CLEMSON — In 2000, Tommy Bowden’s Clemson Tigers went 9-3 and finished No. 14 and No. 16 in the national polls. In 2003, Clemson rebounded from a sluggish start to win its last four games for a 9-4 record and a No. 22 ranking in the national polls.
Besides the nine victories and the national rankings that came with them, both teams had something else in common. At the end of both seasons, Bowden mentioned it was time for the Clemson program to take the next step – a step they and every Clemson team since 1990 has failed to reach. That step – to win 10 games.
In 2001, the Tigers started the season strong winning five for their first seven before losing three straight and ending the year 7-5, which included a bowl victory over Louisiana Tech. In 2004, Clemson lost four of its first five games and though they rebounded to win five of their last six, an embarrassing brawl with rival South Carolina ended the Tigers’ season.
Now comes next year. After closing this past season with six wins in their last seven games and a final national ranking expected after a successful 8-4 campaign ¬– which concluded with a 19-10 victory over Colorado in last week’s Champs Sports Bowl – expectations are sure to be high for 2006.
“We pretty much go into any season with high expectations so I don’t think it will heighten the expectations any more than we normally do,” Bowden said. “But the fact that we have a good bit of youth coming back, plus some red shirt guys, plus recruiting is going well I think expectations are maybe elevated another notch of two, but as I said, expectations are always high.”
But can next year’s Tigers do something the 2001 and 2004 Clemson teams could not? Can they get Clemson over the hump? One thing the 2006 Tigers already have going for them that neither the 2001 or 2004 teams had is a deeper talent pool.
In 2001, Clemson returned just four starters on defense, killing any chances they might have had at getting that 10th victory. In 2004, Clemson returned 14 starters from 2003 ( 7 on offense and 7 on defense) but there was very little quality depth along the offense and defensive lines, plus early departures from wide receiver Derrick Hamilton and defensive tackle Donnell Washington left big voids which took nearly half the season to fill.
Next year, the Tigers appear poised to take that leap. Besides returning 16 starters – 9 offense and 7 defense – which started in the Champs Sports Bowl, the Tigers also had 32 other players on both offense and defense which saw significant playing time during the course of the season.
Of those 48 players that played, 14 were either red shirt or true freshmen.
“I think we are in a better situation than we have been in the past simply because the talent level as been elevated because of the improvement of the facilities,” Bowden said. “With last year’s recruiting class and what we’re going to have this year, I think we are getting closer every year.
“How close? I don’t know, but with the number of freshmen we played obviously we out recruited the people that we have on scholarship so in that regard we won eight games with a number of freshmen we are playing. I think we are getting closer. Whether we’ve turned (the corner) or not, we will have to wait and play it next year and find out.”
There is only one area Bowden said he is concerned about for next year and that area was a thorn in the Tigers side at times in 2005. Special teams play was what Bowden called his worst yet in his nine seasons as a head coach.
“Special teams across the board were very average,” he said.
With the exception of Jad Dean’s record setting 24 field goals, Clemson had one of the worse special teams in the ACC. Clemson ranked near the middle of the pack in both punting and kickoff returns and though they improved from the start of the season, the kick coverage teams were nothing to write home about either.
Bowden said he plans on reevaluating the special teams during the next few months and is even considering changing some of the coaching assignments his staff shares on special teams.
But the biggest failure on special teams came on punts, where Clemson ranked last in the ACC in net punting, allowing five punts to be blocked, while punter Cole Chason was well below the standards of a Division 1-A punter.
“That’s one of the areas I’m looking for improvement,” Bowden said. “There are several on special teams and that’s one of them. We will have to create some competition at punting.
“Somebody is going to have an opportunity very quick.”
That somebody could be verbal commitment Richard Jackson – a Parade All-American out of Riverside High School – if he does indeed sign with the Tigers in February.
As for the rest of team, Bowden says Will Proctor is the clear cut number one to replace Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback and he is every anxious to see how the red shirt class of offensive linemen compete for playing time.
“I’m anxious to see if they can make a push,” he said. “This is the best (offensive line) since I have been a head coach and surely here at Clemson it is the most solid we have been from a depth and talent standpoint.
“Really the same can probably be said from the defensive front, the secondary and the wide receivers. We are getting a little bit closer to the Florida States, Miamis and the Virginia Techs.”
And a little bit closer to 10 wins and maybe a berth in the Bowl Championship Series.