Our ranking: No. 7 CLEMSON
Coach: Dabo Swinney (14-1, entering 10th season; 89-28 overall)
2016 record: 14-1, 7-1 in Atlantic Coast Conference, finished tied-first in Atlantic Division
Look back: Mission accomplished.
The 2016 Clemson football team, led by Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Deshaun Watson and standout linebacker Ben Boulware, avenged its 2015 national championship loss with a victory in the title game rematch against Alabama.
Clemson faced its fair share of hiccups along the way, outlasting Auburn and Troy in the first two weeks, beating Louisville in a slugfest, squeezing by teams like NC State and Florida State, and even enduring a home loss to Pittsburgh.
When it was time to seal the deal on their seasonal goals, Clemson beat Virginia Tech in the ACC title game and edged Alabama with a game-winning touchdown pass from Watson to tight end Hunter Renfrow in the final seconds to give Dabo Swinney his first national championship.
Offensive starters lost: 7
Defensive starters returning: 7
Defensive starters lost: 4
Key losses: QB Deshaun Watson, LB Ben Boulware, DT Carlos Watkins, TE Jordan Leggett, WR Mike Williams, WR Artvavis Scott, RB Wayne Gallman, CB Cordea Tankersley, OL Jake Fruhmorgen, OL Jay Guillermo, DB Jadar Johnson, P Andy Teasdale.
Top returnees: DT Christian Wilkins, DT Dexter Lawrence, WR Hunter Renfrow, WR Deon Cain, DT Clelin Ferrell, OL Mitch Hyatt, OL Taylor Hearn, OL Tyrone Crowder, LB Dorian O’Daniel, LB Kendall Joseph, CB Ryan Carter, DB Van Smith, K Greg Huegel.
Strengths: The ACC, which was dominated by standout quarterbacks like Watson and Jackson last season, will be dominated by defensive lines in 2017. Athlon Sports rated Clemson’s as the top unit in the nation.
With potential NFL first round defensive tackles in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence anchoring the line, Clemson’s defense will keep the Tigers in striking distance of opponents despite the losses on offense last season.
Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Chris Register and Xavier Kelly will also aid in the pass-rushing duties for defense that lost only four starters from a season ago.
Weaknesses: How big of a loss is losing players like Watson, Leggett, Williams, Scott and Gallman for Clemson? The Tigers will be without 78 percent of its offensive production that guided the team to a national championship.
Junior Kelly Bryant is the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, while the offense will rely on veterans Renfrow, and hoping junior receivers Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud emerge as the next big threats in the passing game.
Outlook: Swinney has already gone on the record to say Clemson is not truly defending its national championship because it will field a new team this season. The onus will be on Swinney and his coaching staff early in matchups against Auburn and at Louisville in the first two weeks of the season. Trips at Virginia Tech, NC State and South Carolina, and a home tilt against Florida State highlight Clemson’s schedule. While the Tigers return plenty of talent on defense, they will have to find their way on offense again to return to ACC and college football dominance.