TAMPA, Fla. — Alabama and Clemson will be hit hard in the upcoming NFL Draft — a combined eight first-round draft picks by many projections — but both will be well-positioned to chase a college football championship again next season.
Alabama may lose six first-round picks all by itself, but a strong offensive nucleus will be back, including current freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts, sophomore receiver Calvin Ridley and their top two running backs in Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough.
Ridley and cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick could lead another class of first-round picks in the 2018 draft for Alabama, which will have to reload on defense, losing senior linebackers Reuben Foster and Tim Williams and defensive end Jonathan Allen, and potentially cornerback Marlon Humphrey, who is draft-eligible as a redshirt sophomore. The Tide’s leader in receiving yards, junior ArDarius Stewart, could also enter the draft but hasn’t decided; top tight end O.J. Howard, the star of last year’s championship win, is expected to go early as a likely first-rounder.
Clemson might not get hit as hard — they’ll likely lose junior quarterback Deshaun Watson and junior receiver Mike Williams, both potential top-10 picks. They’ll have to find a new starter at quarterback — potentially incoming freshman Hunter Johnson — but sophomore Deon Cain should be able to step into Williams’ role as the go-to receiver, with slot receiver Hunter Renfrow back as well.
A year from now, Clemson should have top draft picks on both sides of the line of scrimmage in left tackle Mitch Hyatt and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, already heralded as potential top-10 picks in 2018. The Tigers won’t be hurt badly by graduation, with just six seniors starting on offense or defense, most notably linebacker Ben Boulware, center Jay Guillermo, defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley.
The biggest draft prospects could be even farther away — Clemson true freshman defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, a massive prospect at 6-5 and 340 pounds, has been touted as a potential first-round pick on talent now, though the NFL requires a prospect to be three years out of high school to be eligible to enter the draft, so he’ll have to wait for the 2019 draft.
And in the long term, as can be expected, both teams are doing well in recruiting. Alabama has the consensus No. 1 class with less than a month remaining until signing day, while Clemson, with a smaller senior class, has a class just outside the top 10 nationally with only 13 commitments. Alabama has six five-star commitments, including top running back Najee Harris, according to Rivals.com, while Clemson has three, behind only the Crimson Tide and Ohio State nationally. The national spotlight of Monday’s game should only help that.
Alabama has lost offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin already to Florida Atlantic as head coach there, but Steve Sarkisian has already shifted into that role in advance of Monday’s game. Otherwise the coaching staffs should emerge largely unscathed, compared to most years. The advantage of extending your season to the very end of the college football year is that most schools don’t want to wait to have a new head coach on the job and busy recruiting.
Both teams will be tested early — Alabama opens its season against Florida State, and Clemson plays host to Auburn in the second week of the regular season. Survive those, and both will validate their high early rankings until conference challenges arrive.