THE MUSIC CITY BOWL:
Clemson (8-4) vs. Kentucky (7-5), Dec. 29, 1 p.m., ESPN
By Larry Williams
Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier
December 21, 2006
CLEMSON There weren't many cheers emanating from the football offices when Clemson's bowl invitation became official.
Some years, a trip to the ACC's No. 5 postseason destination might be something to savor. This wasn't one of those years.
Last season, the Tigers looked back on 8-4 and felt somewhat accomplished. This season, they looked back on the same record and wondered what went wrong.
"Eight-and-four is like getting a C in class," senior center Dustin Fry said. "You're average, pretty much."
Closing against Kentucky in the Music City Bowl just wasn't supposed to happen. Clemson returned all five starters on the offensive line, the ACC's best running back and several key players on defense.
Back in August, the fans were whipped into a frenzy over the prospect of challenging for the school's first conference title since 1991. Players were putting in extra work, trying to make up the few points that separated Clemson from greatness in 2005.
A 7-1 start left almost all rational ACC observers concluding that the Tigers were the most powerful team in the league. After they laid a 31-7 whipping on Georgia Tech in late October, was there really any question?
Two months later, there seem to be nothing but questions surrounding a program that fell far short of expectations that seemed so realistic that night in Death Valley. Three losses in the last four regular-season games have plenty of folks wondering whether eighth-year coach Tommy Bowden will ever be able to lead the program back to the greatness it once enjoyed under Danny Ford.
Over the summer, Bowden himself wondered whether this team would be able to distinguish itself from its recent predecessors. The teams of the past few years had no problems winning their share of big games, but they always seemed to find a way to screw up games they had no business losing.
This team didn't succumb to a 45-17 implosion at Wake Forest, as happened in 2003. This team didn't go to Duke and lose inexplicably, as happened in 2004.
This team didn't produce a debacle that leaped off television screens across the nation, but it did manage to lose at home to a 20-point underdog.
Maryland left Death Valley with a 13-12 win that ultimately cost Clemson the Atlantic Division title. And the manner in which the Tigers lost no offensive touchdowns left Bowden's critics convinced that these were the same old Tigers.
A humbling 24-7 loss at Virginia Tech and a 31-28 defeat to South Carolina in the regular-season finale left the Tigers asking themselves where the invincibility went.
"This last month has been full of ups and downs," Fry said, "more downs than ups."
This season will be a major downer if Clemson doesn't find a way to beat Kentucky in Nashville. With a victory, the Tigers will be able to look somewhat favorably on a 9-4 season. A Top 25 finish would be a possibility, and that would give the program its first back-to-back Top 25 years since 1990-91.
A loss, on the other hand, would set up a rough offseason. Four losses in five games wouldn't sit well for fans who thought this was going to be a breakthrough season.
Predictably, Bowden isn't panicking over what has all the looks of underachievement. He points to an uncharacteristic rash of ailments that covered almost the whole season. When senior linebacker Tramaine Billie suffered a broken ankle during fall camp, it set in motion a series of injuries that hurt in a big way.
Billie ultimately was lost for the season. Star middle linebacker Anthony Waters blew out his knee late in the opener against Florida Atlantic and also was gone. Safety Michael Hamlin suffered a broken foot in the second game at Boston College and missed three weeks. Receiver Chansi Stuckey missed three weeks with a broken foot, and receiver Rendrick Taylor suffered a broken arm in early October at Wake Forest and missed the rest of the regular season. Starting left guard Roman Fry blew out his knee against Georgia Tech, and Thomas Hunter's broken foot will deprive the offense of its only productive tight end for the bowl game.
The list is long and diverse, and it cannot be ignored when discussing the disappointments of 2006.
"If you look at our season, I guess 95 percent of the press picked us to finish second in the division with a healthy team," Bowden said. "We lost four pretty important starters, pretty solid guys, high-impact guys, and we still finished second in the conference. Whether we call that overachieving, I don't know. But all I know is that with a healthy team, we were picked second in the division."
Two years ago, the Tigers' four losses came by a total of 14 points. This year, the loss to the Hokies was the only defeat that didn't go down to the wire. The other three were by a total of five points.
