- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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GREENSBORO, Ga. -- Tommy Bowden could only laugh when a reporter asked him about coaching at Clemson for nearly a decade and not winning an ACC championship.
"You said it right -- haven't and still there," Bowden said at last month's ACC media day. "By the grace of God."
Few other college football coaches have been afforded as much security as Bowden without winning a title. In fact, only two other ACC coaches have longer tenures at their current schools -- and each has won multiple conference championships.
Bobby Bowden, his father, is entering his 32nd season at Florida State after winning 12 ACC titles in 16 seasons in the league. Frank Beamer is beginning his 22nd season at Virginia Tech and has guided his alma mater to two ACC titles in its first four seasons in the conference.
Nine seasons after leaving Tulane for Clemson, Tommy Bowden is still trying to win his first ACC championship.
"The statistics are what they are," Bowden said. "I've been a head coach here for 10 years and haven't won a conference championship. Disappointed? Yes. It's either black or white. There's really no gray area when you throw things like that on the table. If you want to coach, until you win a championship you're going to have to answer those kind of questions."
After finishing 9-4 in 2007, the Tigers are an overwhelming choice to win the ACC this season. Few teams in the country return as much offensive firepower. Senior quarterback Cullen Harper threw for 2,991 yards with 27 touchdowns and six interceptions last season. Tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller combined to run for 1,832 yards and 13 touchdowns. Receiver Aaron Kelly caught 88 passes for 1,081 yards with 11 scores.
On paper, at least, the Tigers look like an overwhelming choice to win their first ACC championship since 1991.
"We're the team to beat," senior safety Michael Hamlin said. "We've got nothing but weapons."
Even Bowden, whose teams have misfired when facing similar expectations in the past, can see why Clemson is so highly regarded going into 2008.
"I'd say based on last year and who we have coming back, and based on what everybody else has coming back, that's probably about right," Bowden said. "Plus, the media loves skill guys. When you've got the quarterbacks, running backs and wideouts, that's what the fans and everybody else likes. You can see why. I think you can definitely see why."
So why hasn't Bowden led the Tigers to ACC titles in the past? Florida State dominated the ACC after joining the league, winning 11 league titles in 12 seasons from 1992 to 2003, including nine in a row. Virginia Tech, Maryland and Wake Forest are the only other schools to win ACC titles since the Seminoles joined the conference.
Before FSU joined the ACC, Clemson won four league titles in six seasons, including three in a row from 1986 to 1988.
Since 1999, Bowden's teams have finished better than 5-3 against ACC foes only once in a single season. Last year, Clemson had perhaps its best chance to win the Atlantic Division, but lost to Boston College 20-17 at Death Valley in its last ACC game of the season.
"You can't get over the hump until you get close," Bowden said. "And we've surely been the proverbial 'close.' But you've got to get your program to where you win a championship and then every other year or three years you're in there playing for it, and we just haven't done that yet."
Bowden, who has a 69-42 record at Clemson, enters the 2008 season with more job security. In December, he agreed to a four-year contract extension, which will take him through the 2014 season. Bowden agreed to the new contract after nearly leaving for Arkansas.
"There's not a book where you turn to Page 13 and it tells you how to get over the hump," Bowden said. "I think the biggest thing I learned from my father is coaching requires patience and perseverance. For so many years, he was, 'Wide right, wide right, wide left, wide right,' and then he finally hit one. I think we'll do the same. I just have to see if I can hold the wolves off until I can finally make a field goal."
Bobby Bowden, whose 373 career victories are the most among major college football coaches, has walked in his son's shoes before. He was hung in effigy while coaching at West Virginia before leading the Seminoles to their first national championship in 1993.
"If there's pressure, you don't want it because you're doing bad," Bobby Bowden said. "You want it because you're doing good and they expect you to do better. He's worked hard and caught H-E-L-L. He deserves a break, and I hope he can live up to it and beats everybody but us."
If the Tigers are going to turn the page on mediocrity, they'll have to rebuild their offensive line and linebacker corps. Four starting offensive linemen must be replaced -- junior center Thomas Austin is the lone returning starter -- and each of the three starting linebackers are gone. On Monday, Clemson lost senior defensive tackle Rashaad Jackson, a preseason All-ACC choice. Jackson tore a quad tendon during a scrimmage Saturday and is expected to miss as many as six games after undergoing surgery.
Even with so many outstanding skill players coming back on offense, Bowden says the unit will only be as good as its line.
"I don't want to sit here and say we don't have quality offensive linemen because we do," Bowden said. "Last year, we replaced a lot of starters, but it was with older guys. This year, it's going to possibly be two freshmen and maybe three. That's a concern. I do have concerns because that's an awfully important piece of the puzzle."
The Tigers seem to have many of the pieces in place for a championship.
Will Clemson finally put them together?
"If we don't make it to the ACC championship, we let some people down," Harper said. "We let ourselves down. All the pieces of the puzzle are there. I think this is the first time since I've been here that we really have a legitimate shot of being in the ACC championship game."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
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