COLUMBIA -- Clemson coach Tommy Bowden is not sure what he'll see from his previously ranked Tigers coming off a bye week. He only hopes it is more of the positive play they had early on instead of the breakdowns they exhibited their past two games.
Clemson (4-2) returns to action against Central Michigan (4-3) on Saturday. And so far, it has been a season of surprises for the Tigers.
Bowden didn't expect his special teams to implode in losing to Georgia Tech (13-3) and Virginia Tech (41-23) its past two games. But he also didn't expect the Tigers to rush for 340 yards in last month's victory over North Carolina State that pushed them to 4-0 for the first time in seven years.
So while Bowden anticipates great effort this week, he has few other expectations about what he'll see.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Herald
"Other than playing hard, you know too many (coaches) who know what to expect on a week to week basis?" he said Tuesday.
That's been among the most maddening things for those who follow the Tigers -- anytime you think you know what's going to happen, you probably don't.
In 2004 and 2005, Clemson got off to struggling starts but rebounded down the stretch -- the Tigers closed 5-1 in 2004 and 6-1 a season later -- to qualify for the postseason both times.
Last season when Clemson looked like it has put the pieces together with a 7-1 start, it finished 1-4 and looked nothing like the powerhouse club that ran over opponents early on.
Halfway through this season, the Tigers are clearly at a crossroad -- are they the 4-0 team that opened the year with its best start since 2000 or the 0-2, mistake-filled, injury-plagued group of their past two games?
Bowden said if he was a betting man, he'd gamble on his players.
"I think we'll play hard and I think the attitude will be good because that's been our track record," Bowden said.
Clemson spent the bye week working on the special teams problems that hit them hard in the two losses. Kicker Mark Buchholz missed four field goals and the Tigers had a punt blocked that led to a touchdown in Georgia Tech's win. A game later, Virginia Tech returned a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown. Add in an early interception return TD and that was more than enough to send the Hokies to victory and the Tigers tumbling from the polls.
Bowden also said the time off helped players on Clemson's long injury list to heal. If the Tigers would have played last weekend, they might have done it without their banged up starting safeties or three offensive linemen.
Instead, the coach plans for a mostly healthy group to hit the field this week. The open date "really came at a good time," Bowden said.
He's pleased with the performance of his passing game, which nearly rallied the Tigers back against Virginia Tech in the second half. "That's something we couldn't have done last year," he said.
Now, Bowden wishes he could spark Clemson's run game, which led the country last year but has struggled with stars James Davis and C.J. Spiller.
Part of the problem is inconsistency in the offensive line, Bowden said. Another was facing two of the Atlantic Coast Conference's top three defenses in the past two defeats, the coach said.
Clemson's effectiveness at passing this year could be the key toward opening up room for Davis and Spiller, who combined for 74 total yards rushing the last two games.
Receiver Tyler Grisham said the Tigers offense is trying to spread defenses out and back them up from stacking the line of scrimmage. "We're throwing the ball well, so why not?" he said.
Bowden won't get caught up in midseason worry that might crop up among fans eager for victories.
"Last year at this time, we were sitting her at seven and one and nationally ranked and didn't finish. This year, we're sitting here at four and two and not ranked," Bowden said. "I'll hold off evaluations until the end."
CENTRAL MICHIGAN (4-3) AT CLEMSON (4-2)
• When: Noon Saturday
• Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
• TV: ESPNU (digital cable channel 206 in Rock Hill)
• Tickets: Available at 1-800-CLEMSON