CLEMSON - For four games last year Clemson was as hot as any team in the nation. Now all Tommy Bowden has to do is figure out how to capture lighting in a bottle again.
The incredible stretch that saved his job in 2003 - successive wins over No. 3 Florida State, Duke, South Carolina and No. 6 Tennessee - has thrust Bowden squarely back into the good graces of the Clemson fan base. How long will it last?
"We play Sept. 4," Bowden deadpanned.
Jokes aside, the season opener is fast approaching. And as fall camp enters its final stages, the Tigers - like every other team in the ACC - are searching for not just answers to questions marks. But the right answers.
Easier said than done, to be sure. But the consistently great programs always seem to find a way.
Can Clemson put itself into that elite category? Finding the correct answer to these questions will determine the Tigers' fate.
- Is offensive tackle really a major concern?
Yes, though perhaps not to the extent as has been portrayed since the end of spring practice.
Granted, sophomores Marion Dukes and Roman Fry struggled at times during their first spring at No. 1 on the depth chart, but there were some possible reasons behind the troubles. Dukes, for instance, missed several spring workouts due to a family situation. Meanwhile, both he and Fry lined up daily against Clemson's defensive ends, four players position coach Ron West said "can play anywhere in the ACC."
Bottom line here is that both players are talented. They just lack experience. There is no time for an extended learning curve here. When Wake Forest comes to Death Valley on Sept. 4, both will be expected to perform at a high level.
One note here. Don't be surprised if true freshmen Barry Richardson and Akeem Robinson avoid redshirting and find themselves in the OT rotation from the outset.
- How about defensive tackle?
More of a concern here, though again the phrase "inexperienced but talented" applies.
Eric Coleman (senior) and Cory Groover (junior) have been around, but neither have carried the load placed on a starter. Backups Donnell Clark and Trey Tate will push for time in a position critical to Clemson's hopes of stopping the run.
- Will the kicking game be better or worse than 2003?
This question could be the one most difficult to answer, and at the same time ultimately could be the most important.
Punter Cole Chason is slowly recovering from an off-season groin injury and has kicked the ball reasonably well so far this fall. Bowden also has been pleased with backup walk-on Chris Wiskell, who not only has never kicked in a college game but didn't play high school football. The job is Chason's to lose, and if healthy he needs to put clear separation between himself and the field.
Meanwhile, Jad Dean is the frontrunner for the place kicking job, although the next extra point and field goal attempt he takes will be his first in each category. If Dean fails to nail down the job, again the chore would fall to a non-scholarship kicker.
- Will Duane Coleman's injury cripple the running game?
No, but it sure seems to put a damper on what the Tigers can do on third down.
Coleman is far and away the most complete back on Clemson's roster, and he showed steady improvement as 2003 wore on. Down the stretch, Coleman's ability to catch the ball coming out of the backfield proved to be a great weapon for Bowden. Now, with Coleman out until at least Texas A&M with a broken foot, Bowden is already working on new schemes and formations to deal with his absence.
If the cloud has a silver lining, it's that Clemson is fairly deep at the tailback position. A rejuvenated Yusef Kelly and a young, flashy Reggie Merriweather should help balance the passing game.
Anything to help keep the offense flexible, which in turn keeps quarterback Charlie Whitehurst upright.
- Finally, how good is this Clemson team?
No one really knows. With the new ACC schedule, road games at Texas A&M, Florida State and Miami - not to mention a Thursday night at Virginia - it won't be easy. But if the Tigers can survive the first five games, 3-2 or perhaps even 4-1, it could be a special season around Death Valley.
Of course, the wrong injury or the least little bit of complacency and it all could go out the window.
Such is life in major college football.
Dan Scott covers Clemson University for the Seneca Daily Journal/Clemson Messenger. He also hosts SportsTalk from 9 a.m.-Noon, Monday-Friday, on WCCP-Fm, 104.9. Click here for Dan Scott's SportsTalk discussion board.