College Football: What now for Clemson?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 31, 2008

By Pete Iacobelli
Associated Press
ATLANTA ó For Clemson, it’s time to recover.
Considered the best team in the ACC with expectations of a national championship run, the Tigers were humbled by No. 24 Alabama 34-10 on Saturday night and rode home from Georgia searching for answers.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden signed a rich, new contract in the offseason, largely because university leaders saw the Tigers closing in on the big time. But midway through the fourth quarter, most of the orange-clad Tiger fans had left the Georgia Dome with a disappointment they’ve felt several times during Bowden’s 10 seasons.
The coach was surprised how easily Alabama dominated Clemson’s offensive and defensive lines ó the Tigers managed zero rushing yards compared to the Tide’s 239. Still, there’s much left for Clemson to achieve and it’s Bowden’s job to remind his players.
“Let’s see how we do at the end of the year,” Bowden said Sunday. “We played one game, and it was a big game. We got a few big games left.”
Perhaps none, though, could define the 2008 Tigers as much as this one. Beat all the Dukes, N.C. States and Citadels you want and it won’t wash out the bad taste left from Alabama.
The Tigers have a history of losing in the biggest spots under Bowden. A win over a middle-of-the-pack Maryland in 2006 or Georgia Tech last fall would’ve put Clemson in the ACC’s title game.
Finally, though, Clemson seemed ready to break through this season.
Most of their stars turned down the NFL for a senior shot at success, and all talked about trophies bigger than the conference title. All came up remarkably short against Alabama.
Quarterback Cullen Harper, talked up as a Heisman Trophy contender, didn’t throw a TD pass, was sacked three times and got picked off.
The Thunder and Lightning duo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller accounted for 20 yards on eight carries.
Clemson’s defense was just as sorry. Alabama runners Mark Ingram and Glen Coffee combined for 186 yards. Crimson Tide tight end Nick Walker seemed surprised at how wide open he was in the end zone on his 4-yard TD catch in the second quarter that gave Alabama a 20-3 lead.
“That’s because I was,” Walker said.
There was little for Bowden to do afterward except acknowledge the beatdown, congratulate the Crimson Tide and move on.
He’ll tell the Tigers when they meet Monday it was only last fall when Virginia Tech was outmuscled early by national champion LSU, 48-7. “I think (Tech) finished 11-3 and I think they won the conference last year,” Bowden said. “Just talking to your players, you can’t quit after one game.”
Bowden’s coaching opponent, Alabama’s Nick Saban, had his hands full trying to dampen what’s sure to be runaway expectations from a fan base eager to “Roll, Tide, Roll.”
“Our players can enjoy this for 24 hours,” Saban said. “But then we still have to prepare for the season.”
For Clemson, that truly starts in two weeks.
The Tigers play against in-state school Citadel, a Football Championship Subdivision team, to start their home season Saturday. Then comes the ACC opener, also at home, against struggling N.C. State, which was defeated 34-0 by South Carolina last Thursday night.
There’s another FCS team in South Carolina State and then Maryland before the Tigers’ next test, a Thursday night contest Oct. 9 at No. 23 Wake Forest.
“We have to keep fighting this season,” said Davis, Clemson’s senior with a chance at a third 1,000-yard season. “We still have goals to reach. We still have a chance to go to the ACC championship and the national championship.”
The Tigers have bounced back from ugly looking early blowouts under Bowden before. Clemson opened 2003 with a 30-0 home loss to Georgia, yet finished a 9-4 season that included victories over top-10 teams in Florida State and Tennessee.
Bowden will also challenge his player’s pride after the embarrassing defeat.
But how to explain such a poor performance when the Tigers had eight months to prepare?
“You got to take human error into it,” Bowden said. “Sometimes you can’t predict human error, human psyche.”
Right now, there’s no doubt Clemson’s psyche is low.
“The biggest thing with all the negative publicity, and rightfully so based on the performance, is I’ve got to talk to the team not to believe it,” he said, “and ‘Let’s go out and perform.’ “