CLEMSON, SC - Tommy Bowden is doing his very best to keep expectations low.
He's fighting a rising tide, though.
Clemson is one win away from finishing second in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Two wins away from a 7-4 season. His talk of losing an entire defensive unit to the NFL and returning a bunch of midgets on the offensive line is getting lost in the sound of the pounding waves of the rising tide of expectations.
After a 58-7 win against a Duke team that beat Virginia, lost to Georgia Tech by a touchdown, lost to N.C. State in overtime and beat Maryland, it might be tempting to ask "What happened?" if Clemson falls to Georgia Tech this Saturday.
All Bowden wanted to do when he started the season was show improvement over last year. He's done that. Clemson is now 5-4 overall and 5-2 in the ACC, compared to 3-8 and a tie for last in the conference last year.
"I think it's all relative," said Bowden. "You have to look where they were at last year, who they lost and what they've done since then. We've been here for eleven months and I think we've shown improvement. To me it shows improvement when you're tied for last in the conference last year and you're playing for second the next year. To play better in '99 than in '98 shows improvement."
Bowden doesn't have to go back 11 months to show improvement, though. He can look at the spring when his top tailback, Travis Zachery, was suspended and there wasn't any guarantee that he would be back for the fall.
Against Duke, Zachery ran for a career-high 141 yards. Zachery's previous high was 129 yard against North Carolina earlier in the season.
"The line was opening up some big holes," said Zachery. Those holes might have been bigger than they were earlier in the season, but Zachery was also following his blocks better.
"It was kinda hard - getting used to this style of offense. I'm trying to be more and more patient every weekend," he said.
Zachery's running helped open up the defensive backfield for quarterback Brandon Streeter, who completed 22 of 30 passes for 279 yards. Streeter was another player written off by many during the spring.
But he travels to Atlanta Saturday along with Zachery with the chance to finish second in the conference, behind only Florida State. If Clemson beats Georgia Tech, ranked in the top-10 for most of the season, this week will be Bowden's last for a while to talk about his undersized offensive line and the number of players Clemson lost to the NFL draft. He'll have to stick to poor-mouthing his special teams.
"We're going to start going for two," he said after place kicker Tony Lazzara missed an extra point. "We went for it yesterday on fourth-and-ten and we scored a touchdown. It's will have to be an unusual situation for us to kick."