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COLLEGE FOOTBALL | TOP 25 COUNTDOWN

No. 9 Clemson

Quarterback Cullen Harper, left, and running back C.J. Spiller -- Heisman contenders both -- return to lead a deep and balanced Clemson attack ranked atop the ACC.
Quarterback Cullen Harper, left, and running back C.J. Spiller -- Heisman contenders both -- return to lead a deep and balanced Clemson attack ranked atop the ACC. (Richard Shiro, file - AP)

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Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Basics

2007 record

9-4, 5-3 (lost to Auburn, 20-13, in the Chick-fil-A Bowl)

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Returning Starters

7 offense, 7 defense

Key Game

vs. Alabama in Atlanta, Aug. 30

Player to Watch

Cullen Harper, senior quarterback

The ACC has not had a Heisman Trophy winner since Chris Weinke in 2000, but with his top three receivers returning from a season in which he threw for 2,991 yards and 27 scores, Harper is this year's best threat to end the drought.

Why They're Worth Watching

This is Clemson's most talented team in Coach Tommy Bowden's nine-year tenure and perhaps the ACC's best on-paper roster since Florida State's last days of dominance. The three biggest marquee names in the conference reside in Clemson's backfield: Harper and running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller, who enter their third season together. They should return to their unstoppable 2006 form after last year's inconsistency. Their complement is Aaron Kelly, a first-team all-ACC wideout who is joined outside by experienced pass-catchers Tyler Grisham and Jacoby Ford. The other side of the ball is just as loaded. Defensive end Ricky Sapp could bolt after his junior season and become a first-round NFL draft pick. Senior Michael Hamlin, one of the country's top safeties, leads a secondary that returns its top seven defensive backs. Even Clemson's special teams stand out: Hardly any team boasts as fast a return combination as Spiller and Ford.

Why They're Vulnerable

All that talent might not allow Clemson to overcome its twin big-game nemeses: history and Bowden. Each time the Tigers have thrust themselves into championship contention under Bowden, they have managed to prick the balloon just as quickly. A primer: In 2004, they began the season ranked No. 15, beat Wake Forest in double overtime and then lost four straight; in 2006, they rose to No. 10 after a blowout of Georgia Tech, then were throttled at Virginia Tech; last season, they were 1 minute 46 seconds away from a spot in the ACC title game when Boston College scored on a 43-yard, game-winning touchdown pass at Death Valley. So forgive Clemson fans if all the preseason hype makes them more queasy than confident. Think ahead to Nov. 8 at Florida State. If all goes well, the Tigers will enter 8-0, Bowden taking on his father, Bobby. Could there be a more nerve-wracking game for the younger Bowden?

-- Adam Kilgore

Tomorrow

No. 8 West Virginia.

Previously

No. 25 Arizona State, No. 24 Alabama, No. 23 Cal, No. 22 Penn State, No. 21 Wake Forest, No. 20 Wisconsin, No. 19 Tennessee, No. 18 Oregon, No. 17 Illinois,

No. 16 Kansas, No. 15 BYU, No. 14 Virginia Tech, No. 13 South Florida, No. 12 Texas Tech, No. 11 Texas, No. 10 Auburn.


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