Clemson (7-4) vs. Colorado (7-5), Dec. 27, 5 p.m., ESPN
By Larry Williams
Charleston (S.C) Post and Courier December 22, 2005
CLEMSON -- Typically accompanied by heartache for fans, heartburn for administrators and hot seats for coaches, seven-win seasons don't usually go over too well in Clemson.
Back-to-back 7-5 records in 1996 and 1997 put Tommy West on feeble footing in 1998, his final year as the Tigers' head coach. Tommy Bowden won seven games in 2001 and 2002, and only a dramatic revival late in 2003 kept him from getting run out of town.
So on the surface, it might be difficult to resolve the optimism that surrounded Clemson's program with one game left in Bowden's seventh season. The Tigers were 7-4, one of the losses having come against Wake Forest, but fans didn't clamor for the return of Danny Ford. They didn't rush to jab "For Sale" signs in Bowden's front yard. They didn't push the message boards into meltdown mode.
For the first time in a long time at Clemson, a seven-win season feels like a success. Quite simply, the stability and direction of the program seem as firm and as promising as ever under Bowden.
The additions of two new coordinators last winter bore immediate fruit in 2005, a year that saw Clemson negotiate a difficult schedule in the first season of the 12-team ACC. The past two recruiting classes have upgraded the Tigers' talent substantially, and there's more to come with a 2006 haul that could be Bowden's best yet. Four close losses underscored the notion that this team is not far away.
Of course, the good vibes could be wiped out before the new year if the Tigers forget to show up for their Dec. 27 matchup with downtrodden Colorado in the Champs Sports Bowl. A loss to the Buffaloes would heat up fan furor just as quickly as it cooled off late in the season. But as of now, life is pretty good for Bowden and the Tigers, and it could get even better in coming years.
"I'm probably more excited now than any time I've ever been here," said the 51-year-old Bowden, who is 51-33 at Clemson.
That excitement was tough to detect earlier this season, when losses to Wake and Georgia Tech left the team seemingly on the verge of disarray. On Oct. 1, the Tigers went to Winston-Salem and squandered a late lead before losing 31-27. The defeat, Clemson's third straight, dropped the Tigers to 2-3. A seven-win season seemed a tall order, with difficult games remaining against N.C. State, Georgia Tech, Florida State and South Carolina. The tilt against the Seminoles was the only one at home, leaving fans praying for 6-5.
The 10-9 defeat at Tech was just as deflating as the upset at Wake, mainly because it came two weeks after a stunningly dominant 31-10 throttling of State in Raleigh. The loss, which saw the Tigers fail to score an offensive touchdown, dropped Clemson to 4-4. A 5-6 record, which would have been Bowden's first losing season as a head coach, seemed a distinct possibility. So did the return of the Ford talk, the "For Sale" signs and the message-board mayhem.
But the Tigers did what they do best under Bowden -- respond with their backs pressed firmly against the wall. They closed 3-0 after disposing of Duke, thrashing FSU and escaping USC, and now Bowden looks a lot smarter after winning five of his last six games for the third straight year. It helped to beat the hated Gamecocks for the eighth time in nine years, holding Steve Spurrier without an offensive touchdown in the 13-9 victory.
Assuming they do the expected and beat Colorado in Orlando, the Tigers will have eight wins and a bundle of momentum for 2006.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, the Tigers finished the regular season ranked 13th nationally in scoring defense, after giving up 18.2 points per game. That's the lowest figure at Clemson since 1994, and it's even more impressive given the lack of talent and depth Koenning inherited in some areas.
Rob Spence was given control of Clemson's offense after the firing of Mike O'Cain, and fans had to love his emphasis on the running game. After averaging 107 yards a game on the ground in 2004 -- the lowest clip in school history -- the Tigers improved to 152.3 and finished second in the ACC in total offense. Despite some red-zone sputtering at crucial moments, the offense seems to have an element of unpredictability that has not been present since Rich Rodriguez roamed the sidelines.
The 7-4 record was somewhat misleading, because the four defeats came by a total of 14 points. As Clemson's players and coaches watched FSU shock Virginia Tech in the ACC title game, they reflected on just how close they came to being in Jacksonville -- one win away from the promised land known as the Bowl Championship Series.
Had Clemson made one fewer mistake in losses to Miami, Boston College, Wake Forest or Georgia Tech, Bowden would have been a cinch for ACC coach of the year. And the Tigers would have won the Atlantic Division, playing Virginia Tech for a spot in the Orange Bowl.
"It kind of makes you sick," junior center Dustin Fry said.
