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Matt Connolly | The State | January 22, 2017

Watson expects Clemson to keep contending without him

  Clemson returns more than half of its starters from the 2016 championship team.

Clemson is at the top of the college football world as the sport's national champion, but Dabo Swinney, Deshaun Watson and Ben Boulware insist the Tigers' program is only going to get better.

Clemson had not won the ACC title in 20 years before 2011. The Tigers have now won three of the past six.

Clemson had not played in the Orange Bowl in 30 years before 2012. The Tigers have now done that three times in the past six years.

And Clemson had not won the national title since 1981 before this season. Watson expects the pattern to continue.

"Coach Swinney always preaches once you get one, you can get two, you can get three. There's many more to come," the Heisman finalist said. "You think this is the best of Clemson, just wait the next five years. It's going to be even more exciting, more awesome."

There is plenty of reason for optimism around Clemson, even with the Tigers losing several key players.

Clemson has recruited at an elite level under Swinney, and its recruiting classes should get better now that the Tigers are national champions.

Clemson also is in the process of moving into a new state-of-the-art football operations complex, which features a putt-putt course, movie theater, nap room and other amenities. It will be one of the top football operations buildings in the nation.

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"There's no doubt in my mind that the best is yet to come for us. I mean, we're going to continue to improve, continue to get better," Swinney said. "This program is built to last."

Next season, the Tigers must replace six starters on offense and four on defense.

Watson, Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, Wayne Gallman, Jordan Leggett and Jay Guillermo are moving on from Clemson's offense, but the Tigers have plenty of talent behind them.

At receiver, Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and Ray-Ray McCloud are proven playmakers, and freshmen Cornell Powell and Diondre Overton were highly recruited prospects.

Swinney said throughout this past season he was excited about the depth at tight end behind Leggett, and Clemson returns four of its starting five on the offensive line.

At running back, C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice have proven to be reliable ball carriers, while Tavien Feaster is the likely favorite to win the starting job with a strong spring. Feaster averaged six yards per carry and finished with more yards than Fuller and Choice in 2016, despite receiving fewer attempts.

The quarterback position will likely go a long way toward deciding how successful the Tigers are in 2017. Zerrick Cooper and Kelly Bryant are expected to battle for the starting job this spring, while true freshman Hunter Johnson could get in the mix as well. Johnson is on campus and will go through spring practice.

No matter who is Clemson's next quarterback, Watson expects the success at the position to continue after he followed Tajh Boyd's impressive career with a stellar career of his own.

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"It's the next man up, and that's always been what Coach Swinney has said. We always make sure the guys are prepared, regardless if they're freshmen or seniors," Watson said. "All the players before, they just pass the torch to us."

Defensively, Brent Venables has proven he can replace guys without missing a beat.

The Tigers finished in the top 10 in total defense each of the past three years, despite having eight new starters in 2015 and seven new starters in 2016.

Only having to replace four players in Boulware, Carlos Watkins, Jadar Johnson and Cordrea Tankersley is a small task compared to what Venables has dealt with in the past.

This article is written by Matt Connolly from The State and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.