Clemson University

Feels just like 2003: Tigers and Chick-fil-A Bowl together again

CLEMSON -- The timing felt right for the Chick-fil-A Bowl to pursue Clemson again.

Four years had passed, and coach Tommy Bowden's future was back in limbo.

Just like in 2003, when the game -- then known as the Peach Bowl -- wrapped up Clemson days after Bowden and athletic director Terry Don Phillips had likewise announced the intent to seek a contract extension.

A week after the Tigers accepted the bowl invitation to face Tennessee, Bowden and Phillips agreed to terms on Bowden's current contract.

The one set to be replaced, that is, by the seven-year deal Bowden accepted Tuesday morning to squelch his serious flirtations with Arkansas. Bowden raked in a substantial raise to $1.7 million and a lucrative buyout clause that figures to offer some measure of job security.

With its coach again secured, No. 15 Clemson can begin preparations for its sold-out Dec. 31 matchup with No. 22 Auburn (8-4).

"This seems to be a four-year cycle we're in," bowl president Gary Stokan said during a formal press conference Thursday.

"Hopefully, the next time we put this invitation together, Terry Don accepts. I know Tommy will."

If the presence of two mascot cows roaming the football offices seemed like a favorable omen for Bowden's tenure Tuesday, it might have been because Clemson's last trip to the Georgia Dome represented the beginning of the Tigers' gradual turnaround on his watch.

Despite its 6-5 record the following season, Clemson's 27-14 victory against No. 15 Tennessee in the 2004 Peach Bowl planted the seeds for Bowden's rebuilding campaigns, both in terms of facilities and recruiting.

The school announced plans for its WestZone stadium renovation project and subsequently secured the first of three consecutive nationally ranked signing classes, headlined by tailback James Davis.

Bowden contends the upgrades went hand-in-hand, culminating in a third straight year the Tigers (9-3) have won at least eight games.

With only five senior starters departing from the lineup -- aside from possible early NFL entrants -- Bowden believes Clemson could again be on the cusp of the next breakthrough if it can eclipse Auburn.

Clemson has failed to notch a 10-win season since its string of four straight from 1987-90. And the Tigers have the chance to gain that publicity in the metro Atlanta area, arguably their most vital, if not fruitful, recruiting market.

"If you could pick a bowl that you could go to for us to enhance our recruiting opportunities, it would be this bowl," Bowden said.

"If you want the chance to jump on the radar and set a standard and try to maintain the standard and exceed it, (this game is) important. It's the last signature the team puts out to the public. ... We'd like to win the game and go into the season highly ranked, then defend that position."

Feeling the draft

Two more juniors -- quarterback Cullen Harper and receiver Aaron Kelly, have filled out paperwork to gauge their NFL draft stock -- although both said Tuesday they expect to return barring an unforeseen high projection.

Running back James Davis, defensive end Phillip Merling and safety Michael Hamlin are also seeking projections from the NFL's underclassmen advisory committee.

Davis said Tuesday he is leaning toward returning, but leaving his options open.

• EXTRA POINTS -- Bowden declined to disclose whether he advised incoming Arkansas athletics director Jeff Long, a longtime friend, to pursue Wake Forest's Jim Grobe, who reportedly turned down the job Tuesday. "I tried to encourage (Grobe) to go," Bowden said. "I called him and said I'd add $50,000 of my own money." ... Stokan, who is also coordinating efforts for the 2008 season opener between Clemson and Alabama in the Georgia Dome, reiterated the need to have the deal finalized before the bowl game. "There's no major hurdles left, but we just have to get back to work on it," Stokan said. All that remains for the game -- slated for Aug. 30 at 8 p.m., and to be televised by ABC -- is for Alabama to contractually free the date.