Clemson University

Season preview: Can Clemson finish the job?

CLEMSON — Everywhere senior quarterback Cullen Harper turns, there are reminders of how dominant Clemson is supposed to be this season.

NFL agents keep calling his dad. Players were given T-shirts with the words "History makers" on the back. There does not seem to be a preseason magazine on the stands that is not picking the Tigers to break their 17-year ACC title drought.

Harper said he cannot walk down a campus street for long without hearing someone shout a supportive comment that reinforces such expectations.

How hard has it been for the Tigers to stay grounded this summer, much less to avoid feeling a sense of accomplishment amid the hype? Not very, according to Harper.

"A lot of people said I wasn't going to be any good," Harper said. "So why should I listen to them now?"

Harper makes a compelling argument.

So why should anyone believe Clemson is top-10 material when the team arguably possesses similar shortcomings to last year's 9-4 squad?

Beyond the notion they should win the ACC by default, the Tigers have stuck with the premise that the more things stay the same, the more they should finally change.

That sums up the return of coach Tommy Bowden, who survived nine years without winning a title to sign a four-year contract extension in December.

Clemson's repeated close calls, coupled with the addition of another highly ranked recruiting class, bought Bowden the chance to accomplish last year's theme: "Finish the job."

"The statistics are what they are," Bowden said. "Been here 10 years and haven't won a conference championship. Disappointed? Yes. I'm always disappointed when we don't. But it's either black or white when you throw things like that on the table.

"If you're a coach, until you win a championship and more, you're going to have to answer that type of question."

With Bowden apparently set to take the Arkansas job last December, Clemson bowed to Bowden's request for a larger buyout clause in order to maintain the program's direction — not to mention to avoid the speed bumps involved with bringing in a new coach.

"The reason we gave him that contract is to get over the hump, quite frankly," athletics director Terry Don Phillips said. "There's no ifs, ands or buts about that.

"We believe going forward, the best opportunity for our program is to maintain continuity. ... Tommy Bowden is our football coach. We're going to go on down the highway. I believe we have a good future, and we're there (in terms of) making some good things happen."

"There" is probably best defined by the experience and talent Clemson has.

Depending on personnel groupings, the Tigers have 14-15 returning starters on offense and defense.

They boast the top three vote-getters for preseason ACC player of the year: Harper, senior tailback James Davis and junior tailback C.J. Spiller. Senior receiver Aaron Kelly is on pace to shatter the league's career receptions record. And seven starters return from the nation's 10th-ranked scoring defense, headlined by All-ACC safety Michael Hamlin.

That caliber of star power can be both a gift and a curse — a warning Bowden and his staff have issued frequently this month.

"Whether guys remain unselfish and we remain a team will be one of our biggest challenges," offensive coordinator Rob Spence said. "And that we know no matter how good you are, everybody has to play a role."

Clemson has its share of issues, too.

Four of the five starting offensive linemen essentially will be first-year starters, and an inability to control the line of scrimmage was a common thread in the Tigers' losses last season.

The special-teams units remain under scrutiny. Plus, there is the tiny matter of conquering the psychological hurdle that has resulted from Clemson tripping late in the season and falling just shy of an Atlantic Division title the past three years.

"Life feels good now," Davis said. "But we have to finish well at the end."