Commentary: Tigers are Hard to Figure


by - Correspondent -
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Special to TigerNet from the Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger


CLEMSON -- What do the Chicago Cubs major league baseball team and the Clemson Tigers football team have in common?

The answer: Both have a way of raising the expectations of their devoted fans, only to find some way to disappoint them in the end.

Remember the 2003 National League Championship series when the Cubs were five outs away from their first World Series appearance in 58 years? Then came fan Steve Bartman. He interfered with a catchable foul ball resulting in a loss that, coupled with a defeat the following night, ended their season.

Of course, Clemson football has enjoyed a more storied history than the Cubbies. One only has to examine the 1981 National Championship season, including the Orange Bowl win versus Nebraska, and historic wins over Georgia, Penn State and Oklahoma to realize the number of good times that Tiger fans have experienced.

Unfortunately, the 1990's to the present have brought a slew of disappointments to Tiger fans with which only a Chicago Cubs or maybe a Gamecock fan could empathize. Ok I'm stretching it just a bit, it's not that bad.

From 1992 to 1999, the team experienced four winning seasons, three losing season and one 6-6 mark. After the nine-win season of 2000, the Tigers posted back-to-back seasons of seven wins before breaking through last year with another nine-victory campaign.

This season, fans saw the Tigers rebound from a disappointing 1-4 start to win four games in a row, bringing the program to within one win of achieving bowl eligibility. However, just when it appeared that holiday bowl plans were about to become a mere formality, this 2004 Tiger squad, in a Cubsque manner, let their fans down by losing to Duke -- the worst team in the Atlantic Coast Conference and arguably one of the worst in college football -- and seriously jeopardizing any post-season hopes.

Certainly, the Tigers 13-12 career mark in Durham, including their come-from-behind victory there two years ago, is proof that nothing has ever come easy against a football program whose career bowl appearances can be counted on one hand. However, it is disturbing for Tiger fans to hear players and coaches alike spending the entire week discussing the importance of such a game and the need to take it seriously -- only to experience another lackluster performance at Wallace Wade Stadium.

Unfortunately, watching the Clemson football team in 2004 can be likened to observing greyhound dogs chasing a mechanical rabbit at any dog track around the country. Clemson fans, like those dogs, are teased into thinking they can catch that rabbit, which in this case is to witness a team playing up to their capabilities, only to fall short when the race, or game, is over.

This season, the Clemson football team has teased its orange-clad supporters in the most cruel of ways.

Prior to the season fans were teased into believing this program, which won its final four games a year ago (including victories over Top 10 programs in Florida State, and Tennessee along with South Carolina) had finally turned the corner. Although it took double-overtime for Clemson to defeat Wake Forest in the season opener, fans were comforted by knowing the Tigers had avenged last year's loss -- arguably the low point of that entire season.

However, the Georgia Tech game that saw Clemson blow a 10-point lead in the final two minutes resembled an ending not even the writers for the "Halloween", "Friday the 13th" and "Psycho" movies put together could have scripted. While the Wake Forest loss in 2003 was the low point of that season, the gut-wrenching Georgia Tech loss may have been the worst of all time.

Then, just as fans appeared to lose all hope in this season after losses to Texas A&M, Florida State and Virginia dropped Clemson's record to an unthinkable 1-4, the team suddenly rebounded with nail-biting victories over Maryland, N.C. State and Miami. Just when it appeared the Tigers were on the verge of catching that mechanical rabbit and clinching bowl eligibility, Clemson fans, like the greyhound, experienced the disappointment of seeing the race, or game, end with the rabbit out of reach.

Certainly, the season is not over -- yet. A Clemson win over South Carolina Saturday would give the Tigers its sixth and, therefore, provide bowl eligibility status. However, what is perplexing to Tiger fans is that this team had an opportunity to take care of business last Saturday against Duke and failed miserably.

Trying to understand the psyche of this team is a job I'm not sure even Dr.

Sigmund Freud could attempt to tackle. The Tigers have been on a roller coaster ride all season and, in doing so, place their fans on an equally bumpy ride emotionally.

How can a team rebound in the manner it did the final four games of last season only to fall apart in a three-game stretch this season? How can this same team get off the mat to win four in a row only to lose to woeful Duke?

