Returning starters to serve Clemson well in title quest

Each week until the release of the preseason Amway Coaches Poll, USA TODAY Sports will examine a team projected to factor strongly in the initial rankings. This week: Clemson.

The situation: The Tigers entered the 2015 campaign with massive expectations. They delivered, sweeping the regular season en route to the Atlantic Coast Conference title, thumping Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl and trading haymakers with Alabama in an instant classic of a national championship game. In the end, the Crimson Tide took home the crystal football, but Clemson earned no small measure of respect in that performance. The returning talent figures to be pegging the needle on the hype meter once again.

Key returners and losses: An incumbent quarterback is a plus. When that returnee is a Heisman Trophy finalist who came within an eyelash of leading the team to the national championship, that adds a few more plus signs. Deshaun Watson might be poised to exceed the lofty numbers he posted in 2015, given all the talent he'll have lining up with him.

Wayne Gallman, a 1,514-yard rusher, looks for even bigger things in his junior season. The receiving corps will miss Charone Peake, who is off to the New York Jets, but plenty of pass catchers are back. Mike Williams missed nearly the entire campaign after a scary injury in the season opener but is back at full speed.

The deep, talented group will also feature Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow, Ray-Ray McCloud and currently suspended Deon Cain. Tight end Jordan Leggett decided to return for his senior year after catching 40 balls for eight touchdowns. The interior line should also be a strength, with experienced left tackle Mitch Hyatt, center Jay Guillermo and guard Tyrone Crowder.

There’s far less experience on the defensive side. The leader will be senior linebacker Ben Boulware. He’ll have help on the front line from senior defensive tackle Carlos Watkins. Defensive end Austin Bryant might be ready to become the next great Clemson pass rusher after backing up Shaq Lawson last season. The biggest concern might be the secondary, where cornerback Mackensie Alexander will be hard to replace.

Key number: 8.4. Watson's 8.4-yard average per pass attempt best speaks to his consistency and productivity. If he can improve on that number, watch out.

2016 schedule: Sept. 3 at Auburn; Sept. 10 vs. Troy; Sept. 17 vs. South Carolina State; Sept. 22 at Georgia Tech; Oct. 1 vs. Louisville; Oct. 7 at Boston College; Oct. 15 vs. North Carolina State; Oct. 29 at Florida State; Nov. 5 vs. Syracuse; Nov. 12 vs. Pittsburgh; Nov. 19 at Wake Forest; Nov. 26 vs. South Carolina.

For the most part, the schedule sets up favorably. The toughest test, against the Seminoles in Tallahassee, is preceded by a timely idle week, and the date with Louisville, which threw an early scare into the Tigers a year ago, is at home.

Why this is a top-10 team: If all the key contributors stay healthy, there's little reason to expect anything less than another run at the ACC title for these hungry Tigers.