Most years for Clemson football, the schedule opened with a game where fans and coaches could come to the game with very little to worry about. That trend has changed under current Head Coach Tommy Bowden, although not necessarily by his design. Out of conference agreements with Georgia, Marshall, and Texas A&M were made prior to Bowden's arrival.
Bowden has stated numerous times before and after expansioin, he would prefer to play a lighter out of conference schedule. Matchups with Texas A&M and Georgia are very fan friendly, but they are not good for job security.
Bowden's very first game as the head coach at Clemson was against Marshall. The Thundering Herd came into Clemson nationally ranked led by future NFL All-Pro quarterback Chad Pennington. The Tigers fell short against Marshall, as Marshall rode the Clemson victory to be one of two teams to finish the 1999 season undefeated.
In 2000, Clemson opened with The Citadel. No offense to The Citadel, but they are the only cupcake Bowden has had to open the season. Clemson crushed The Citadel 38-0, as they started the season 8-0, by far the best start to a season under Bowden's tenure.
To start the 2001 season, Clemson opened with a gritty Central Florida team. By no means is Central Florida a national power, but they have proven to be a very difficult non-conference opponent for many big time programs. Clemson was no different, as the Tigers had to pull off a fake field goal to win 21-13 over the Golden Knights.
The year of 2002 is where the openers have just become nightmarish for Bowden. Clemson started a two game series with Georgia. Clemson opened in Athens to start the Willie Simmons era in 2002. Clemson played very well, and they were just a missed field goal shy of tying the eventual SEC and SUgar Bowl Champions. In 2003, the Bulldogs traveled to Clemson. Charlie Whitehurst had now assumed the starting job at quarterback, but once again Georgia proved to be a much better team. Clemson was embarassed 30-0, as Georgia finished the year 11-3.
Last season, Bowden faced probably the worst possible matchup to open the season, Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons had crushed Clemson in 2003, and their misdirection offense gave John Lovett's defense all kinds of fits. Clemson came from behind to edge Wake Forest in double overtime 37-30.
This season Bowden and the company opens against Texas A&M. The Aggies return a wealth of talent on both sides of the ball. Last season, Clemson was overwhelmed at both lines of scrimmage by Texas A&M. Reggie McNeal is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. McNeal is accompanied by Courtney Lewis in the backfield, who when healthy has NFL skills at running back. It could very well wind up being the toughest game on the 2005 slate for Clemson.
While most schools would like to have that first game to fine tune their teams, Clemson has not had that luxury under Bowden. With the reduction of two-a-days, it is now even more difficult to have your teams ready for that first game. A good portion of the responsibility lies outside of the head coach's hands. Players must progress well in voluntary workouts, and the strength coach, the only coach who can have contact with the players over the summer, has to make sure the players are hitting the weight room as they should be.
Not including The Citadel, the teams Clemson has opened with have a combined record of 46-16 (.741 winning percentage). It has positive and negatives to playing a quality opponent to start the season, but rest assure Bowden and his staff are no stranger to playing the big game right off the bat.