CLEMSON -- The vultures hovering around Clemson coach Tommy Bowden have grown accustomed to fasting.
They began circling in earnest after the 2002 Tangerine Bowl debacle, then were warded off the next season when the Tigers followed a tumultuous loss at Wake Forest by upsetting No. 10 Florida State and winning their final four games.
Bowden received a three-year contract extension through 2010, although that failed to buy him perceived job security. Slow starts in 2004 (1-4) and 2005 (2-3) thawed hot-seat speculation, which Clemson summarily defused with season-ending winning streaks and its third and fourth straight victories against rival South Carolina.
The Tigers reversed the trend a year ago, appearing on the verge of a competitive breakthrough when a 7-1 team split at the seams and dropped four of its last five.
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All of which adds up to provide a foreboding backdrop to the rest of Clemson's 2007 season, depending on whether the glass is viewed as half-full or half-empty.
Stocked with more high-profile recruits than at any other time in Bowden's nine-year tenure, the Tigers (4-2, 2-2 ACC) figured to have as good a chance as anyone of reaching the conference title game -- if based solely on potential.
But they are already treading water after special teams gaffes and offensive failures submarined losses to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech the last two games -- neither of which were forced to generate points from their one-dimensional offenses.
"The nail has been in the coffin here a couple of times," Bowden said. "And we've responded."
While questions remain unanswered as to why it takes their backs being against the wall to solicit consistent success, Bowden's biggest forthcoming challenge might be convincing Clemson fans to hold their hammers at bay long enough to give him yet another chance.
The remaining shred of hope for a conference title game berth hinges on precedent -- since the ACC split to divisions two years ago, the Atlantic Division champs have finished with two and three league losses.
Meaning with a little help, the Tigers could get there if they sweep the slate of Maryland, Duke, Wake Forest and Boston College.
Or there's the familiar ring of anticipating next season, when Clemson could return at least 16 regular starters. And maybe its coach, who is in the final year of a $2.5 million buyout clause and has admitted it will be interesting to see how administration handles his contract with just three seasons left on the deal -- lame-duck status by industry standards.
Before the drama truly unfolds, a look back at the first half of the 2007 season:
n Offense: WR Aaron Kelly
There are better NFL prospects in the lineup and players with more instrumental skills in executing Clemson's offense, but no one is more irreplaceable right now than Kelly.
The 6-foot-5 junior leads the ACC in catches (39), ranks second in yards per game (86.0) and touchdowns (four) and has been the one guy who has proven consistently effective.
Picture the Tigers' painfully thin receiving corps without him.
Tyler Grisham is an underrated complementary player, but not one opponents fear. Speedster Jacoby Ford has yet to emerge as more than a target for screen passes, and Rendrick Taylor stays hurt -- leading walk-on Terrance Ashe into a prominent role.
Clemson can succeed without featuring Kelly, but it probably cannot beat a good defense without him.
Runners-up: QB Cullen Harper has given Clemson a legitimate downfield passing threat and exceeded everyone's expectations, but he has been relatively off-target early in the last two games when the offense has needed him most. RB James Davis is the best player on the field when healthy and/or utilized.
n Defense: DT Rashaad Jackson
Like those of most interior linemen, Jackson's stats are modest (25 tackles, zero sacks).
But anyone who has watched Clemson's defense can pick him out from a distance.
Last year, Jackson's unbridled enthusiasm and abandon led him to lose focus on his assignments. This season, his charisma has re-energized the unit several times when put in predicaments during key ACC games.
That, and his non-stop motor, has routinely enabled Jackson to blow up an opponent's play at the onset because of his ability to quickly slip past solo blocks and into the backfield.
In a scheme designed to generate a pass-rush from an end or linebacker, Jackson is tied for the team high in quarterback pressures (eight).
Runners-up: S Michael Hamlin is putting together an all-ACC campaign by adding a playmaking element to his reliable services. DE Phillip Merling has teased with dominating stretches and is tied for second in the ACC in tackles for loss (nine).
n Good: Harper's first touchdown pass
Third offensive series in the scoreless opener against Florida State, Harper turned on a bootleg and, facing pressure, threw off his back foot to the middle of the field. Somehow tight end Brian Linthicum came down between two defenders with an 11-yard touchdown grab.
Poor decision-making aside, the play validated the belief Clemson had the arm strength and gusto to make a downfield passing game work. The Tigers then built a 21-0 lead and held on for victory.
Bad: Special teams gone wild vs. Georgia Tech
Reserve linebacker Kavell Conner takes the wrong man and Georgia Tech's D.J. Donley jets through untouched to block a punt in the first quarter, putting the Yellow Jackets 8 yards from the game's only touchdown.
Then all special teams heck broke loose for two games, rekindling flashbacks to last year's meltdowns. Four missed field goals and a fumbled punt return sealed the defeat at Georgia Tech, while two return touchdowns allowed against Virginia Tech gave Clemson a mountain to climb.
THEY ARE WHO WE THOUGHT THEY WERE
Many orange-clad lemmings have jumped off the cliff with Clemson's 4-2 start, but the fact remains that one would be hard-pressed to find a media outlet that predicted the Tigers would win the Atlantic Division.
