pinnacle. The conquest was made.

Can they do it again?

We will find out starting next week when spring practice begins, but that big question I have is one of the reasons I think I’m more excited about what the next few years might look like than I have been over the past two seasons. With Watson at quarterback and a host of playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Tigers were national title contenders and it was a lot of fun chasing that elusive goal. But we knew they would be good, and even if the national media wasn’t on board before the 2015 season, those of us that cover the program knew Swinney had something special.

In many ways, the Tigers have been the hunted the last two seasons, the team everybody is shooting for. But now there are a lot of unknowns. Who will be the quarterback? Who will be the running back? Can three or four tight ends replace Leggett’s production? Are some of the younger receivers ready to step in and replace Mike Williams and Artavis Scott? How will the secondary look? Can Brent Venables find a way to get Shaq Smith and Tre Lamar on the field at the same time?

The Tigers will be good, and they’ll once again be expected to be a Top 15 type of program or better. But Florida St. will once again be the media darling, and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner resides in Louisville, and maybe the Tigers will fly just a tad under the radar.

The season sets up nicely, and there is really just one team that you know might have more talent across the board than the Tigers, and that’s those pesky Seminoles.

Auburn will be better but has question marks on defense, Louisville has to find someone willing to block for Mr. Heisman, and Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and NC State all think they have a chance to make noise in the ACC but lack the talent across the board that Swinney has. South Carolina still has a long way to go to be anywhere near elite, and they’re still coached by Will Muschamp, so Clemson will be favored (sometimes heavily) in a majority of games next season.

All of that is said just to get to this point – there are enough things we know about this team that cause reason for excitement, and there are enough concerns that they add an element of danger and concern for the season ahead. And that’s where the excitement comes in. I can’t wait to see what slogan Swinney has for this season, and I can’t wait to get a feel for how things are from a player’s perspective.

Can Swinney take what many consider to be a bit of a rebuilding year and chase another championship? I wouldn’t bet against him, and I can tell you that he will tell us at some point in the next few weeks that the 2017 team hasn’t won a single game, scored a single point or rushed for a single yard. And he will be right.

This is a new era of Clemson football, and one thing I’ve learned the past few seasons is that the journey is just as exciting and memorable as the destination. Where does Clemson go from here? The journey – and the answers to that question – start next week.

Man, I love college football.

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