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College football: Deshaun Watson leaves Clemson, but Dabo Swinney’s Tigers on solid ground

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, right, answers a question during an NCAA college football news conference Tuesday  in Tampa, Florida. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, right, answers a question during an NCAA college football news conference Tuesday in Tampa, Florida. (Chris O'Meara / Associated Press)
Associated Press

Standing on college football’s biggest stage and hoisting its top prize, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and dynamic quarterback Deshaun Watson shared the ultimate hug and a few private words.

A formidable pairing. An improbable championship. An ideal ending.

Swinney and Watson’s finale together, a 35-31 upset victory against Alabama in the national title game Monday night in Tampa, Florida, might just be a launching point for the Tigers (14-1).

“You think this is the best of Clemson? Just wait the next five years,” Watson said Tuesday. “It’s going to be even more exciting, more awesome.”

The Tigers claimed their first national championship since 1981, ending a 35-year drought thanks to huge plays from Watson, his receiving corps and a defense determined to avenge last year’s oh-so-close loss to the Crimson Tide in the title game.

Although most expect Clemson to need a year or two to reload – the Tigers are losing a handful of offensive and defensive stars – Swinney believes his team will get another title shot in the not-too-distant future, certainly not another three-decade wait.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the best is yet to come for us,” Swinney said. “I mean, we’re going to continue to improve, continue to get better. Winning national championships are hard. I mean, it’s very, very difficult to do. It’s been 35 years at Clemson. … It won’t be 35 years before Clemson will do this again.

“God willing, I’ll be a part of it. But this program is built to last.”

It’s certainly being built to compete with anyone in the country.

Swinney has five-star quarterback Hunter Johnson, from Brownsburg, Indiana, on the way to replace Watson, who graduated in three years and is leaving early for the NFL draft. Clemson annually has one of the top three recruiting classes in the Atlantic Coast Conference, right on the heels of Florida State as well as perennial powers Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Michigan.

Equally promising, the Tigers are getting ready to open a $55 million football complex that will be attached to the team’s indoor practice facility. The complex will have all the usual amenities, like a weight room, a dining hall, meeting rooms and offices, but it also boasts a players’ lounge that features table tennis, pool tables, miniature golf, a golf simulator, laser tag, a bowling alley, sand volleyball courts and a 24-seat high-definition theater.

Oh, and an indoor slide connecting one floor to the next.

“Yeah, it’s crazy, man,” Swinney said.

Swinney clearly has Clemson rolling after consecutive trips to the title game.

“We think that we have a great program to sell and we’re very proud of that,” he said. “The best is yet to come for us. This is not the end-all. It’s a great moment, and it’s something that we needed to get done. But you know, Thursday I’m going to have a team meeting with the 2017 team, and there will be a new group of seniors sitting in the front row, new challenges, new journey, kind of lay out the vision a little bit for next year.

“We’ll celebrate this weekend, this championship with our banquet and the parade and all that stuff, and then we’ll start over.”

He’ll have to start over without Watson, the team’s do-whatever-it-takes leader, and several other key starters.

Watson completed 36 of 56 passes for 420 yards and three touchdowns in the title game. He also ran for a score, helping make the sequel an even better show than the original. He was just as good last year, although his efforts weren’t enough in a 45-40 loss to the Tide in Arizona.

“He’s the best player that’s ever come through there, so it meant a lot,” Swinney said, adding that Watson went 32-3 as a starter. “He set the standard. I mean, high standard. Graduated in three years, honor-roll student, represented the program in an incredible way, unbelievable leadership, so easy to coach.

“He’s an incredible winner, and we’re not sitting here without Deshaun Watson. This is what he came to do.”

Running back Wayne Gallman and receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott will join Watson in the NFL. Throw in tight end Jordan Leggett and center Jay Guillermo, and the Tigers will have to replace a big chunk of their high-scoring offense.

They will have nearly as many losses on the other side of the ball, with cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, safety Jadar Johnson, linebacker Ben Boulware and defensive end Carlos Watkins all gone.

“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.”

Clemson tops final poll

Clemson finished atop The Associated Press College football poll, knocking Alabama from the spot it held all season, and Southern California became the first team to finish as high as No. 3 with three losses.

The Tigers were voted No. 1 in the final poll for the first time since 1981. The Crimson Tide were trying to become only the third team to go wire-to-wire as No. 1.

USC, which started the season 1-3 – including a 52-6 opening loss to Alabama – jumped from all the way from ninth in the final regular-season rankings to third.

Washington was fourth and Oklahoma finished fifth.

Ohio State was sixth and Penn State seventh, followed by Florida State at eighth. Wisconsin was No. 9 and Michigan 10th.

Big crowd greets Tigers

About 6,000 Clemson fans turned out in Clemson, South Carolina, to welcome their national champion Tigers, capping a giddy day of celebration after their team toppled Alabama.

People screamed as the buses pulled up, calling out “DE-SHAUN” over and over as Tigers’ star quarterback Deshaun Watson walked with his luggage and national championship hat into Clemson’s football building.

“This means a lot,” said receiver Mike Williams, who like Watson will forego his final year in college and enter the NFL draft.

Watson walked to the crowd, which was kept behind metal barriers, to sign a few autographs and share a few hugs before waving and heading off. Clemson fans will get one more chance to see Watson and the rest of the Tigers on Saturday during a parade through town that will end inside Clemson’s Death Valley.

After that, Watson, Williams and many of the Tigers who helped Clemson overcome a 14-point deficit win its national title rematch with Alabama will scatter to train for their next showcase: Clemson’s pro timing day in front of NFL executives and scouts in early March.

Fans waved all kinds of signs, some simply saying “Thank You, Tigers,” to more pointed ones that read “We Want Bama” with the “Want” crossed out and replaced by “Beat.” There was even a sign asking if head coach Dabo Swinney’s son, high-school senior Will, would take the sigh-holder to prom.

Vegas bookies take bath

Bookmakers were feeling so good about things with Alabama up 14-0 midway through the second quarter of the College Football Championship that they offered 19 points to get bettors to wager on Clemson.

They weren’t feeling so good later when Clemson’s comeback win made big losers out of sports books up and down the Las Vegas Strip.

“It was a terrific college football season for the books,” said Jay Kornegay, oddsmaker at the Westgate Las Vegas. “But it certainly ended on a sour note for us.”

Bettors scored a rare victory in a big game, jumping on Clemson when betting opened a week earlier and staying with the Tigers until finally bookmakers stopped taking bets in the second half of Monday night’s game.

It was one of the worst losses in a big game in recent years for bookies. And it came after bettors also triumphed over bookies on the first weekend of NFL playoffs, when all four favorites covered the spread.

Peppers declares for draft

Jabrill Peppers decided to enter the NFL draft and skip his senior season at Michigan.

The Heisman Trophy finalist announced his plans in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound Peppers is projected to be a first-round pick in April.

He did not play for the sixth-ranked Wolverines in a 33-32 loss to No. 10 Florida State on Dec. 31 in the Orange Bowl because of an injured left hamstring.

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