Four reasons you should not sleep on defending national champion Clemson

Eight months ago, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was standing atop a stage on the field of Raymond James Stadium on what amounted to the top of the college football world. 

After one of the most dramatic national title games in the sport's history, Swinney brought the game's biggest prize to upstate South Carolina for the first time since 1981.

What's his reward?

Underdog status. Again. 

Or, to put it in broader terms, "life as a Clemson fan."

The question is why? Why is Clemson viewed as the underdog? Division rival Florida State was picked to win the Atlantic division at ACC media days last month despite an offensive line that had trouble getting in the way of a slight breeze last year, much less football players coming after quarterback Deondre Francois.

Clemson deserves the benefit of the doubt, and yet they aren't getting it. Here's why:

Swinney is a complete coach: Maybe it's because he got the job on an interim basis and spent the first four years of his tenure on the hot seat, and maybe because he has a little bit more fun than more serious established coaching stars. Whatever the reason, Swinney doesn't seem to get credit for what he has built. 

Athlon Sports had him rated fifth among college football head coaches this summer. That might seem appropriate on the surface, but consider that it is last among active head coaches with national titles (Nick Saban, Urban Meyer and Jimbo Fisher), and Swinney was two spots behind Michigan's Jim Harbaugh -- who hasn't finished higher than third in his division in two seasons in Ann Arbor. 

What more does Swinney need to do? 

He survived interim status, navigated through the hot seat era after getting the job, went to two Orange Bowls (winning one), went toe-to-toe with Alabama in his first title game appearance and then slayed the dragon in his second. 

Clemson is bigger than last year's stars: Did Swinney have great players around him during the last couple of years? Sure. 

Heisman runner-up Deshaun Watson at quarterback, specifically, along with wide receiver Mike Williams, running back Wayne Gallman and linebacker Ben Boulware among them.

But those guys didn't lead the program to an Orange Bowl win in 2013, Tajh Boyd did. Watson and Co. didn't lead the Tigers to the same bowl and an ACC title in 2011. Boyd, running back Andre Ellington, and wide receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins did.

The one common thread through all of that has been Swinney.

"These guys are well-coached and very good fundamentally within what they do," an anonymous coach told SI.com. "There's a reason that they've hung [75 points] on Alabama the last two years. It's that they have what we call multiples; they don't have one guy that has 90 catches and everybody else is at 20 or something like that. It's spread out."

There's plenty more where those stars came from. 

Title game hero Hunter Renfrow is back at wide receiver, along with electric downfield threat Deon Cain. If you don't know the name "Tee Higgins," now's the time to get cozy with the 6-foot-4, true freshman, five-star signee. 

Don't forget about 5-foot-9 freshman slot threat Amari Rodgers, who has received first-team snaps in fall camp, according to Swinney.

"Amari is beyond his years when you consider what you expect from a freshman," he said. "He has made some incredible plays already. You can tell he has already put in a lot of study time since he arrived in June." 

Gallman was a star at running back, but 5-foot-11, 220-pound sophomore Tavien Feaster -- a former four-star prospect -- led the team with 5.97 yards per carry among qualifying running backs. Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller each saw time last year as well, and that trio of tailbacks gives the staff plenty of options. 

Kendall Joseph (108 tackles, 12.5 for loss) and Dorian O'Daniel (54 tackles, 10 for loss) return as starters in two of the three linebacker spots, and will provide some stability for James Skalski, Tre Lamar, Shaq Smith or whoever occupies the real estate formerly owned by Boulware.

Clemson's worst recruiting class over the last four years was 16th, and the youngsters combined with a core of guys who know how to win on the big stage should be a winning recipe for Swinney's Tigers.

Quarterback is big, but it's not everything: Six of the last eight national champions were led by new starters under center. The only two returning starters to win it all over that stretch were Watson last year and Alabama's AJ McCarron when the Crimson Tide repeated in 2012.

No, Kelly Bryant, Zerrick Cooper and true freshman Hunter Johnson don't have the experience, but they have potential. Bryant is the most experienced of the group having served as one of Watson's primary backups last year, and Cooper (former four-star prospect in 2016) and Johnson (nation's second-ranked pro-style prospect in 2017) both have incredible upside. 

"Kelly Bryant is the starter just as he was at the end of spring practice," Swinney said. "He has had five really good days of practice and has been the most consistent.  Hunter and Zerrick have been excellent, but right now Kelly is the most consistent."

From Kyle Parker to Boyd to Watson, Swinney has consistently found ways to make it work under center. With Watson gone, the quarterback position as a whole is as deep and healthy as it has ever been at Clemson.

Games are won in the trenches: While quarterback draws headlines, have we forgotten that games are won in the trenches? That's where Clemson has its edge.

The offensive line is loaded with four starters returning including first-team All-ACC left tackle Mitch Hyatt and first-team All-ACC right guard Tyrone Crowder. This group has been together since the 2015 season when the Tigers ran through the ACC and national semifinal unscathed, and shouldn't have any issue maintaining its elite level of play in 2017.

Speaking of elite, have you seen Clemson's defensive line?

Linemen Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant combined for 18 sacks a year ago, and comprise one of the most experienced and dangerous defensive lines in the country. 

Consider this: Two of Clemson's primary threats in the ACC Atlantic are Florida State and Louisville -- both of which have offensive lines that are less-than-stellar. 

dexter-lawrence-clemson.jpg
Dexter Lawrence is nearly impossible to block. Just ask Ohio State. USATSI

When the chips are down, I'll take the team with the proven track record of success, top-tier head coach, experience up front on both sides of the ball and a proven track record of replacing superstars over almost anybody in the country.

Especially if that group is considered the underdog and that head coach, Swinney, has a history of thriving in that role.

Don't sleep on Clemson. This team has more staying power than any team in the country outside of the one in Tuscaloosa. 

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, while also hosting on ESPNU on SiriusXM Radio channel 84, the... Full Bio

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