TOMMY BOWDEN singles out the offensive line and linebackers as areas of concern on his Clemson football team. Yet there is no bigger concern to Bowden during the preseason than the lofty expectations for this team.
When The Associated Press preseason poll is released on Saturday, Clemson is expected to be among the top 15, perhaps as high as No. 10. Couple that with Clemson being the consensus pick to win the Atlantic Coast Conference, and you can understand why Bowden has dealing with expectations atop his list of priorities.
It was the subject of Bowden’s first address to his team the night before preseason camp opened.
“He said it can be a blessing in that it gives you a chip on your shoulder and gives you a lot to work for, or it can be a bother in the sense that it gives you a heightened opinion of yourself,” says starting center Thomas Austin,
That’s the Catch-22 attached with preseason rankings. Clemson can either seize the ranking and prove the team belongs among the nation’s elite, or the Tigers can fall prey to an inflated opinion of themselves.
History has not been good to Clemson when it comes to preseason rankings. Of the nine previous Clemson teams to be ranked 15th or higher in the preseason poll, only two improved their ranking by the end of the season.
The 1982 club improved from No. 11 to No. 8 thanks to a 9-1-1 record and an unbeaten season within the ACC. The 1990 Tigers started at No. 10 and finished one spot higher after a 10-2 season. The 1984 season represented the biggest collapse: The Tigers began at No. 4 and finished unranked with a 7-4 record.
Not since 1992, when Clemson was ranked No. 13, has a Tigers’ team been so highly ranked in the preseason. Few, if any, teams in school history have carried as much hype entering the season as the current one.
Bowden says he is relying heavily on his upperclassmen to best understand the process of becoming champions. And make no mistake, the goal for Clemson is to win an ACC championship. Not since 1991 have the Tigers done so.
“The hype, the preseason publicity, is good,” Bowden says. “I can’t think of many people who wouldn’t want it. But the key is getting it after the season, which we haven’t been able to do. Do those guys understand this is their last chance? We’ve been close, but let’s stop being close.”
In Bowden’s nine seasons, Clemson has finished in at least a tie for second place — either overall or in division play — four times. In each of those seasons, Clemson seemed to lack one major component, whether it was special teams play or a quality quarterback.
This Clemson team appears to have it all. Even where the troops are inexperienced or thin, such as offensive line and linebacker, Bowden believes there are ways to work around the weaknesses.
You know a team is loaded when a primary concern, and one that Bowden again addressed with the team on Thursday, is how players accept their roles. At issue is an offense that includes quarterback Cullen Harper, running backs C.J. Spiller and James Davis, and wide receivers Aaron Kelly, Jacoby Ford and Tyler Grisham.
Bowden says dissension can wrack a team when its stars are not allowed to showcase their talents. What happens, Bowden asks, if Spiller rushes for 115 yards on 15 carries in the opening game, and Davis is limited to 55 yards on nine carries? Or what happens if Clemson rushes for 400 yards against a lesser opponent, and Harper throws 10 passes while Kelly catches only two?
“There’s potential for some long faces coming out of the locker room, maybe even after we won a game,” Bowden says. “So, we’ve talked hard about being unselfish. You talk about the process of being a champion or trying to get to the championship game. I think you have to be very unselfish.”
When Bowden speaks to his team about unselfishness, he uses Reggie Merriweather as an example. Merriweather was a highly touted running back out of North Augusta who earned a starting spot at Clemson as a redshirt sophomore. With the arrival of Davis, and then Spiller, Merriweather went from starter to co-starter to third string.
“I didn’t expect him to like it. He didn’t like it,” Bowden says of Merriweather, whose carries dropped from 149 as a junior to 30 as a senior in 2006. “But the way he handled it was very professional, very manly. That’s what you’ve got have.”
Should Clemson’s stable of stars learn to accept their roles and sacrifice individual attention for the good of the team, this Clemson team could live up to the hype and the expectations of the preseason. Should that occur, this Clemson team could be scary good.