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Dabo Swinney: Clemson closing in on elite

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Dabo Swinney: Clemson closing in on elite

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson had a landmark season and Tigers coach Dabo Swinney feels his team has closed the gap on the game's elite programs - and that they could go even further next season.

The Tigers (11-2), ranked 11th in the final poll, finished with their most victories since going 12-0 and winning the national championship in 1981. Swinney said Friday his players took a giant step forward with their last-second, 25-24 win over LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.

Now that they have, Swinney believes Clemson ranks alongside the game's very best.

``It just does a lot for our football team knowing we don't take a back seat to anybody,'' the fifth-year coach said. ``We can play and compete with anybody in the country.''

That attitude already has expectations soaring around campus. Swinney laid the groundwork moments after Chandler Catanzaro's 37-yard field goal as time expired gave the Tigers their first bowl win in three years, demonstrating to a national audience that his has national title potential.

Swinney said he'll have just 10 seniors next fall, meaning the bulk of a program that's gone 21-6 the past two seasons will be coming into its prime.

``With that comes an expectation. With that comes a belief,'' Swinney said. ``They understand the commitment that it takes. Those are positive things. That's the kind of culture you want to have.

``They're not hoping to win, they expect to win.''

Not that it will come easy.

On Thursday, Clemson's record-setting receiver DeAndre Hopkins gave up his senior season for the NFL draft. Hopkins had a school-record 1,405 yards on 82 receptions including an Atlantic Coast Conference record 18 touchdown catches.

Swinney thought Hopkins, who received a second-round grade from NFL draft advisors, could've used another year in college to develop. Still, he said he supported Hopkins' choice to leave.

``I think it's going to be tough'' for Hopkins to crack the first round of April's draft, Swinney said.

Coming back are two pieces some might not have expected in offensive coordinator Chad Morris and junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. Morris was linked to several head coaching openings and was interviewed by Texas Tech before AD Kirby Hocutt selected Kliff Kingsbury. Morris, the highest paid assistant in the game at $1.3 million last season, said he was happy to return to the Tigers.

Boyd, the ACC's player of the year, has thrown for 7,724 yards and 69 touchdowns the past two years and was leaning toward turning pro after the LSU victory. However, Boyd said he wasn't ready to leave with Clemson on the verge of even bigger things.

``There are things for us to go out there and accomplish,'' Boyd said.

That began, Swinney said, with a team meeting on Thursday. The typically ecstatic Swinney told his players the book was closed on 2012 and its achievements as everyone prepared to buckle down for next year.

Swinney expects another high-flying offense despite the departure of Hopkins and senior tailback Andre Ellington, who posted his second 1,000-yard season this past fall.

Sammy Watkins, an All-American as a freshman in 2010, will lead the receiving corps with backups like Charone Peake and redshirted freshman Genome Hopper looking for more playing time.

Clemson's backfield will feature Rod McDowell and D.J. Howard, who combined for 588 yards and seven touchdowns in backup roles.

The biggest questions will again come on defense, which struggled much of the season before having its best game against LSU. The Tigers, under first-year coordinator Brent Venables, allowed more than 396 yards and 24 points a game this year, although they forced eight three-and-outs against LSU in the bowl victory.

Two of Clemson's three biggest games next season - an expected top 10 season-opening matchup against Georgia and defending ACC champ Florida State - come at home where the Tigers have lost just once in 14 games the past two seasons.

Swinney likes what he sees down the road, yet understands there are plenty of hurdles to leap long before anyone can think championship.

``The big thing is are they going to have the same type of leadership and accountability,'' he said. ``I know what the 2012 team did. It's well documented. But that's got nothing to do with this team.''

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Alex Ovechkin named to NHL's All-Decade first team for 2010-19

Alex Ovechkin named to NHL's All-Decade first team for 2010-19

Alex Ovechkin once again was named to one of the NHL's All-Decade teams.

This go-around, Ovechkin was named to the first-team for the All-Decade Team spanning 2010-2019. 

During those 10 seasons, there was no one that totaled more than Ovi's 437 goals. Only two others had more than his 730 points.

Through our eyes, we saw him mature from a unique superstar to a once-in-a-generation athlete. Ovechkin won his first Stanley Cup in the decade after years of heartbreak and dominant Capitals teams that could never escape the second round. 

Now, he's a mere eight goals away from reaching 700 and further etching his name in the fabric of the sport. 

He is joined with fellow forward Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith of the Blackhawks. Sidney Crosby of the Penguins, Drew Doughty of the Kings and Marc-Andre Fleury of the Golden Knights rounded out the six-player first team. 

NHL ALL-DECADE FIRST TEAM

Alex Ovechkin - F - Capitals
Patrick Kane - F - Blackhawks
Sidney Crosby - C - Penguins
Duncan Keith - D - Blackhawks
Drew Doughty - D - Kings
Marc-Andre Fleury - G- Golden Knights

NHL ALL-DECADE SECOND TEAM

Evgeni Malkin - F - Penguins
Patrice Bergeron - F - Bruins
Steven Stamkos - F - Lightning
Erik Karlsson - D - Sharks
Zdeno Chara - D - Bruins
Henrik Lundqvist - G - Rangers

The Great 8 was also named to the All-Decade team in 2000-10. Only Zdeno Chara and Sidney Crosby, named to the second team for the last decade, received the recognition last decade as well. 

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WATCH: Justin Tucker drills 70-yard field goal at Pro Bowl practice

WATCH: Justin Tucker drills 70-yard field goal at Pro Bowl practice

Justin Tucker is the most accurate kicker in NFL history, but at Pro Bowl practice Friday he decided to show off his ridiculous range by drilling a 70-yard field goal with relative ease. 

Hitting 70-yard field goals in practice isn't anything new. He spent time in the offseason drilling kicks from the same distance.

There just wasn't any need for Tucker to kick a record-breaking field goal because the Ravens offense was seemingly always in the red zone. Tucker attempted 59 extra points this year, which was the most he'd ever taken in a season by 17 and led the league by a wide margin. 

Tucker's current career-long is the 61-yard bomb he hit in 2013. His longest field goal in 2019 was 51 yards. 

In a game like the Pro Bowl, field position and the final result doesn't really matter. So maybe Tucker will get a chance to kick from 70-plus during the game on Sunday. 

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