Clemson University

Bowden could be facing make-or-break season

CLEMSON -- After surviving another tumultuous season as coach of the Clemson Tigers, Tommy Bowden is proof that some cats do have nine lives.

Extending the Bowden era might hinge on whether his team can land on all four feet in Jacksonville, Fla., for the ACC championship game come early December.

He enters the 2007 season armed with the most pure talent in his nine-year tenure and the upgraded facilities he long coveted.

But as close as Bowden says Clemson has come to getting there, the Tigers have yet to corral the elusive ACC title, much less the division title that earns a berth in the championship game.

Three weeks before the start of preseason practice, The State examines five things that could lead to the program reaching that perceived benchmark - and five things that could lead to disaster.

• 1. Win games they are expected to win.

On Tommy Bowden's watch, Clemson finally avoids losing a game it should have won. That means in addition to nonconference victories against Louisiana-Monroe, Furman and Central Michigan, the Tigers cruise at Maryland and Duke and do not lose late-September road games against N.C. State and Georgia Tech.

• 2. Quarterback controversy can be a good thing.

New quarterback Cullen Harper maintains the dedication and accuracy he unveiled in the spring, and coordinator Rob Spence takes advantage of it with balanced play-calling. For the cherry on top, heralded freshman quarterback Willy Korn is successfully incorporated into at least two series each game. Because redshirting Korn makes little sense, a continuing controversy would beat any alternative.

• 3. Defense emerges as one of ACC's best.

The bend-and-break defense displayed at the end of last season proves a reflection of the team's shattered psyche instead of some combination of attitude problems, insufficient player development or schematic flaw. Except for inexperience at cornerback, Vic Koenning's unit should be among the ACC's best defenses, barring injury. All four defensive linemen have the makings of being breakout stars; the returns of Tramaine Billie and Antonio Clay from injuries give the Tigers three high-caliber linebackers; and the secondary is loaded with athletes.

4. See Spiller and Davis run -- a lot.

See C.J. Spiller run more. See Spiller run long distances after highlight-reel moves. Now see Spiller used as a pass-catching threat in the mold of Reggie Bush. Then see fellow running back James Davis lead the team in rushing and make the wise choice to return for his senior season (because he will not be a first-round pick in next year's draft).

5. Win the Bowden Bowl.

Winning the season-opening Bowden Bowl on Labor Day on a national stage is followed by a vengeful home whooping of Virginia Tech. Clemson finishes the ACC slate with one loss and advances to the conference championship game via a tiebreaker advantage over Florida State. After the Tigers hit a field goal to triumph at USC, Bowden is given a four-year contract extension, and his staff proceeds to sign its fourth consecutive stellar recruiting class.

Five nightmare scenarios

1. Quarterbacks not ready to play.

Harper quickly turns out to be a spring tease, or Spence proves it does not matter who the quarterback is in his system. A public outcry leads to Korn's premature insertion into the starting job, and when he endures the same struggles fellow blue-chippers Matthew Stafford (Georgia) and Mitch Mustain (Arkansas) did under similar circumstances last year, it's the 2006 Tigers all over again.

2. Injury keeps Ford from stretching defenses.

Jacoby Ford gets injured, robbing a thin receiving corps of its only speed threat. There are better and more important offensive players, but arguably none more irreplaceable in Clemson's offensive game plan. Ford is the best bet for stretching the field or turning a screen pass into a substantial gain. Both will be required to prevent a refurbished offensive line from being overwhelmed by defenses that again are allowed to stack the box against the run.

3. Special teams can't figure out "get-off time."

Last year's popular buzz-phrase, "get-off time," once again takes the double meaning of how quickly the Tigers can get their special-teams units off the field. Neither soccer-playing walk-on Mark Buchholz nor touted redshirt freshman Richard Jackson holds down the place-kicking job, and Jimmy Maners winds up a boom-or-bust punter. Also, opponents gain a huge advantage in field position due to Clemson's poor kickoff coverage.

4. Wrong opponent, wrong time.

Starting with Florida State's debut under a respected new offensive coaching staff, the Tigers run into several opponents at the wrong moment. N.C. State has Clemson lined up for its first prominent home game under new coach Tom O'Brien, while veteran-laden Boston College will have played 10 games in its new system before traveling to Death Valley. Georgia Tech has trap game written all over it, and there is no reason Virginia Tech should not be, at worst, 4-1 when it faces Clemson.

5. Hot seat gets hotter for Tommy Bowden.

Whether they have occurred at the front or back end of the schedule, losing skids have been Bowden's nemesis since 2000. Beginning the season with one will raise questions about Bowden's job security, possibly for the rest of the season. A losing streak to end the season, and Bowden's $2.5 million buyout will not seem so expensive for an athletic department that needs every penny.