Winners of at least 10 games in four consecutive seasons, Clemson has also played in three top-tier bowls since 2011. But if the program is going to take the next step under Dabo Swinney and contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff, it hinges on these five palyers.

And the health of the guy at the top of this list may be most important subject of all ...


Deshaun Watson, QB, Soph.
When he's on the field, he may be the single most exciting player in the ACC, and in the nation. In eight games as a freshman, which included five starts, he threw for 1,466 yards and 14 touchdowns with two picks. He ran for another 200 yards and five scores. The problem, though, is that he missed almost five full games due to a hand injury on Oct. 11 against Louisville and then a knee injury at Georgia Tech. He would undergo surgery in December for a torn ACL and is good to go for the Sept. 5 opener vs. Wofford. With offensive coordinator Chad Morris now at SMU, there's going to be pressure for this attack to seamlessly move on without him -- running backs coach Tony Elliott and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott are sharing the job -- and having Watson at the helm should make that an easier transition than it could have been.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Soph.
It took one season for Alexander to prove himself one of the best in the conference at the position. His stats weren't all that impressive as he had 22 tackles, six breakups and no picks, but over the final nine weeks of his freshman year QBs managed a 35 percent completion rate when throwing his way and in that stretch he didn't give up a single touchdown. He was a major reason why Clemson's secondary ranked as No. 2 against the pass, giving up 157.4 yards per game. With Alexander as the lynchpin, expect them to again challenge to be one of the nation's best.

Mike Williams, WR, Jr.
He joins Artavis Scott as of two dynamic targets for Watson, but the focus is on Williams here. He's bigger -- 6-foot-4 to Scott's 5-10 -- and last season had 1,030 yards to Scott's 965. Scott did finish with 76 receptions while Williams had 57, but the latter averaged 18.1 yards per catch. Williams ended 2014 with a statement, hauling in nine balls for 112 yards vs. Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl and delivered in the spring game with five catches for 105 yards and two scores. Clemson has made a habit out of producing top-tier wide outs with Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins and Williams could become a household name by season's end.

Shaq Lawson, DE, Jr.
Vice Beasley, the Tigers' all-time sacks leader is gone, as is last year's top tackler in linebacker Stephone Anthony. It will be on Lawson, who had 3 1/2 sacks as a backup last year to go along with 44 tackles and 11 for loss, to fill that star role along the front in coordinator Brent Venables' scheme. A freshman All-American in 2013, the expectation is the 6-foot-3, 272-pounder will be more than ready for the opportunity, making the preseason All-ACC first team despite having just one career start.

Greg Huegel, K, Fr.
The only player the Tigers had leave early for the NFL last season was their punter, Bradley Pinon. He bolted after average 42.6 yards per attempt, but his replacement, Andy Teasdeall looks more than capable as he had two punts totaling 87 yards in '14. There's much bigger questions in the placekicking department as last yea's starter Ammon Lakip serves a suspension after he was cited for DUI and misdemeanor cocaine possession in June. Sophomore Alex Spence and redshirt freshman Christian Groomes were expected to battle it out to replace him, but Huegel, a walk-on, claimed the job. He'll get the first shot, but it things get dicey this could be a revolving door all season.

Follow Cory McCartney on Twitter @coryjmccartney