Dr. Saturday's 2017 Top 25 Countdown: No. 6 Clemson

Dr. Saturday
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Clemson won 35-31. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney celebrates after the NCAA college football playoff championship game against Alabama Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017, in Tampa, Fla. Clemson won 35-31. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

August is here and that means college football season is starting soon. The first games of the 2017 season kick off Aug. 26. And as it quickly approaches, we have 25 days to preview each of the 25 teams in our updated Dr. Saturday 2017 preseason poll. Check here every day to find out who we think the 25 best teams in the country will be. Fair warning, however. We’re probably going to be wrong.

Previous entries: No. 7 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 Washington, No. 10 AuburnNo. 11 LSU, No. 12 Michigan, No. 13 Stanford, No. 14 Louisville, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 16 GeorgiaNo. 17 FloridaNo. 18 South Florida, No. 19 Kansas State, No. 20 TexasNo. 21 Miami, No. 22 Notre DameNo. 23 NorthwesternNo. 24 Washington StateNo. 25 North Carolina

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2016 record: 14-1
Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense

Biggest non-conference game: Sept. 9 vs. Auburn
Biggest conference game: Nov. 11 vs. Florida State

Key returning player: DL Christian Wilkins
Key departed player: QB Deshaun Watson

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Three things to know about Clemson

• Coming off its second national championship in program history, Clemson has a lot of talent to replace, but nobody more important than quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Watson, a two-time Heisman finalist, led Clemson to the College Football Playoff in back-to-back seasons and set an array of school records in the process. He threw for 10,168 yards and 90 touchdowns while completing 67.4 percent of his passes over three years as a starter. Watson also rushed for nearly 2,000 yards and scored 26 times on the ground. His performances against Alabama in the last two CFP title games will go down in the history books.

Dabo Swinney has some options to turn to with Watson now with the Houston Texans. Swinney said earlier this week that junior Kelly Bryant will start the opener against Kent State “unless something goes crazy.” Bryant is the most-experienced option for Clemson. He was the team’s No. 3 QB for the past two seasons and has seen some game action, completing 13-of-18 passes for 75 yards and a touchdown in 11 total appearances. He also has 178 yards and two scores rushing in his career.

Just because Bryant starts the opener doesn’t mean he has a hold on the starting role. Nipping at his heels are a pair of highly-recruited freshmen. Zerrick Cooper, a four-star recruit in 2016, redshirted last season. Cooper, along with five-star true freshman Hunter Johnson, could figure prominently into the offense against Kent State. Swinney wants to figure out which QB gives his team the best chance to win with games against Auburn and Louisville in Weeks 2 and 3. He also doesn’t want to be caught flat-footed with his backups if Bryant went down with an injury. All three could play.

“If we played today there’s no question Kelly is starting for us, but we will play somebody else, too. We don’t have anybody else with any experience,” Swinney said. “We’ve got to find a way to get somebody else some experience, especially here in September. The last thing we want to do is get to October and not have anybody that’s played.”

“Kelly is the starter. He’s been the most consistent. He’s graded the best. He’s earned it. You get what you earn around here. Camp’s not over. Every rep and every practice counts. We’re not anointing anybody. Even if he’s the starter he’s got to go do it on game day, and then he’s got to be consistent with that.”

• Watson isn’t the only wildly productive player the Tigers have to replace, but they are more than equipped to do so.

Just on offense, the team’s top running back (Wayne Gallman), top receivers (Mike Williams and Artavis Scott) and top tight end (Jordan Leggett) are all in the NFL. But with the way Swinney recruits skill positions — wide receiver, especially — you shouldn’t expect the Tigers to miss a beat. Deon Cain, national title game hero Hunter Renfrow, and Ray-Ray McCloud all return at receiver and Swinney is comfortable with Tavien Feaster, C.J. Fuller and Adam Choice at running back. And that group will play behind a stellar offensive line.

This exchange with a reporter at ACC Media Days should tell you all you need to know about Swinney’s level of concern.

Q. I read in your media guide here you guys are losing 78 percent of your production on offense.

SWINNEY: What are we going to do? Oh, man.

Q. What are you going to do? How do you replace that? How do you do that and get back to another national championship game?

SWINNEY: You recruit. You go recruiting. That’s what you do. You don’t sit around and pout about it. That’s just the nature of college football. I think that’s what makes college football so exciting and so much fun. It’s different. Guys, there’s change every year. It’s a new team. You know, when Tajh Boyd was gone, it was, how are you going to replace Tajh Boyd? Well, we went and got a guy named Deshaun Watson. He did okay. You go recruit, and then you develop your players. And I think that’s probably one of the things that we do best is we develop our players, so when guys get their opportunity, they’re prepared.

The same thing applies to the defense, though there aren’t quite as many lost pieces compared to the offense. But it still speaks to the level of recruiting for a coach to be so confident about ably moving on from guys like LB Ben Boulware, DT Carlos Watkins and CB Cordrea Tankersley. Having a ridiculously talented and deep defensive line helps everything.

Christian Wilkins leads a loaded Clemson defense. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Christian Wilkins leads a loaded Clemson defense. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

All-American Christian Wilkins is back and will line up both inside and outside on the D-line alongside studs Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence, both of whom are somehow only sophomores. When you have a super-disruptive defensive line, it makes everything easier for the deep linebackers and defensive back units.

Yeah, this defense is terrifying.

“I love our roster. I think that’s the natural thing to do is you just look at a piece of paper and you say, wow, and you don’t know these guys,” Swinney said. “But come mid-season, you’re going to know a lot of these guys, and by the end of the season, we’re not going to be talking about all those guys that aren’t here anymore. If we are, we’re going to be talking about how good they’re doing at the next level, because we’ve got good players that are ready to emerge, and we’ll be a team that’s led in the trenches.”

• The layout of the schedule puts a lot on the quarterback, doesn’t it?

As previously mentioned, Clemson has Auburn at home and a trip to Louisville in September. The Tigers’ defense should be so good that it keeps the team in every game, but those games could ultimately come down to quarterback play. The whole season could. It seems like a simplistic and obvious conclusion, but quarterback is the most important position on the field for a reason.

The Tigers also have a game at Virginia Tech to end September before things ease up in October. How Clemson emerges from that stretch will obviously go a long way toward the overall scope of the season. If you’re 5-0, a Nov. 11 home matchup against division foe Florida State could decide the division and a College Football Playoff berth.

At the very least, Clemson is going to be very, very good. Consistent, mistake-free play at quarterback will put the Tigers right back into the national championship picture.

For more Clemson news, visit TigerIllustrated.com.

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Sam Cooper is a writer for the Yahoo Sports blogs. Have a tip? Email him or follow him on Twitter!

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