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Restocked and refocused, Clemson looks like a national championship contender – again

Trevor Lawrence

(Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

On Thursday night, Clemson opens the 2019 season by celebrating its national championship before a rabid home crowd, happy, adorned in orange and purple and playing to the first audience in the history of the ACC Network.

It should be a fabulous night and only partly because its opponent, Georgia Tech, is a five-touchdown underdog and unveiling a new offense that’s likely to wreck before it rambles under the weight of the Tigers defense. New coach Geoff Collins has eliminated the triple option that has characterized Tech’s offense for years. Good luck with all that.

It seems like yesterday that Clemson destroyed Alabama 44-16 in the College Football Playoff National Championship game, an annihilation accented by the Tigers scoring the last 30 points to win their second title in three years (both against the Crimson Tide).

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who just signed the biggest deal (10 years, $92 million) in NCAA history, has spent a majority of the preseason defending the comprehensiveness of the win against skeptics who continue to believe Alabama was somehow too tired from the rigors of the SEC schedule to deal with it.

“Listen, the SEC is a great conference, but I don’t think they’ve been as deep the last few years. I think they’ve had two or three really good teams and then it’s kind of been hit or miss from there. It’s an awesome league, for sure, and I know people say that Alabama was tired because they went through the grind and had to play all these teams,” Swinney told ESPN. “Well, they won by an average of 33.1 points per game [going into the playoff], so they ought to be well-rested.

“My thing on that is, ‘Are you serious? They’re tired?’ Then you look at Clemson, and we won 12 games by 20-plus. Who really challenged Alabama in the SEC? They didn’t get challenged by anybody until the Georgia game (for the SEC championship). … People get amnesia. A lot of folks make a lot of bold claims early in the year and then they forget, and there’s a lot of excuses when it doesn’t go that way. Five, six or seven years ago, the rhetoric was that an ACC team is not going to win a national championship because they don’t play anybody during the season, so then they get to the postseason and are just not prepared for the big, bad boys. Well, now, they’ve flipped it around, and the only reason we’re winning is because we don’t play anybody in the ACC.”

The Tigers will get a chance to prove itself against the SEC long before it aligns for a possible rematch with Alabama. They play both Texas A&M and South Carolina, their traditional Rivals Game opponent.

Dabo Swinney

(Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

“I think it’s good for college football that you get the two best teams there,” said Swinney of perhaps another meeting with the Crimson Tide.  “If it happens to be Clemson and Alabama three out of the last four years, isn’t that what we want, the two best teams? A lot of people have opportunities to get into the mix. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to earn it. “

Clemson will be trying to be the first back-to-back national champion – other than Alabama – since Nebraska managed to do it a quarter-century ago. And it looks to be equipped with the kind of personnel that can make it happen.

Look at their offense: Sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the breakout star of the 2018 season, is back with running back Travis Etienne and receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross.

The offense finished third in the nation in 2018 averaging over 527 yards and 44 points per game. And no program in America as a quartet potentially as prolific this season.

Lawrence, who is 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, threw for 3,280 yards and 30 touchdowns with just four interceptions despite not becoming a starter until Week Five.

Etienne, the ACC’s offensive player of the year in 2018, gained 1,658 yards and scored 24 touchdowns – approximately one on every eight carries last season – despite carried the ball more than 20 times in a game just twice.

Ross averaged almost 22 yards per reception and Higgins led the team with 59 receptions and 12 TDs.

If Lawrence gets hurt, the Tigers will turn to Chase Brice, 6-3, who threw for 442 yards and five touchdowns with three picks last season. He even helped the Tigers beat Syracuse after Lawrence was injured by leading a 94-yard TD drive that capped a big comeback.

“Quarterback’s going to be pretty good,” said Swinney in April.

The defense is ready to restock a defensive line that fed the NFL Draft in April with first-round picks – Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence – with a trio of redshirt freshmen.

There doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe the Tigers can’t win 12 this season. Maybe with the exception of Syracuse, who it plays on the road in September, Clemson is exponentially superior to every other team in the ACC. The only suspense will be who plays it in the conference title game in December.