- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson coach Tommy Bowden remembers when frustration first hounded his father, Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, college football's all-time winningest coach.
The Seminoles were college football's dominant team for much of the 1980s and 1990s. In a 14-year span from 1987-2000, FSU won 10 games or more and finished ranked in the top five in each season. But a national title eluded the Noles during the early part of that run. After several near-misses, the Seminoles finally won a national championship in 1993 and again in 1999.
"It was wide right, wide right, wide right," Tommy Bowden said. "Then all of the sudden, he gets one and everything is fine."
The younger Bowden has faced a similar dilemma at Clemson, albeit with lesser expectations. The Tigers have entered many of the past nine seasons with hopes of winning an ACC title. Each time, Clemson has come up short of that goal, even as many of the league's traditional powers, such as FSU and Miami, were struggling.
The Tigers haven't won an ACC title since 1991, a year before Florida State joined the conference.
Last season, Clemson could have earned a trip to the ACC championship game in Jacksonville, Fla., but the Tigers lost at home to Boston College, 20-17. They finished one game behind Boston College in the ACC's Atlantic Division standings; it was the second consecutive season in which they finished one game behind the winner. Virginia Tech beat the Eagles 30-16 to win the ACC and earn a trip to the FedEx Orange Bowl.
"We've been second in division, second in division," Bowden said. "I think it's eventually going to happen."
Expectations are again high at Clemson, especially after tailback James Davis and receiver Aaron Kelly elected to return to school for their senior seasons. Davis, a 5-foot-11, 205-pound native of Atlanta, initially entered the NFL draft after running for 1,064 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2007. But he later changed his mind and withdrew.
"With me coming back, I really have nothing to lose," Davis said. "I can graduate and get an ACC championship and get to a BCS bowl game this year. I'm coming back to a team that can win a championship. Last year, we had a lot of juniors who were leaders. This year, we've got a lot of seniors who are ready to lead."
Bowden said he encouraged Davis to return to school because the running back was projected as a third-round draft choice by NFL general managers and coaches.
"I told him the average NFL salary is $15 million," Bowden said. "You better be a finished product. There are no do-overs. There are no second chances. You have to be polished in pass protection, pass catching and running the football. I thought he could improve in all of those areas. It looked like the pros had a similar evaluation of him."
With so many running backs entering the draft this year (ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper has as many as four running backs projected to go in the first round), Davis believes he made the right decision in returning to school. He said he plans to work with Clemson's track coaches this spring to improve his speed.
"I looked at the NFL combine stuff," Davis said. "A lot of those running backs are pretty fast. It's why I came back and went to the track coaches and said, 'I've got to get fast.' A lot of those guys ran 4.3 [seconds in the 40-yard dash], and I wasn't expecting it. I know I'm probably a 4.4 guy. You look at it and see you need to be a 4.3 guy."
With Davis and junior C.J. Spiller returning to the backfield, few teams figure to have as much offensive firepower as Clemson in 2008. Spiller ran for 768 yards and three touchdowns while sharing carries with Davis last season.
The Tigers will have to replace four starters on the offensive line. Defensively, Clemson will have to replace at least two starting linebackers and perhaps a third if middle linebacker Cortney Vincent, who was suspended from spring practice for a violation of team policy, isn't reinstated to the team.
"You've got to get everybody on the same page," Davis said. "It's something you always think about. You want that ring. If you leave without a ring, especially coming off a loss in the bowl game [a 23-20 loss to Auburn in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl], you leave without really accomplishing anything."
Senior quarterback Cullen Harper, who played sparingly in his first two seasons at Clemson, also returns after throwing for 2,991 yards with 27 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2007. His return means highly regarded sophomore Willy Korn, who attempted only 11 passes as a freshman, will probably play sparingly again this coming season.
"I've never been one to play two quarterbacks," Bowden said. "If they come out [of practice] pretty close, I'd do it. I've always had distant separation between the one and two. Quarterbacks are kind of like baseball pitchers. Once a guy is in a groove, I'm not going to take a guy out and let him get cold on the sideline. I think sometimes there is a lot of negativity involved in switching quarterbacks."
Bowden hopes the four-year contract extension he signed at Clemson in December will remove the uncertainty that surrounded him for much of the past three seasons. Bowden received the extension, which will take him through the 2014 season, after nearly becoming Arkansas' new coach.
"There are a lot of players coming back here," Bowden said. "I've been here going on 10 years. It's a pretty good place to be."
It would be even better if Clemson finally wins an ACC championship.
"We've been close the last three years," Bowden said. "I always feel like we're close. But it's about what you've done at the end of the season, and that's where we've fallen short."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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