CLEMSON – The streak lives.
The Clemson football team, ranked No. 5 in the preseason, finished fourth Tuesday in the final USA TODAY Coaches and Associated Press polls of the season, marking the seventh consecutive year in which the Tigers finished the season ranked higher than their preseason projection.
Next season that task will prove downright impossible — Clemson is ranked No. 1 in USA TODAY Sports' “Way-Too-Early” Top 25 for 2018, released Tuesday.
“The Tigers aren't going anywhere, as Dabo Swinney promised following the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama,” wrote Paul Myerberg of USA TODAY Sports. “Clemson will be the best team in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a heavy contender to recapture the national title.”
Clemson's streak of improving its preseason ranking appeared in jeopardy after the Tigers' 24-6 loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, but Clemson's drop in the polls likely was cushioned by the fact that the Crimson Tide went on to win the national championship Monday night, defeating Georgia in overtime, 26-23.
The Tigers' strong resume helped, too. Clemson finished the season 12-2 and defeated four teams that wound up in the Top 25 — Auburn, Miami, N.C. State and Virginia Tech.
Clemson's recent successes likely aided the cause as well. The Tigers have won three consecutive ACC championships and made the College Football Playoff for three-straight years.
The Tigers are expected to lose several underclassmen to the NFL Draft but will return a senior quarterback in Kelly Bryant, top running backs Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, and standout defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, among others.
Swinney also will welcome a star-studded recruiting class that includes the nation's top-rated quarterback, top-rated defensive end and one of the top offensive linemen, so not only does the team's No. 4 final ranking seem fitting, but its lofty preseason projection for next season may be on target as well.
Swinney certainly won't lower his expectations.
“I tell our guys all the time, it's always about what is next, and we're going to learn and grow and always get better,” Swinney said. “My expectation is to be right back here next year, right back in the middle of it, right back in the thick of it.
Clemson was followed by several familiar names in USA TODAY's way-too-early 2018 projection — Alabama is No. 2, Ohio State No. 3, Georgia No. 4 and Wisconsin No. 5.