Clemson Spring Football (copy)

Clemson running back Travis Etienne breaks away from Derion Kendrick during the Tigers' Orange and White spring scrimmage April 6. Etienne will be key in taking the load off Quarterback Trevor Lawrence this season. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

They're going dynasty hunting in the Upstate.

Clemson returns to the practice field this week, and though Tigers players will claim they're focused solely only on beating Georgia Tech in the Aug. 29 season opener, it's clear this team is shooting for more greatness.

Clemson tops preseason USA Today Coaches Poll

Clemson has won two of the last three national titles and enters the season ranked No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time. Still, several months separate the Tigers from the College Football Playoff, leaving plenty of questions to answer in the meantime:

1. Can Trevor Lawrence avoid a sophomore slump?

Don't mean to be a fearmonger, but it's worth considering the possibility that Lawrence's production might not match what he achieved last year. Of course, a steep decline would run counter to what most analysts and experts expect out of Lawrence, who is a popular Heisman Trophy candidate. 

And on the chance Lawrence is having an off-afternoon, he can hand the ball to running back Travis Etienne, who rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns on 204 touches last season.  

2. Who fills the void at tight end?

Evaluating Clemson's tight ends corps without Braden Galloway

Garrett Williams departing Clemson with one year of eligibility remaining leaves the Tigers with a hole on offense. Sophomore Braden Galloway was believed to be a potential replacement at tight end, but he will miss the regular season on a suspension stemming from testing positive for trace amounts of Ostarine before last year's playoffs.

Junior J.C. Chalk is the next man on the depth chart, but coach Dabo Swinney has said freshmen Jaelyn Lay and Davis Allen and sophomore Luke Price could see time at tight end.

3. When does Amari Rodgers return?

Rodgers caught 55 passes for 575 yards and four touchdowns last season before suffering a torn ACL in the spring. Swinney said in mid-July there was no timetable for Rodgers' return but noted that the junior had been running.

"I think he's hopeful, and we're all hopeful that maybe he'll be back sometime in September," Swinney said. "That'd be awesome, but there's nothing set: he'll be back at this time."

Upon his return, Rodgers will pair with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross to comprise one of the more dangerous wide receiver units in the ACC. 

4. Can Clemson rebuild its defensive line to match last year's production?

Last season's defensive line was considered by some to be the best in Clemson history, and for good reason. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins and defensive ends Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell were all taken in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Defensive end Austin Bryant went in the fourth round and defensive end Albert Huggins signed with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent.

The onus to recapture some of that group's magic will likely fall on defensive end Xavier Thomas and defensive tackles Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney, both of whom missed the spring with injuries. 

5. Can the Tigers put away Syracuse on the road?

The only ACC team to give Clemson trouble last season was Syracuse. Clemson barely edged the Orange with a 27-23 victory, but it wasn't as lucky the season before, when the-then No. 2 Tigers fell to Syracuse on the road, 27-24, in one of the biggest upsets in recent memory.

The teams meet again Sept. 14, this time back at Syracuse. Many view the Orange as the only viable challenger to Clemson's recent conference dominance, and the Tigers can squash that conversation with a convincing victory Week Three.

6. Can Clemson's secondary be a position of strength?

Swinney is confident in his defensive back group this year and believes it has the potential to be among the best in Clemson history. Senior safeties Tanner Muse and K'Von Wallace lead the way for the unit, which needs to be strong given the team's high turnover rate on the defensive line. 

7. Will all of Swinney's assistants stick around?

Much has been made of the continuity of Clemson's coaching staff. Swinney returns all 10 of his assistants from last season's national championship team, an impressive feat considering the mass exodus other programs face after achieving similar success.

Swinney has created a culture in which assistants feel respected and valued, but another late-postseason run this season could set in motion some changes in the offseason when programs with openings come calling. 

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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