There are several answers that, when factored together, tell the story behind such a disappointing season.

First, the players must accept responsibility -- especially on offense.

Charlie Whitehurst has regressed considerably at quarterback -- making bad decisions on a number of throws and failing to show the type of leadership Clemson fans have come to expect. Receivers, such as Kelvin Grant, have also failed to hold onto a number of Whitehurst throws and those two factors, along with an inexperienced offensive line, have led to the Tigers inability to move the ball and score consistently.

There can be no doubt this team misses playmakers such as Derrick Hamilton and Kevin Youngblood from last year. Hamilton not only was a dependable receiver but also excelled as a kick returner while Youngblood was a reliable possession receiver.

Defensively, the Tigers have shown steady improvement throughout this season. However, the one major negative about this unit is their continuing inability to stop teams on third down as well as opposing quarterbacks who possess any type of mobility.

The Clemson coaching staff must also accept its share of the blame. With the exception of our sports editor Will Vandervort, there has probably been no bigger supporter of head coach Tommy Bowden than me. While I still feel Bowden is the right man for the job, there is no doubt he faces some tough decisions regarding several assistant coaches.

Changes must take place, particularly on the offensive side of the football.

While realizing Bowden has never been the type to outright fire his assistants, this season's poor performance is going to either require him to change his philosophy or make some reassignments.

Although some national columnists, such as Matt Hayes, say Bowden could be history after this season, I feel he at least deserves one more year to right the ship. However, that may be all -- $4 million buyout or not -- meaning he most likely will be forced to examine his coaching staff to ensure he has the best assistants at every position.

Clemson fans, like myself, will probably be taken to task for sounding so negative about this team. While I have been positive about the team's ability to get off the mat by virtue of their wins over Maryland, N.C.

State and Miami, criticism must also be expressed when the team underachieves as it did against Duke.

All of the Tigers shortcomings will be forgotten, or at the very least put on hold, should they defeat the Gamecocks Saturday. At the least, this team would clinch a winning season -- enabling players to hope the victory in Miami outweighs the loss in Durham in the minds of officials extending bowl invitations.

This team is definitely capable of winning and that has been the problem all season. Clemson possessed the talent to at least defeat Georgia Tech and Duke -- which already would have assured the Tigers of a decent bowl -- and could definitely top South Carolina.

However, this team has underachieved throughout the season -- causing even the most optimistic Clemson fan to doubt an entire season of lethargic play, mostly on offense, can be erased in a single game against a much improved South Carolina defense.

Not only do the South Carolina players have the motivation of avenging last season's 63-17 thumping on their minds, but the opportunity to defeat Clemson on its own home field, knock the Tigers out of bowl contention and assure their first losing season in six years may be too enticing for the Gamecocks to let slip away and too much for the Tigers to overcome.

Another hurdle the Tigers may have a hard time clearing is the Lou Holtz factor. The 67-year-old South Carolina head coach, already renowned for his motivational speeches, has hinted at retirement and may in fact announce it prior to the game. Holtz said earlier this week he has never wanted to win against anyone as he does against Clemson. What should be disturbing to Tiger fans is that Holtz-coached teams typically deliver when he devotes that type of energy to one particular game and, by firing several assistants and demoting his son from offensive coordinator after last year's debacle, you can bet this game has been Numero Uno on his mind.

For Clemson to win, they must contain the Gamecocks offense, whether it be quarterbacks Dondrell Pinkins or Syvelle Newton, and hope their own offense can somehow find itself as it did in the second half against Miami rather than in its lackluster performance against Duke.

Can Clemson win this game? Certainly. Will Clemson win this game? The odds don't look good. Then, again, this team has defied the odds all year -- losing games they were expected to win and winning games they were predicted to lose.

Understandably down after last week's embarrassing effort, Clemson fans can only hope this team finally catches that mechanical rabbit this Saturday. If so, a bowl bid will hopefully be in the offering.

However, a season-ending loss Saturday will force Clemson players, coaches and fans alike to spend the next 10 months pondering how this 2004 version, which seemingly held so much promise in September, could have regressed to the point where it will go down as the biggest underachiever in Clemson football history.


Special to TigerNet from the Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger

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