Clemson has earned the reputation of an underachiever in Tommy Bowden’s nine seasons on the sidelines, routinely landing in second-tier bowl games despite possessing some routinely impressive talent.
It’ll only get worse if Bowden’s team can’t win the ACC in 2008, when they’ll be preseason favorites for the first time in his tenure.
The No. 9 Tigers won’t have to wait to get their first major test, as they open the season Saturday in Atlanta against 24th-ranked Alabama, which is looking for improvement in Nick Saban’s second season.
Clemson (9-4) started 8-0 in 2000, Bowden’s second year at the helm, before losing three of its final four, including a blowout loss in the Gator Bowl. In 2006, the Tigers got off to a 7-1 start before losing four of their final five games.
There wasn’t as steep of a collapse last season, but Clemson still couldn’t win the ACC’s Atlantic Division. It lost to Boston College for the third consecutive season - costing itself a trip to the conference title game - before dropping its second straight bowl game to an ACC opponent.
“There’s always that frustration of not winning the championship. You’ll have to carry that label,” said Bowden, who was an assistant at Alabama in the late 1980s.
He might not have to carry that designation for much longer. The Tigers return seven offensive starters from the conference’s top-scoring team, including the top three vote-getters in balloting for the ACC player of the year - quarterback Cullen Harper and tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller.
Davis and Spiller were expected to be the nation’s top backfield tandem after outstanding 2006 campaigns, but both saw a decline in their production last season. Davis’ average dropped from 5.8 to 5.0 yards per carry, and he scored 10 touchdowns after running for 17 in 2006. Spiller’s drop-off was worse - he averaged 5.3 yards as a sophomore as opposed to 7.3 as a freshman, and scored just three touchdowns after having 10 the year before.
This season, the pair will be running behind an offensive line that will have to replace four starters, but Spiller’s expectations are still sky high.
“I think everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, they don’t deserve to be in the top 10. They always find a way to lose a game,’” Spiller said. “I think when we hold up that ACC trophy, we’ll be fine.”
That should be more feasible with the conference’s best quarterback in front of them. Harper led the ACC in passing efficiency in 2007 and set 22 school records in his first season as a starter. Perhaps most impressive was his 27-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Clemson’s defense should be one of the best in the conference - and maybe the nation - despite having to replace its top four linebackers. The Tigers were among the top 10 in the country last season in scoring defense (18.3 ppg) and total defense (297.2 ypg), and add highly touted freshman defensive end Da’Quan Bowers.
Clemson is the conference favorite and is ranked in the top 10 nationally for the first time since 1991, and its players are anxious to open against a solid opponent - particularly one from a conference that’s given them trouble in their past two bowl games.
“We don’t want any cupcake team to open up,” defensive back Chris Chancellor said. “We need to know where we stand right now.”
Alabama (7-6) should give the Tigers a solid test. Though the Crimson Tide lost six games last season, they didn’t lose by more than a touchdown, and with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, much improvement is expected.
Two of those star recruits are Julio Jones and B.J. Scott, who should give a much-needed injection of talent to a receiving corps that lost its top three players from 2007.
“They’re good. They’re really good,” quarterback John Parker Wilson said. “Julio’s going to make some big plays this year. He can go up and get it. He can run by guys.”
Wilson could use some help - his yards per attempt, completion percentage and quarterback rating all dropped off in his junior season.
He’ll have some solid options at tailback if the passing game doesn’t click right away. Terry Grant led the team with 930 rushing yards as a freshman in 2007, but junior Glen Coffee overtook Grant in practice and is expected to get the bulk of the carries.
Alabama returns only five starters on defense, though one of those players is All-SEC safety Rashad Johnson, who led the league with six interceptions.
The Tide lead the all-time series with Clemson, 11-3. The teams haven’t met since a 56-0 Tigers win in Tuscaloosa in 1975.