CLEMSON -- The million dollar question out of Clemson these days has to do with the travails of its star quarterback. So, just what is wrong with Cullen Harper?
To hear Harper and Tommy Bowden answer the question, the problems are all in the heads of inquisitive fans and the questioning media. Harper says he is in good health, other than a deep bruise to his left (non-throwing) shoulder. Bowden says it is too early in the season to make judgments on his quarterback's play.
There is little doubt that Harper's production is down, as his three touchdown passes and four interceptions attest. Still, the maddening cheers for backup Willy Korn border on the absurd. A second-year starter with Harper's credentials should not be subjected to such nonsense.
Bowden exacerbates the situation by claiming it is premature to compare Harper's current to last season, when his quarterback stunned the ACC with record-setting performances.
"He's got a chance to have a really good year," Bowden says. "He's played four games. You ask me to compare four games to how he did last year in 13. It's kind of hard to make that comparison. Are we down in touchdown passes and up in interceptions? Yes, but we've played four games."
Instead, Bowden should attempt to explain the differences between this Clemson offense and last season's. If it sounds like making excuses for Harper, so be it. The facts do not lie.
Part of the problem in Harper's statistics last season were off the charts. He threw 12 touchdowns without an interception in the opening four games. He was not going to match those totals this season, no matter the circumstances.
Granted, four games probably is not a large enough sample for an accurate assessment. Still, when the opponents were the same caliber each season, there is enough evidence to suggest Harper has slipped. To boot, there are plausible factors contributing to his decline.
A season ago, Clemson opened against a respectable Florida State team, then pasted consecutive patsies in Louisiana-Monroe, Furman and N.C. State. This season, the Tigers were waxed by a strong Alabama squad before rolling over non-powers The Citadel, N.C. State and S.C. State.
Harper stormed onto the scene last season, setting a school record with five touchdown passes against Louisiana-Monroe and completing 16-of-19 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns against Furman. After four games, Harper had an efficiency rating of 181.09 en route to an ACC-best 141.0 for the season.
The numbers have not been nearly as gaudy this season, although 20-of-28 passing for 262 yards and two touchdowns against N.C. State was impressive. His 132.2 passing efficiency rating is slightly off last season's final rating, but is sixth in the ACC.
"I'm not happy with four interceptions, but I'm confident that what I see on the tape is correctable," Bowden says. "He's obviously performing at a pretty high rate statistically, other than four interceptions and (three) touchdown passes. But we're scoring points and we're running the ball better. You've got to give up something to get something."
Bowden's study of videotape shows that only one -- and perhaps a second -- interception could be pinned on Harper. One ball was tipped into an Alabama defender's hands. Another against N.C. State was the result of a bad route run by a receiver. Harper forced a pass into coverage for an interception against S.C. State, and an S.C. State defender made a superb play on another interception.
"Last year was a great year for me, obviously," says Harper, who finished with an eye-opening 27 touchdowns against six interceptions. "We got a lot of early touchdowns off screen (passes) and short throws inside the 5-yard line. This year, I just haven't quite had the opportunity."
Clemson obviously has placed a greater emphasis this season on running the football once it gets into scoring position. Part of that strategy has to do with developing more physical play out of an inexperienced offensive line and getting the ball into the hands of running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller.
Whatever the reasons, Clemson's touchdown totals through four games are nearly reversed from a season ago. Last season, Clemson ran for six touchdowns and passed for 13. This season, Clemson has run for 11 touchdowns and passed for four.
So, most of the angst about Harper's performance is badly misguided. So, too, are the calls for the much-ballyhooed Korn. How unfortunate that Harper continues to play second fiddle to his understudy in many fans eyes.
"Honestly, I'm really not worried about that," Harper says. "I remember last year it was the same thing. At the time I had thrown 12 touchdowns and zero interceptions and people were still wondering about that.
"That's just the way it's going, and that's just the way it's been my career here. Nothing's changed in the five years I've been here, so I'm pretty much used to it. It's disappointing, yes, but I'm not going to let it affect me."
So, perhaps there is an answer to the original question: What is wrong with Cullen Harper? Probably nothing, or at least nothing that a little more love from Clemson fans could not help solve.
WANT TO GO?
MARYLAND (3-1, 0-0 ACC) AT CLEMSON (3-1, 1-0 ACC)
• When: Noon Saturday
• Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
• TV: CBS (cable channel 5 in Rock Hill)
• Tickets: Available at 1-800-CLEMSON