Swinney, Tigers poised for bigger things

Coach Dabo Swinney thinks his No. 18 Clemson Tigers are as good a candidate as any to challenge for the 2015 College Football Playoff.

The Tigers (10-3) won nine of their final 10 games after starting 1-2, dominating Oklahoma 40-6 at the Russell Athletic Bowl on Monday night. The win gave Clemson double-digit victories for the fourth consecutive season, joining Alabama, Oregon and Northern Illinois as the only FBS teams to accomplish that.

Swinney hopes Clemson can reach the pinnacle next year. That's where Alabama and Oregon are now heading into college football's four-team playoff.

"We're not going anywhere," Swinney said. "This is another big win for our program, a great way to end 2014. And I can't wait for 2015."

The usually enthusiastic Swinney has plenty to be hopeful about heading into next season.

The offense, one of the country's best the past four seasons under ex-offensive coordinator Chad Morris, was powered by some of Clemson's youngest players. Freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 1,466 yards, 14 touchdowns and just two interceptions despite missing five full games and most of two others with hand and knee injuries.

Redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman led the team in rushing with 769 yards while freshman Artavis Scott topped the Tigers with 76 catches and sophomore Mike Williams had 1,030 yards receiving.

Watson, Gallman and Scott ensured an easier offseason even before the Oklahoma blowout, accounting for nearly 650 yards and all five touchdowns in a 35-17 win over rival South Carolina last month to end the Tigers' soul-crushing five-game rivalry losing streak.

"It says the future is definitely bright," Morris, who left to become SMU head coach, said earlier this month.

Watson will miss spring practice while recovering from knee surgery to repair his torn ACL. He played on the damaged left knee in defeating the Gamecocks and was at first ruled eligible for postseason play, yet Swinney and the quarterback thought it better to get an early jump on rehab instead of waiting until after the bowl.

Senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, along with new co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, kept the Tigers offense humming against Oklahoma. Stoudt finished with 319 yards and three touchdowns passing, plus a rushing TD to earn the game's MVP award.

The questions for any Clemson playoff run next season are sure to swing toward the defense, which is losing eight senior starters from a group that ended the regular season No. 1 nationally in fewest yards allowed.

The losses include all four defensive line starters featuring All-American end Vic Beasley, Clemson's all-time sacks leader, linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward and defensive backs Robert Smith and Garry Peters.

"One of their best qualities was they weren't satisfied until the very end," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "That's pretty neat because that doesn't happen all the time."

The Tigers held Oklahoma to 275 yards of offense and just 103 yards passing.

Clemson rotated several younger players on the line and among the linebackers to keep everyone fresh. Sophomore linebacker Ben Boulware had an interception return TD and freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander locked down most of his opponents this season.

"Our twos and threes are as good as our ones," Boulware said. "That makes me excited for next year."

There are other issues to tackle moving forward. Former quarterback Tajh Boyd didn't miss a start in leading Clemson to a 32-8 mark between 2011-13, and Watson must be healthy for the Tigers to contend.

Swinney said he had the co-coordinators plan in the works for some time, knowing that Morris would one day make the jump to his own program. Still, it's something that Clemson will have to adjust to week in and week out next fall.

Those are worries for later on. Right now, Swinney wants to keep building toward bigger things.

"Six years ago, when I got this job," he said, "I wanted to become one of the most consistent programs in the country. And these guys are the epitome of that."

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