By Mark Long
AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. — 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, 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, Ind., on the way to replace Watson, who graduated in three years and is leaving early for the NFL draft. And 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.”