Bowden looks at those narrow deficits and concludes that the Tigers don't have far to go. A lot of fans might conclude that questionable coaching decisions cost the team in those close games, and that's not an unreasonable assertion. Nevertheless, it's hard to dispute that the program is in good shape.
The coaching staff is closing in on a solid recruiting class for the third straight year, and the facilities are finally in tip-top shape. The defense, despite the loss of Waters and star end Gaines Adams, will return almost everyone else next season. And the offense, despite heavy losses on the line and the rather glaring issue of inexperience at quarterback, will welcome back dynamic tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller.
As sourly as things ended, this doesn't have the look of a crumbling program. The talent and depth are more impressive than at any other time in Bowden's tenure, and there's every reason to think the Tigers will be a factor in the ACC race next season and beyond.
The offense didn't sustain much in the last four games, but a lot of that can be attributed to the exposure of one-dimensional quarterback Will Proctor. If next year's signal-caller incoming freshman Willy Korn? Cullen Harper? Tribble Reese? is able to be merely serviceable at downfield passing, then the offense should be able to move the ball effectively.
The future still appears bright in Tigertown, but the immediate past is hard to stomach for a team that banked on so much more than 8-4.
"Some people may think that was a good season," Stuckey said. "But that's an average season at best."
DE Gaines Adams, RG Nathan Bennett, P Cole Chason, CB Duane Coleman, PK Jad Dean, RT Marion Dukes, OC Dustin Fry, LG Roman Fry, TE Thomas Hunter, QB Will Proctor, WR Chansi Stuckey
DE Brandon Cannon, DT Donnell Clark, CB Sergio Gilliam (2005 starter), RB Reggie Merriweather, LB Anthony Waters (2004-05 starter)
2007 Returning Starters^
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2007 Class
RB James Davis 5-11/205 Jr.
WR Tyler Grisham 5-11/180 Jr.
TE Akeem Robinson 6-5/260 *Jr.
LT Barry Richardson 6-7/320 Sr.
DT Jock McKissic 6-6/295 Jr.
DT Dorell Scott 6-4/305 Jr.
DE Phillip Merling 6-5/270 Jr.
LB Nick Watkins 6-2/220 Sr.
LB Antonio Clay 6-0/220 Jr.
LB Maurice Nelson 6-2/215 Sr.
SS Michael Hamlin 6-3/200 Jr.
FS Chris Clemons 6-1/205 Jr.
CB C.J. Gaddis 6-0/210 Sr.
Special Teams (0)
- has utilized redshirt season
^ six/more 2006 regular-season starts
Other Tested Returnees
KR/PR Jacoby Ford, WR Aaron Kelly, OG Chris McDuffie, TE Michael Palmer, FB Alex Pearson, OG Brandon Pilgrim, RB C.J. Spiller, WR Rendrick Taylor
LB Tramaine Billie (2004-05 starter), CB Crezdon Butler, CB Chris Chancellor, LB Kavell Conner, DT Rashaad Jackson, DE Ricky Sapp, LB Cortney Vincent, SS Roy Walker
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 4-4 (5) 7-5 Peach Bowl (L)
1998 1-7 (8) 3-8 None
1999 5-3 (2) 6-6 Peach Bowl (L)
2001 4-4 (4) 7-5 Humanitarian Bowl (W)
2000 6-2 (2) 9-3 Gator Bowl (L)
2002 4-4 (5) 7-6 Tangerine Bowl (L)
2003 5-3 (3) 9-4 Peach Bowl (W)
2004 4-4 (6) 6-5 None
2005 4-4 (3A) 8-4 Champs Sports (W)
2006 5-3 (2A) 8-4 Music City Bowl
ACC: 42-38 (.525)
Overall: 70-50 (.583)
Team 2006 Record^
Boston College 9-3 (5-3)
Florida State 6-6 (3-5)
Virginia Tech 10-2 (6-2)
Wake Forest 11-2 (6-2)
Furman 8-4 (6-1)
Louisiana-Monroe 4-8 (3-4)
Duke 0-12 (0-8)
Georgia Tech 9-4 (7-1)
Maryland 8-4 (5-3)
N.C. State 3-9 (2-6)
South Carolina 7-5 (3-5)
^ regular season only (conference)
NOTE: Finalized dates/times TBA.