TAMPA, Fla. -- Deshaun Watson has played his final game at Clemson, ending the most memorable three-year run in school history. He is the greatest player the Tigers have ever had at the college level, the quarterback who owns the program's two best Heisman Trophy finishes and has now dissected Alabama's defense two years in a row in national title games, bringing home a championship this time with a game-winning touchdown pass with one second left to avenge last season's defeat.
Watson heading to the NFL is a relief to the rest of the ACC, and a relief to Alabama, which no longer has to worry about ever having to defend him in a postseason game again. The end of the Watson era undoubtedly leaves a gaping hole in the Clemson lineup, an All-America quarterback and team leader gone.
But the past two years should make the future perfectly clear: Clemson is not going anywhere. Get used to this program as a power, with or without Watson.
"When I got the job, there were like lids on the program like, oh, Clemson, you can only do this, but don't go any higher than that," coach Dabo Swinney said on Tuesday morning, after what he said was one hour of sleep. "You can win nine, but let's don't win 10. We just have slowly knocked off the lids off the program, and this was the last one. And to do it against Alabama, who's been the best, and the teams that we've played, the teams that we've beaten over the last eight years … We're selling results, bottom line"
Watson has been the centerpiece of the team, and given that he passed for 420 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 43 yards and another score in Monday's 35-31 win over the Crimson Tide, it's clear that there is no more difficult player for Clemson to replace. But even if the Tigers take a small step back next year and don't return to the playoff, there's no reason to believe that they won't continue to be a significant factor, both in the ACC and nationally.
Clemson once had a reputation for underachieving and losing games it shouldn't. From 1992-2010, it failed to win an ACC championship. In that time, it never won more than nine games and never finished a season higher than 16th in the AP poll. Once Florida State joined the ACC, there was a ceiling, the lid on the program that Swinney spoke about.
Swinney, promoted from receivers coach in 2008, has now won at least 10 games in six straight seasons, with a remarkable 28-2 record the past two years. He sold a vision to recruits that has resulted in numerous impact players moving on to the NFL, and now he's no longer pitching the potential of the program on the recruiting trail. That potential has been realized.
"We all know that Clemson is only going to get better, and it's just going to keep growing and keep growing," Watson said. "You think this is the best of Clemson, just wait the next five years. It's going to be even more exciting, more awesome."
In 2014, Watson was part of a recruiting class that ranked 17th, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. The Tigers jumped to ninth in 2015 and were 11th last February. The class of 2017 is currently 13th, although Swinney noted that Clemson actually has an underclassman-heavy roster -- due in part to numerous early NFL draft defections -- which means that the recruiting class signed in the wake of the national championship will be smaller by necessity. Smaller, however, does not mean it won't still be filled with stars.
Clemson's national championship depth chart featured nine freshman and sophomores listed as starters out of the 22 offensive and defensive players. That list includes blue-chip talent like freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, rated the No. 2 player in the class of 2016 and already being hyped as future top-10 pick in the draft. It includes stars like Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell on the defensive line, too, plus linebacker Kendall Joseph, safety Van Smith, left tackle Mitch Hyatt, deep threat wideout Deon Cain and walk-on-turned-star slot receiver Hunter Renfrow, who caught the winning TD on Monday.
Clemson has to replace Watson -- the early favorite is current sophomore Kelly Bryant, although five-star recruit Hunter Johnson is verbally committed for 2017 -- and it won't be easy to battle possibly post-championship complacency and replace leaders like Watson, linebacker Ben Boulware, wideout Mike Williams and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins. But there is a new foundation in place, led by that defensive line, that solidified Clemson's standing and allowed Watson to push the Tigers to a national title for the first time since the surprise undefeated run in 1981.
Unlike '81, a run for the national title was expected, and it shouldn't be a surprise if it happens again soon.
"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. Like I said, in 2011, we had 30 years since we've been to the Orange Bowl. I'm like, listen, I don't know when we're getting back, but it ain't going to be 30 years, and now we've been to three Orange Bowls and won two of them. 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."
Even five years ago, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Swinney's big plans. Now, it would be foolish not to believe him.