After the queasiness of what might have been wears off, the Tigers will look to the future with great anticipation.
The offense will absorb a big loss with the graduation of record-setting quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, but backup Will Proctor generated confidence while subbing for the injured Whitehurst in the 49-20 win over Duke. Proctor will be a senior in 2006, and he has a firm grasp of Spence's offense. There is a strong sentiment that Proctor's mobility makes him a better fit in Spence's scheme; the only question is whether he can make the intermediate throws against the speed he'll face versus the ACC's better teams.
Tailback James Davis was everything Bowden expected him to be when he signed with the Tigers, giving the offense a dynamic threat with his impeccable vision and moves. The ACC rookie of the year will be back to run behind a line that will return all five starters, plus an impressive five-man group of freshmen who redshirted in 2005.
Koenning will lose star cornerback Tye Hill, and filling that hole will be even more difficult if Duane Coleman (a partial qualifier out of high school) doesn't qualify academically for a fifth year of eligibility. Defensive end Charles Bennett also is a senior, but freshman Phillip Merling showed plenty of promise backing him up, as one of several first-year linemen who saw significant action.
Clemson expects to welcome back 32 of the 44 players who comprised its two-deep for most of the season. After one of the most fulfilling seven-win regular seasons in school history, the fans may welcome back expectations of a conference title.
CHAMPS BOWL AND BEYOND
WR Curtis Baham, DE Charles Bennett, DT Donnell Clark, FS Jamaal Fudge, CB Tye Hill, DT Trey Tate, QB Charlie Whitehurst, TE Bobby Williamson
RB Kyle Browning, TE Cole Downer, LB David Dunham, NG Cory Groover, FB Cliff Harrell, FB Steven Jackson, OG Chip Myrick, LB Lionel Richardson
2006 Returning Starters
Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2006 Class
RB Reggie Merriweather 5-8/210 Sr.
WR Chansi Stuckey 6-0/185 Sr.
TE Thomas Hunter 6-4/250 Sr.
LT Barry Richardson 6-7/335 Jr.
LG Roman Fry 6-4/295 Sr.
OC Dustin Fry 6-3/315 Sr.
RG Nathan Bennett 6-5/300 Sr.
RT Marion Dukes 6-4/315 Sr.
DE Gaines Adams 6-5/265 Sr.
LB Tramaine Billie 6-1/205 Sr.
LB Anthony Waters 6-3/240 Sr.
LB Nick Watkins 6-2/220 Jr.
SS Michael Hamlin 6-3/195 So.
CB Sergio Gilliam 6-3/180 Sr.
Special Teams (2)
PK Jad Dean 5-11/205 Sr.
P Cole Chason 6-0/165 Sr.
Other Tested Returnees
RB James Davis, OT Tim DeBeer, WR Kelvin Grant, WR Tyler Grisham, WR La'Donte Harris, WR Aaron Kelly, OG Brandon Pilgrim, QB Will Proctor, WR Rendrick Taylor
LB Antonio Clay, FS Chris Clemons, CB Duane Coleman (possibly), SS C.J. Gaddis, NG Rashaad Jackson, DS Colin Leonard, CB Haydrian Lewis, DT Jock McKissic, DE Phillip
Merling, NG Dorell Scott
Projected 2006 Strengths
Every year, preseason prognosticators scan ACC rosters in search of the team with the most returning starters, and this time that likely will be Clemson, which expects to have 16 of its top 24 back in 2006. On the offensive line, an annual bugaboo for many of the league's coaches, the Tigers will return all five starters, including four seniors. They'll block for a tailback rotation that boasts both star power (Davis) and stability (Merriweather). On defense, the experienced linebacker corps should provide a nice foundation upon which to rebuild, and several little-known youngsters (Merling, Jackson, etc.) actually may prove to be upgrades over the veterans they'll replace. Most importantly for the long run, perhaps, the program appears to have found a pair of quality coordinators in 2005 arrivals Rob Spence and Vic Koenning.
Projected 2006 Questions
At the most important position on the field, Proctor played pretty well when called upon this season, but can he avoid the typically serious problems encountered by most ACC quarterbacks (see Baker, Davis, Hagans, Hollenbach, Statham, etc.) who waited their turns before becoming first-time, full-time starters as juniors or seniors? Are the Tigers' talented young receivers ready to become more consistent playmakers in support of Stuckey? On defense, can Clemson avoid the devastating big plays that usually confound young, rebuilt secondaries? In the kicking game, can the previously mediocre Dean possibly duplicate his superb junior campaign, and will punts continue to be hold-your-breath experiences for yet another season?
Chart By: Editor David Glenn