Clemson University

What happened to Clemson football?

Clemson's James Davis is emotional as he talks about former Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden after Bowden stepped down Monday.
Clemson's James Davis is emotional as he talks about former Clemson football coach Tommy Bowden after Bowden stepped down Monday.

CLEMSON -- The proverb on Clemson interim football coach Dabo Swinney's desk advises nothing is less important than the score at halftime.

That Swinney now has to lock his office door at night suggests otherwise.

The score at Clemson's halftime -- a 3-3 overall record, including a 1-2 ACC mark that stacks the odds against a conference title -- is precisely why Tommy Bowden stepped down Monday before his seemingly imminent firing.

"This is not a throwaway season," athletics director Terry Don Phillips said earlier this week.

The (Columbia) State examines the highs and lows from Clemson's first six games, as well as whether it can validate Phillips' claim:

Biggest moment

Bowden's pre-emptive resignation seemingly brought a sigh of relief to all involved. Players were freed from the shroud of negativity that speculation about his job security cast. Phillips was absolved from firing a man who did everything right but corral an ACC title. Bowden can finally decompress after spending most of the last decade in a pressure cooker.

Lowest moment

Pick one of two. The second-half home collapse against heavy underdog Maryland felt more like the middle of the end for Bowden's reign, not the beginning of it. Then there was the grave, glazed look Bowden had on his face as he walked away from reporters following the anemic Wake Forest defeat. Lou Holtz's expression bore the same message after the Tennessee loss his final year at USC: It's over.

The turning point

Not that Clemson's inherent offensive deficiencies wouldn't have reared their heads again. But imagine how the context of the last two weeks might have changed if receiver Aaron Kelly had not been flagged for a debatable holding call that negated C.J. Spiller's 59-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter against Maryland. The Tigers go up 24-6 and retain momentum. Assuming they hold on to win, they enter the Wake Forest game at least with some measure of self-confidence.

Someone draw the line

Circumstances within the Tigers' control certainly played a significant role in their demise. Yet, how many offenses could sustain their expected performance level when their already inexperienced line incurred this many injuries? Only one of the five starters entering August has not missed time with injury (center Thomas Austin). They were struggling enough with those guys. Constant turnover at guard has prevented the group from making any progress.

Where has this been?

In his first two seasons, Spiller drew the ire of coaches and fans by always trying to turn every run into a highlight. His concerted effort to run with more assertiveness and power between the tackles has been apparent, if not impressive. The stats might not show it (52.3 yards per game, five touchdowns), but as the football cliché goes, the film doesn't lie. You can bet NFL scouts have noticed.

Where did this go?

Preseason ACC player of the year, two NFL scouting services' top senior quarterback and an early invite to the Senior Bowl. Senior quarterback Cullen Harper was not among the top problems with Clemson's offense, but he has not thrown the ball downfield with near the precision of a year ago.

And the unnoticed status quo

The defense ranks 15th nationally in points allowed per game (15.3) and has yielded three touchdowns to as many ACC opponents. It is not a dominant unit that can stand on its own, but it has put the Tigers in sufficient position to win.

MVPs

Spiller and senior safety Michael Hamlin. It is hard to fathom how anemic Clemson would have looked without Spiller, the only skill player who has managed to break something out of its offensive nothingness. Junior cornerbacks Chris Chancellor and Crezdon Butler have been stellar, but Hamlin has proven indispensable for his versatility and reliability.

Impact newcomer

Special teams coordinator Andre' Powell, almost by default. For as many games as the Tigers have lost in recent memory because of special-teams gaffes, something must be said for Powell stopping the bleeding in his first year with oversight. The only runner-up is ballyhooed freshman defensive end Da'Quan Bowers. Bowers leads the team with nine quarterback pressures, but his effort is said to have been erratic.

Second-half outlook

As was the case with Bowden's job security, Clemson's outlook remains a week-to-week proposition.

Swinney's aggressive playcalling and a mobile quarterback in Willy Korn could provide the much-needed offensive spark. If that's the case, and the Tigers mount what should be considered an upset Saturday at Georgia Tech, then what is to preclude this team going on one of its annual winning streaks?

On the other hand, a Georgia Tech loss suddenly pulls Clemson even closer to missing out on even bowl eligibility, and the team does not have much more to play for than that. Plus, with Spiller hurt, Korn making his first start and the offensive line still in rough shape, this offense could just as easily continue backward.

PREDICTION: 6-6

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