CLEMSON — The 2007 season saw a very familiar story unfold for the Clemson football program.
The Tigers accomplished something good but fell just short of something great.
On Nov. 17, Matt Ryan’s 43-yard touchdown strike and a subsequent Boston College defensive stand led to a 20-17 loss and kept Clemson one victory away from the ACC title game for the third straight season.
And Monday night, Clemson went to overtime in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Auburn with a 10th victory at stake before falling, 23-20, on Kodi Burns’ seven-yard touchdown run.
Is a 9-4 record and three years of one loss away, one play away frustrating to Tommy Bowden?
If it is, he isn’t showing it.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep saying that,” he said Thursday when posed that question. “We’re not losing by 20 or 30 points, we’re one point away, one play away as opposed to Oklahoma where you’re 30 points away (a 48-28 Fiesta Bowl loss to West Virginia).
“I’d much rather be saying that, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to have to keep saying that. Based on experience, if we make that one play we’d have been in the (ACC) championship game or a BCS bowl game. We’ve been close for that amount of time. It will eventually happen.”
Maybe even in 2008. Bowden scored his first nine-win season since 2003 (when the Tigers also went 9-4) and appears poised for his best season yet next fall. Clemson could return as many as 18 of 22 starters, barring NFL draft defections, and should be among the ACC favorites in his 10th season.
“It’s tough to stay at a place for 10 years, but I like what we’ve done for the last few years,” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in a position the last three years to be competitive in the race for the championship. With what we’ve got coming back, I like what we’ve got redshirted and committed to us to increase our level of talent and be a contender to be in the (ACC) championship game.”
The Tigers struggled against top opponents and top defenses; their four losses came to teams with a combined record of 38-15. And all four teams had strong defenses, which showed in the final stats.
Second team All-ACC quarterback Cullen Harper averaged 224 yards passing with a total of two touchdowns and four interceptions in defeat. And although Clemson rushed for 189 yards and two scores as a team against Auburn, it totaled 89 in its previous three losses.
“I think that you’re never going to fare really good against a really good defense,” Bowden said. “Defenses that are pretty good don’t give up a lot of yardage against good teams. Most teams struggle against good defenses, but I like our ability to be productive.”
Losing four senior starting offensive linemen — left tackle Barry Richardson, left guard Chris McDuffie, right guard Brandon Pilgrim and right tackle Christian Capote — is also a concern. Rising junior center Thomas Austin is the only returning full-time starter, although rising sophomore right tackle Chris Hairston and rising junior right guard Barry Humphries also have starting experience.
Bowden thinks Hairston and Humphries will make a difference along with rising junior left tackle Cory Lambert and reserve guards Jamal Medlin and JaMarcus Grant. Redshirt freshman offensive tackles David Smith and Landon Walker also could make an impact.
So, how does Clemson reach the next level? A little bit of everything, Bowden said. He pointed to dropped passes against Boston College (by Aaron Kelly) and Georgia Tech (by a host of receivers) that changed games, and noted special teams and kick coverage failures against Virginia Tech, as well as missed field goals against Auburn and Georgia Tech.
“If I’d have to say one area, I’d probably say special teams,” he said. “Looking at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, (making improvement) could have given us 11 wins. With two missed field goals against Auburn, it might have given us 12.”
Making a leap towards national-power status will be easier if all juniors considering the NFL return. Tailback James Davis, quarterback Cullen Harper, receiver Aaron Kelly, defensive tackle Dorell Scott, defensive end Phillip Merling and safety Michael Hamlin have all asked the NFL to evaluate their draft status.
Bowden said Thursday he has received their projections, and none are slotted as first-round picks. Davis, who said Monday he was “leaning” towards returning, said he’d likely leave if he was a first-round pick.
Players are not on campus this week, but Bowden said he’d talk with them (as well as others considering a transfer) during a team meeting early next week.
“I would feel real good after knowing (the draft) information and talking to the NFL today,” he said. “We’ve got a pretty good track record of giving pretty good advice. Based on that, it’s pretty obvious what the guys need to do, and I’ll share the information with those guys next week.”
Bowden said no schools have contacted him requesting to talk with his assistants, but he said last week he wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.
An announcement is expected soon on whether freshman quarterback Willy Korn will receive a medical redshirt for his injured shoulder, Bowden said.
He said several players, who he did not name, could have minor surgery soon, but said the Tigers have no major injuries which require surgery.