Clemson Favored to Win ACC for First Time in T. Bowden's Tenure
Tuesday, July 22, 2008; Page E08
GREENSBORO, Ga., July 21 -- The copies of the white document that made their way around the Ritz-Carlton Lodge on Monday afternoon provoked meager surprise, an anti-climactic conclusion to ample discussion in previous days. The team with the prodigious running back tandem, efficient quarterback and arsenal of swift receivers had been deemed favorites to win the conference.
At 3:15 p.m., Clemson officially claimed its first title in the decade-long tenure of Coach Tommy Bowden -- paper champions of the ACC. For the first time since 1991, members of the media predicted Clemson to win the conference championship and left its coach in a somewhat unfamiliar position.
"My father is more accustomed to handling this question than I am," Tommy Bowden said of his father, Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, whose Seminoles were the ACC's preseason choice in each of their first 13 years in the league. "But I think it will definitely elevate the competition's level of play. Everybody likes to take a shot at the top guy."
Tommy Bowden may not be used to being the top guy, but certainly he has grown accustomed to high expectations. Despite earning bowl berths in eight of nine seasons at the Clemson helm, Bowden enters his 10th season having never won a conference championship and having rarely removed his bottom from the proverbial hot seat.
In fact, surrounded by two dozen reporters at Day 2 of the ACC Football Kickoff, Bowden noted how remarkable it is that he's still Clemson's coach, much less still searching for Clemson's first conference title.
"They're all accurate," Bowden said of the statistics his critics use to defile his coaching career. "You know, disappointed? Yes. I'm always disappointed when we don't [meet expectations]. It's either black or white; there's really no gray area when you throw things like that on the table."
There also appears to be no gray area when it comes to identifying the most dynamic offense the ACC has to offer. North Carolina safety Deunta Williams called Clemson "amazingly talented." Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon noted that Clemson was the conference favorite and "outside of that, you can pick out of a hat."
The hype begins in the backfield, where the Tigers can offer defenses nightmares in two completely different forms. Senior running back James Davis rushed for a team-leading 1,064 yards last season, mostly by way of running over opponents. Davis's counterpart, junior C.J. Spiller, accumulated a team-leading 1,723 all-purpose yards in large part because opponents simply struggled to catch him.
"It's tough to line up in the fourth quarter and see C.J. in the backfield because you know he's been splitting time, so he's probably still at 80 percent," Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry said.
Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper broke 21 school records and was the ACC's most efficient passer a season ago. His main target will be Aaron Kelly, who recorded 1,081 receiving yards in 2007.
Perhaps more than any other player on Clemson's roster, Harper can relate to the position in which his coach resides. Harper was not supposed to last this long; he was supposed to be replaced by someone else long ago. Instead, he finds himself ready to lead the Tigers into what may be their most heralded season yet.
"I really feel like we deserve all the hype that we've gotten because of the season we had last year and because of the players we have this year," Harper said. "But that doesn't mean that we're sitting here saying, 'People are expecting us to win the ACC championship; we're going to win it.' "
In recent seasons, the team's outlook at the beginning has been sullied by the way those campaigns wrapped up. In 2006, Clemson started 7-1 and was ranked as high as No. 10 in the nation, only to drop four of its last five games and finish 8-5. Last year, Clemson was poised to reach its first conference championship game before allowing Boston College to score 17 fourth-quarter points and advance instead.
Bowden knows there are many obstacles standing between him and an ACC title, including a young and inexperienced offensive line. He also knows his critics will remain vocal until his team can remove the "paper" from its recently afforded title.
"Until you win a conference championship and more," he said, "you're going to have to answer that type of question."