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August 5, 2008

Clemson must make pieces come together

Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper can measure his progress every time he steps into his family's basement.

That room is decorated with pictures, jerseys and other memorabilia honoring Harper's father, Jeff, a starting offensive tackle on Georgia's 1980 national title team. Lately, some of those Georgia artifacts have moved over to make room for souvenirs Harper has collected at Clemson.

But the room still feels a little off-balance because it has no pictures of Harper celebrating a championship to match his dad's photographs from that 1980 season.

Maybe that's about to change. Clemson enters this season as a prohibitive favorite to win the ACC title that has eluded the Tigers for nearly two decades.

"It's kind of shut up or put up now," said Harper, who set the school single-season record for touchdown passes (27) last fall and was selected as the league's player of the year in preseason voting.

The Tigers boast arguably the top quarterback (Harper), the two best running backs (James Davis and C.J. Spiller) and the top wide receiver (Aaron Kelly) in the league. Clemson also returns the nucleus of a defense that ranked ninth nationally last season.

Even the coach of the defending conference champion agrees that Clemson deserves to enter this season as the ACC favorite.

"Any time you've got a veteran quarterback, that gives you a great chance," Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer said. "(Coach Tommy Bowden) has two guys (Davis and Spiller) who can take it to the house at any moment. He's got wide receivers that are very good. He's got a very, very strong defense. You put all those things together, and that's a pretty good start right there."

Then again, this isn't the first time Clemson has seemed on the verge of ending its ACC title drought. Clemson hasn't endured a losing season since Bowden's arrival in 1999, but the specter of unfinished business hangs over the program.

Clemson hasn't won a conference title since 1991, the year before Florida State joined the ACC.

"That's a very long time," senior strong safety Michael Hamlin acknowledged. "(Former Pro Bowl linebacker) Levon Kirkland was on that team. Every time I talk to him, he always brings it up. He says it in a joking way, but I feel like he says it just because he believes we have what it takes to do it again. Everybody believes that we can do it. I feel like we will do it."

Clemson has earned a reputation as an underachiever because of its failure to win an ACC title since 1991, but the Tigers actually have met or exceeded expectations for most of coach Tommy Bowden's tenure. Here's a look at how Clemson has finished in the ACC each season under Bowden and how it compares with the ACC media's preseason prediction for the Tigers.
Year Prediction Finish
1999 6th2nd
2001 3rd4th (tie)
2002 5th 5th (tie)
2003 5th3rd
2004 4th6th (tie)
2006*2nd2nd (tie)
2007*3rd2nd (tie)
*-The information for 2005-07 reflect the predictions and finishes for Clemson within the Atlantic Division. The ACC didin't split into two divisions until 2005.

They've almost done it each of the past two seasons. Two years ago, Clemson defeated eventual ACC champion Wake Forest but finished one game behind the Demon Deacons in the Atlantic Division standings. Clemson would have reached the championship game if it hadn't fallen 34-33 to Boston College in a double-overtime thriller decided by a blocked extra-point attempt.

Last season, Clemson lost 20-17 at home to Boston College in a game that ended up deciding the Atlantic Division title. Clemson gave up a 43-yard touchdown pass with 1:46 left in the game, then Tigers kicker Mark Buchholz missed a 54-yard field goal after Kelly dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass.

"It was definitely very frustrating," Harper said. "We were so close. But at the same time, we know going into this season we don't have to change anything. It's not like we have to change our philosophy. We don't have to fire a coach or hire a coach. We don't need new players. We just need to go out and make the plays we're capable of making."

All those near-misses have given Clemson a label as an underachieving program that can't deliver when it matters most, though that reputation isn't entirely accurate. In fact, this season marks the first time ACC media have picked Clemson to win the conference since 1991. The Tigers actually have lived up to or exceeded the ACC media's prediction for them each of the past three seasons.

Even Clemson's players weren't sure the past few years whether they were ready to win a conference title.

Harper noted that the 2005 team was adjusting to two new coordinators Rob Spence on offense and Vic Koenning on defense. The 2006 squad depended too much on its running game, a flaw that was exposed late in the year. Last season, the Tigers were unsure how Harper would respond as a first-year starting quarterback.

But the only major flaw on this season's team appears to be an inexperienced offensive line that features junior center Thomas Austin as the lone returning starter. The Tigers boast so much talent and experience on both sides of the ball that their self-doubt has disappeared.

