CLEMSON - The roller coaster of a regular season finished, their head coach's future nice and secure, the Clemson football team returned to the practice field Saturday morning to begin preparation for the Jan. 2 Peach Bowl in Atlanta.
The Tigers worked out for slightly less than three hours in the cold at the Jervey practice facility. But even the chilly conditions seemed to do little to dampen the spirits of a team which closed the regular season with three straight victories, scoring 129 points in the process.
"I thought they did a really good job," head coach Tommy Bowden said. "We went a little shorter today because I wanted to get a team meeting in and watch some more film before we went out. Now (Sunday) will be a little bit longer, as will the rest of the week."
Bowden's biggest challenge, and likely the challenge of any coach with a team in a prominent bowl, is maintaining the mental edge.
The Tigers were firing on all cylinders down the stretch, beginning with the dominant 26-10 victory over then No. 3 Florida State, dropping 40 points on hapless Duke, then embarrassing bitter rival South Carolina 63-17 in Columbia. Those three weeks were easily the most dominant - the most impressive - stretch put together by a Bowden team since his hiring in 1999.
Especially if ones takes into consideration the humiliating loss to Wake Forest a mere seven days before the Florida State game - not to mention the controversy surrounding Bowden's job status at the time.
"That's always the problem - continuity," he said. "There's a four week block of time, and Tennessee played a week after us, so they won't be as far removed from game-type (intensity). Can you come back and maintain the consistency and momentum that you had? I don't know if there's an answer to that."
Bowden did say, however, that he didn't believe his job status had an effect on his team during that impressive stretch run.
"I don't think the players respond too much to a personal situation like (mine)," he said. "Not through the experience that I've had. They're the same guys. I don't think that would be a factor, whether I signed a contract or not."
Bowden said the team will be in full pads Sunday and begin fundamental hitting drills. His coaching staff will visit the Shrine Bowl at one stage during the coming week, and game plan work on Tennessee also will follow when they return.
The Tigers have at least eight more scheduled practices remaining at Clemson before being excused for Christmas. The team will reassemble in Atlanta after the holiday and hold another five practices before the game with No. 6 Tennessee at the Georgia Dome on Jan. 2.