Concerns and weaknesses pegged in the preseason have largely come to costly fruition.
First and foremost, the special teams ineptitudes were patched, not fixed.
The offensive line has gotten pushed around at the point of attack. The truth is, senior left tackle Barry Richardson has yet to be dominant -- his projected draft stock and all-conference status were largely products of reputation and gargantuan frame.
Rob Spence's offense continues to be a scoring feast or famine. And the jury remains out on Clemson's defense because it has yet to face a balanced unit with the mid-range passing game that proved its nemesis last year (such is the state of the ACC quarterbacks).
On the flip side, Harper and Kelly have been as good as advertised from the spring. Lou Holtz used to say good teams get their best play from their juniors, and the Tigers' defense has thrived behind six in its starting unit.
BUT NEVER SAW THIS COMING
Transfer speculation figures to run rampant again in the next few months if sophomore tailback C.J. Spiller does not. Aside from the N.C. State rout, Spiller has averaged 2.2 yards per carry and 18.0 rushing yards per game.
For as much emphasis as was put on using both Spiller and Davis in the same lineup, the Tigers have ditched their gadgets in their two biggest games.
While Spence can probably justify jumping to his passing game because of the line's struggles, the decision to use Davis (6.1 yards per carry) as mostly a decoy or blocker early in the last two games has gone against his otherwise apparent philosophy to play the percentages.
Give Clemson's defense credit. When the offense soured last year, it mentally caved. This year, it has maintained an edge while rarely showing a penchant for missed tackles.
FIVE TO WATCH
C Thomas Austin: Possesses the most long-term potential of the candidates at the position, and if he catches on, it would not be a shock to see former starter Barry Humphries give guard a try.
CB Crezdon Butler: Sophomore has developed nicely in his first starting season, but his real coverage tests are about to come.
LB Scotty Cooper: S DeAndre McDaniel was supposed to be the impact freshman but looks lost far too often. Cooper has garnered increasingly relevant playing time and could gain more if strongside starter Tramaine Billie remains average.
PK Mark Buchholz: Based on his preseason, the two-game slump is an aberration. But playing two sports at one time has to take a physical and/or mental toll by seasons' end.
QB Willy Korn: Coaches convinced Korn that using his year of eligibility would be valuable to the team. So far, the mop-up snaps have not justified the expense.
WHICH FORK IN THE ROAD WILL CLEMSON TAKE?
n Worst-case scenario: After barely outscoring pass-happy Central Michigan, Clemson is dinked-and-dunked to ACC contention death at Maryland. With their goals again prematurely squashed and Bowden's job security a constant topic of discussion, the Tigers tank, losing their final three regular-season games to wind up out west for one of the league's low-level bowl tie-ins. Then the $2.5 million question is answered.
n Middle ground: Armed with superior athletes and better leadership than a year ago, the Tigers revive to win four straight, only to drop their final two against teams (Boston College and USC) that are simply bad matchups for their personnel and scheme. Bowden gets a one- or two-year contract extension but his buyout clause remains the same, essentially extending his window of opportunity to show what he can do once his touted recruiting classes have matured.
n Best-case scenario: The tendency for Bowden's teams to streak finally pays off. Riding the momentum of a four-game win streak, Clemson nips Boston College in a shootout to seal the division title and reach the ACC title game. As icing on the cake, the Tigers then knock the Gamecocks out by prevailing at Columbia in the season finale. Bowden gets a four-year deal, and all is hunky-dory until the first 2008 defeat.
n QBs: A-minus. If someone had predicted Harper would be the reason for two wins and nearly free of blame in the two losses, the Tigers would have taken it.
n RBs: B-minus. Davis looked great until he quit getting the ball. Spiller has resembled Reggie Bush, which isn't so much a compliment this season.
n WRs: B. Docked a grade because of the eight drops against Georgia Tech. But Kelly has shown why he was under-utilized a year ago, and Grisham just gets open.
n OL: D-plus. They did what three other ACC teams haven't -- make Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech's defensive fronts appear as strong as the past.
n DL: B-plus. Actually, the front has done pretty well except for the Yellow Jackets' final drive and Hokies QB Tyrod Taylor's game-clinching 52-yard scramble.
n LBs: C. Nick Watkins has regained his reliability, and Cortney Vincent has infused energy as the stop-gap middle linebacker. But the lack of playmakers is a handicap.
n DBs: B-minus. Hamlin has been pushed to greater heights, and CBs Butler and Chris Chancellor are improved. We'll soon discover if they can cover, though.
n Special teams: F. Yes, because of the volume of plays by these units, there will be mistakes. But teams like Virginia Tech do not have these recurring problems, nor do they spiral to seemingly always cost it the game. Having a player lollygag during the Hokies' punt return TD last week was inexcusable.
n Coaching: C. There is something to be said for preventing the team from falling apart when adversity struck in the Florida State opener. On the other hand, the two losses were to teams with fallible defenses and one-dimensional offenses -- and therefore should be inferior.