CLEMSON -- If any Clemson player has earned the right to gloat, it's quarterback Cullen Harper. Instead, the junior flashes a wry smile, glad he got to show everyone else what he knew all along.
Harper was the surprise of No. 15 Clemson's best season in four years. He can become the first Tiger starting QB in 17 years to finish with 10 victories should Clemson (9-3) defeat No. 22 Auburn (8-4) at the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.
"It is good to go out there and prove all those people wrong," Harper said last week.
In his first season as starter, Harper set 22 school records, including 27 TD passes this season. He led the Atlantic Coast Conference in passing efficiency, ahead of Boston College star Matt Ryan.
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Twice this fall, Harper threw five touchdown passes in a game, and became the first non-senior quarterback voted offensive captain since 1994.
Still, there were an awful lot of people who doubted Harper's future leading the Tigers -- even Harper himself.
"You don't know how you're going to respond until you actually get out there and do it," he says.
Harper spent his first two seasons learning behind Clemson record-setter Charlie Whitehurst, then served as Will Proctor's backup in 2006.
Proctor led the Tigers to a 7-1 start. But the team faltered down the stretch as defenses concentrated on stopping Clemson's powerful running attack and dared Proctor to keep things moving through the air. More times than not, Clemson could not.
As the losses continued, some fans wondered if Harper should get a chance. But Harper didn't get a snap as Clemson dropped four of its final five.
It was enough for Harper to wonder about coaches' confidence in his ability, especially with highly touted recruit Willy Korn enrolling in January.
Instead, Harper entered spring ball with the mind-set the starting job was his, no matter who else was on the roster.
While Korn rose to No. 2 on the depth chart, Harper won the starting spot and excelled.
He showed his toughness early on, directing Clemson to a 24-18, nationally televised victory over Florida State on Labor Day night. Five days later, Harper broke the single-game school record shared by several of Clemson's most noteworthy QBs (Whitehurst, Woody Dantzler, Willie Simmons, Nealon Greene and Bobby Gage) with five touchdown throws in a win over Louisiana-Monroe.
What did Harper get for his performance that afternoon? The chance to hear Death Valley stand up and cheer when Korn saw his first college action.
Harper has shrugged it off all season.
"There's always going to be your doubters anywhere you go," Harper says.
Harper has gotten rid of many of them, finishing with 2,887 yards, completing 67 percent of his passes with only six interceptions.
He's also shown a penchant for excelling when it matters most. Harper's touchdown run with less than 6 minutes left put Clemson ahead of Boston College 17-13. After Ryan threw a 43-yard TD pass to Rich Gunnell for the eventual winning score, Harper looked like he'd be the hero with an on-target throw near the goal line that Aaron Kelly could not catch in the 20-17 loss.
A game later against South Carolina, Clemson again let a lead slip away and trailed 21-20 in the final minute. This time, Harper went 5-of-5 for 69 yards on the final drive and the Tigers won 23-21 on Mark Buchholz's 35-yard field goal as time expired.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden wasn't sure how Harper would handle the leadership and has been thrilled with the junior's progress. Harper's so superb, Clemson coaches expect to redshirt Korn.
"There's just not much that he's doing poorly," Bowden says of Harper.
Harper had arthroscopic surgery two weeks ago to fix a shoulder banged up on his TD run against Boston College. He began throwing last week and should not be affected during bowl practice.
Harper went to high school in Alpharetta, Ga., and pledged to Clemson the last time the Tigers played in the Georgia Dome for the postseason in the 2003 Peach Bowl.
When he joined the Tigers, Harper had never thrown a slant pass. Now, he's got a chance to bring the Tigers a 10-win season his first time in control. And just maybe convince a few more people that Harper knows how to play. "To prove those people wrong," he says, "it's a pretty good feeling."