Clemson still searching for elusive second title

Clemson owns just one national championship in football, and it happened 25 years ago. This season will be make-or-break for the Tigers, writes Mark Schlabach.

Updated: August 23, 2006, 3:31 PM ET
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Clemson will celebrate the greatest moment in its 110-year football history this season. A quarter-century ago, coach Danny Ford led the upstart Tigers to a perfect 12-0 record and the program's only national championship.

Tommy Bowden
AP Photo/Chris GardnerTommy Bowden has been on the hot seat in each of his seven seasons at Clemson.
But among the pomp and circumstance of the silver anniversary of that historic moment, a more dubious anniversary also hangs over Tommy Bowden's program. Clemson hasn't won an ACC title in 15 years, not since 1991, the season before Bowden's father, Bobby, brought his Florida State program into the league. The Seminoles have won or shared 12 of 14 ACC titles since 1992 -- Maryland won the league championship in 2001, Virginia Tech in 2004.

Meanwhile, it can be argued that Clemson has been the face of mediocrity in the ACC during that span. In the past 15 seasons, the Tigers have been in contention for the ACC championship only four times. They have tied for second in the league standings in 1996, 1999 and 2000, but finished at least two games behind FSU each season. Last season, the Tigers might have reached the inaugural ACC championship game, but consecutive overtime losses to Miami and Boston College, followed by an inexcusable defeat at Wake Forest and a one-point loss at Georgia Tech left them one game behind FSU in the Atlantic Division.

Bowden, who has a 52-33 record in seven seasons at Clemson, has faced enormous expectations since the day he brought his fire-powered offensive scheme from Tulane in 1999. He seemingly has been on the hot seat each of the past four seasons, only to save his job when his team had late-season winning streaks. Clemson upset Florida State in 2003 and again last season, and stunned Miami on the road in 2004 (the Tigers, almost predictably, lost at Duke the next week and finished 6-5).

Last season, the Tigers fought through a three-game losing streak and finished 8-4 and ranked No. 21 in the final Associated Press poll. Clemson has been eligible to play in postseason bowl games during each of Bowden's seven seasons (the Tigers didn't play a bowl game in 2004 as punishment for their involvement in a brawl during their 29-7 victory over South Carolina), but it has never had consecutive seasons in which it was ranked in the final Top 25 poll during his tenure.

Bowden knows it is time for the Tigers to start contending for titles again.

"At some point in time in your career, you'd like to be at a place where there are high expectations," Bowden said. "The place I'm coaching at, there are high expectations every year. I would rather have my name associated year after year with a place that's got a chance of winning a championship, rather than being at a school on the other end."

But coaching at a school that has tasted the highest level of success -- winning a national championship -- makes the job that much tougher.

"If you ever coached at a school that's won one, the expectations are always going to be higher than at a place that hasn't won one," Bowden said.

Bowden said his biggest obstacles in getting Clemson back into the national championship race have been recruiting and improving the school's facilities. Bowden said Clemson fell behind other programs in the ACC's facilities race as North Carolina, Virginia Tech, NC State and Maryland invested millions of dollars to improve their football facilities in recent years. Bowden said improvements at other schools put the Tigers at a disadvantage in recruiting.

"You're not fighting with the same size stick, so what can they expect?" Bowden said. "If everybody is hitting home runs with a 32-ounce bat, that's fine. But if one guy has a 28-ounce bat, don't expect home runs."

Clemson has made sizable investments to raise Bowden's slugging percentage. Memorial Stadium is undergoing a $70 million renovation, which will enclose the west end of the stadium and add new luxury suites, a state-of-the-art scoreboard and about 1,000 club seats. Two years ago, a new football locker room and players' lounge area were built. Clemson slowly is getting on par with the rest of the league in facilities, and Bowden knows the improvements increase the pressure on him.

"I'm trying to get them to slow down a little bit," Bowden joked.

Clemson and rival South Carolina have long faced the same recruiting dilemma: There aren't enough blue-chip recruits in the state for two upper-echelon Division I-A programs, and many of the top players don't qualify academically. Both programs have relied upon getting prospects from talent-rich states such as Florida and Georgia, but that often involves signing leftover prospects more accomplished programs didn't recruit.

Clemson has had only one NFL first-round selection since 2001; cornerback Tye Hill was the No. 15 choice by the St. Louis Rams in April's draft. Miami produced 21 first-rounders since 2000, and Florida State has tallied a dozen. Only three ACC schools -- Georgia Tech (0), Duke (0) and Wake Forest (1) -- have fewer first-rounders to claim since 2000 than Clemson's two.

"If you look at the NFL draft, it's still nine teams chasing Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech," Bowden said. "I think the draft is the only barometer. I think we're closing the gap, but I think there's still a gap. At least we're getting some players drafted now."

Will Proctor
Rex Brown/WireImage.com After two seasons backing up Charlie Whitehurst, it's Will Proctor's time to shine.
This might be Bowden's most talented team. Defensive end Gaines Adams, who had 9 1/2 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in 2005, is considered a possible first-rounder in next year's NFL draft. With tailbacks James Davis, who ran for 879 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman last season, and C.J. Spiller, a freshman who chose Clemson over Florida, FSU, Miami and Southern California, the Tigers might have the best running game they've had during Bowden's tenure.

The key to success might be quarterback Will Proctor, a senior who sat behind former starter Charlie Whitehurst the past two seasons. Proctor has attempted only 34 passes during his college career, but Bowden likes his mobility and ability to manage the game.

"I think we've got a whole lot more talent than we've had before," Adams said. "Proctor's going to come in and be a great quarterback. He's been behind Charlie and knows this offense inside and out.

"I don't think there's going to be any drop-off. We've just got to be more consistent. We win the FSU game and then go out and lose to Duke. That's got to change. This is the year we've got to make some changes and turn the program around."

The Tigers, No. 18 in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, will know early in the season whether they're contenders. After Florida Atlantic comes to town for the Sept. 2 opener, Clemson plays consecutive road games, at Boston College the next week and at Florida State on Sept. 16 (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET). The Tigers play four of their last five games at home, with another potential roadblock at Virginia Tech on Oct. 26 (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET).

"We've been picked high in the preseason before," Bowden said. "We didn't back it up in the postseason."

Clemson hopes this season is different. As the Tigers celebrate their past, they're hoping the future is brighter, too.

"It would be a good time to get another title, and that's what this team is shooting for," senior receiver Chansi Stuckey said. "It's going to be a make-it-or-break-it year as to whether Clemson is for real."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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