No. 9 Clemson

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No way Clemson wins the national title last year without quarterback Deshaun Watson.

And no way Clemson wins it this year without him.

Drop mic, exit stage.

The difference is Clemson had Watson last year and that was enough to nip Alabama in the final ticks of a thrilling title game in Tampa.

Watson was the Vince Young-difference in leading Clemson, on the biggest stage, to a last-drive victory.

Clemson simply can’t be as good now that he is in the NFL.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

Dabo Swinney’s team is going to have to settle for being exceptionally, borderline top-10 good.

It is going to have to accept competing for a national title against contenders that do return exceptional, experienced quarterbacks: Alabama (Jalen Hurts), USC (Sam Darnold), Florida State (Deondre Francois), Oklahoma (Baker Mayfield), Ohio State (JT Barrett), Washington (Jake Browning), Penn State (Trace McSorely).

This makes so much sense it is sure to be dismissed by Clemson fans looking to disparage a west-coast loon who eats 100% fat free yogurt.

Swinney on the crop of quarterbacks looking to replace Watson.

“They’re all capable.”

That’s nice, but this isn’t a tryout for fry cook at IHOP.

“We’ve got everything we need at the position to win at a high level,” he said.

But what about the highest?

Swinney announced last week that junior Kelly Bryant will likely get the first nod over Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper. Bryant attempted nine passes last year, completed six, for 48 yards.

Try and make a Heisman campaign out of that! Swinney also made clear more than one quarterback will get early reps.

Clemson opens the season at home against Kent State, giving it the rare opportunity to defeat Alabama and Nick Saban’s alma mater in consecutive games. Swinney could use that game to quickly identify his next quarterback and seamlessly transition. This is how Saban worked it last year against USC, starting Blake Barnett but also playing true freshman Jalen Hurts, who won the job and led Alabama to the brink of another title.

Clemson can experiment with three quarterbacks and still defeat Kent. The key is having someone to trust in time for the next two games against Auburn and Louisville.

Clemson won at Auburn last year, 19-13, in a game Auburn was trying to sort out its quarterback situation. Clemson also has to play at Virginia Tech on Sept. 30, but does get Georgia Tech and Florida State at home.

It remains to be seen whether the new Clemson quarterback can get receiver Hunter Renfrow, last year’s title-game star, into another hero moment.

Clemson now has a national title and program momentum on its side. It no longer needs to answer for failing to meet expectations. The goal now is to maintain expectations.