Sept. 1, 1999
By Kerry CappsOrange & White
CLEMSON, S.C. – I’m taking a vow for the fall of 1999: No Expectations.
It makes sense…since I really have no idea what to expect. Tommy Bowden’s “plan” sounds good. His confidence and drive are impressive. Excitement surrounds the Clemson football program again.
I’m looking forward to covering a team that will keep me guessing. It’s refreshing to have no clue about what may be called on third-and-five. And I’m not going to spoil the surprise by expecting anything.
Besides, there are too many unknown variables to accurately predict what kind of season this will be for the Tigers.
We can guess. We can hope. But when we start expecting, we’re either, (A) setting ourselves up for disappointment, or (B) spoiling the childlike surprise that comes with unanticipated success.
In the long run, undeniably, there are expectations. Expectations – high ones – are part of the Clemson football landscape. It’s the legacy of a century, particularly the last quarter century.
As Bowden wryly noted last week, if there wasn’t anything hard about this job, there wouldn’t be a string of ex-coaches available for him to seek advice from.
How well Bowden meets Clemson’s expectations will play out over time. For now, I’m determined not to expect anything. I invite you to join me.
‘Statistically, No’ There’s another reason why expectations seem pointless.
I’ve listened to some pretty convincing arguments projecting very different outcomes for the Tigers’ 1999 season.
During his meeting with visiting ACC media last week, Bowden was asked pointedly whether coming off a 3-8 season, there was any solid basis for expecting improvement this year.
Bowden outlined a very convincing case for a very dismal fall. “Statistically, no,” he answered. “You look at last year’s statistics and Clemson was second to last in every single (offensive) category except turnovers, and they were last.
“If you look at returning starters in the ACC, Clemson is last. If you look at rushing productivity nationally, Clemson was 87th, and the returning starter at tailback is suspended.
“All five offensive line starters are gone for the first time in 50-something years. We lost six players off the defense to the NFL. “Then you look at the schedule and it’s rated as the fourth toughest in the country. We play seven bowl teams, open with five straight bowl teams, and only have five home games.
“Our starting offensive line will probably be the smallest Division 1-A line in the country.
“When you look at all those things, most people are picking us next to last in the conference. That, to me, would appear to be an accurate prediction, based on all those things.
“At that point it becomes a motivation and mental game,” he added. “And you don’t know those things until you play.”
Bowden, of course, isn’t going into this season expecting disaster. He has a lot of reasons to hope for offensive improvement, if for no other reason that the 1998 Tigers left a lot of room to improve.
But his hopes run deeper than that. Bowden is sold on the offense which he and Rich Rodriguez used so effectively at Tulane. He’s confident in his coaches, and he’s come to respect the athletes already in the program, in addition to his excitement about the players he recruited last winter.
The biggest obstacle facing the Tigers is adjustment. In some areas, the available personnel is a decent fit for what Bowden wants to do. In other areas, it’s going to take some time to recruit players who fit the scheme. And in a lot of places, the Tigers are simply young and inexperienced.
Not Bad, Just Young “It’s not that the personnel here is bad, and I’ve never said that it was bad,” Bowden said. “When you take a college job, it’s not like the pros where you can come in and cut guys and then go out and draft guys that fit your style. College is different in that you have to play with what you inherit.
“My players aren’t bad – they’re just young. I have one senior defensive lineman, no senior defensive ends, I don’t have a senior or junior linebacker, and I have no senior offensive lineman. So I’m at the bottom of a cycle – not talent-wise, but class-wise. I’ve never said the talent here was bad. But most of my good players are younger players.
“We could conceivably start two seniors on offense and have nine starters returning next year. And we could have eight starters back on defense next year. But ‘next year’ is not a big phrase around here.”
Likewise, Bowden hasn’t spent a lot of time talking about “last year.”
But the fact is that a 3-8 team could have been a lot better. There were some games in which the Tigers were convincingly beaten. They lost other games to teams Clemson isn’t supposed to lose to. And yet they came so close, so many times, to winning games which could have salvaged the season – Virginia, North Carolina, N.C. State, Georgia Tech.
A big play here or there, for or against, and Clemson’s 3-8 could have been 7-4.
A little improvement in critical situations could carry this team a long way. It’s a fine line.
“You can take all those statistics I talked about, and if you do one thing – knock them from 103rd in the nation in turnovers to 30th – the other guy is still here,” Bowden said. “I haven’t watched a lot of film on what they did on offense. But whatever they did, if you cut out the turnovers, then he’s still here.”
Fate worked out otherwise. And now Tommy Bowden has his opportunity.
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