"The past couple of years for some reason, there's been this expectation that Clemson should be at the top when I'm not exactly sure we deserved it," Harper said. "This year, we've got everybody coming back. I feel like our senior leadership is strong. (There's) the skill level we have at the skill positions, the guys we have coming back on defense.

"Honestly, this is the first year we've really had what it takes to be considered an ACC championship-caliber team."

Hamlin has noticed another difference.

"Everybody's positive. Everybody's doing what they're supposed to do," he said. "The last two years, we had a little bit of negative attitudes. People weren't doing what they were supposed to do. Some workouts were voluntary and we had guys who wouldn't show up. Now we have 100 percent (attendance)."

They're working harder without putting too much pressure on themselves. Players say the atmosphere around the locker room and practice field is more relaxed than ever. They believe the program gained some stability in December when Bowden signed a four-year contract extension after being contacted about Arkansas' vacancy. Of course, a disappointing season could put Bowden right back on the hot seat that he seemingly has occupied since his arrival at Clemson.


Cullen Harper's father, Jeff Harper, won a national championship ring as an offensive tackle at Georgia. So why didn't Cullen follow his dad to Georgia?

"The way it worked out, I really didn't have much of a choice to go to Georgia," Harper said.

Quarterback recruit A.J. Bryant already had committed to Georgia five months before Harper chose a college. The Bulldogs also were after Blake Barnes, who eventually committed to Georgia. Harper hadn't received an offer from Georgia when he committed to Clemson before his senior year at Alpharetta (Ga.) Sequoyah.

"It wasn't going to work out,'' Harper said.

Even though Harper never went to Georgia, his family ties to the school could remain in perpetuity. Georgia is about to unveil a campus statue honoring former coach Vince Dooley. The 14-foot bronze sculpture will feature Jeff Harper and Georgia teammate Tim Morrison holding Dooley aloft during the Bulldogs' 1980 national-championship season.

The Harpers don't represent the only Georgia-Clemson family connection. Clemson's roster this season features a freshman quarterback named Jon Richt, the son of Georgia coach Mark Richt.

So much is expected of Clemson this season that Bowden already has heard questions about whether anything less than a conference title would make this season a failure. Bowden responded by citing Georgia, which finished the 2007 season second in The Associated Press poll despite failing to reach the SEC championship game.

"I don't think (Georgia coach) Mark Richt sees his season last year as a failure," Bowden responded. "He didn't win the conference championship. He didn't play (for) it. He's still employed, though. Is it a failure if we win 10 games and don't go to the championship game? Ten games is a lot of wins.''

On the other hand, Bowden said he likes coaching a team whose fan base isn't satisfied with 7-5 or 8-4 finishes. Clemson has averaged 7.7 wins per season during Bowden's tenure.

"Six, seven or eight wins is really never acceptable to me," Bowden said. "We've had them, but I'm surely not satisfied with them. I know that myself, the players, the coaches, administration and fans nobody's ever been satisfied with those. I'd hate to coach at a place where there was satisfaction with those."

This Clemson team certainly looks capable of winning more than eight games.

Davis and Spiller give Clemson arguably the nation's best tailback tandem. Kelly should end his career with more catches than any receiver in ACC history. Clemson's defense returns seven starters and adds freshman end DaQuan Bowers the nation's No. 2 prospect in the 2008 recruiting class to a defense that allowed 18.7 points per game last season.

This year shapes up as a perfect storm for Clemson, which has perhaps its most talented team since the early 1980s. Virginia Tech lost eight players to the NFL Draft. Florida State and Miami are still adapting to the coaching overhauls they made after the 2006 season. Boston College must replace first-round pick Matt Ryan at quarterback.

"If we don't make it to the ACC championship, I think we've let some people down,'' Harper said.

Harper certainly knows how to lead a team to a title. He has received plenty of lessons on the subject over the years from his father.

"He just reminds me week in and week out to stay focused," Harper said. "You've got to deal with adversity. It's going to be a long and tough season. Sometimes things aren't going to go your way. It's how you react in those situations that counts."

Harper now is passing those lessons on to his teammates as he tries to continue his family's championship tradition. Helping Clemson reach the ACC penthouse would make him feel much more comfortable in the basement.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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