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Now, Tommy, Things Get Interesting

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Almost everybody making money on the matter thinks Clemson will win the ACC Atlantic, at least, and probably the conference, since the same people seem to think the Tigers are destined for the top ten:

Doug at Hey Jenny Slater took a more expansive look at all the preseason rankings floating around and found the same thing: through a dozen mainstream polls, the Tigers came out at No. 8. Doug –– and certainly he’s reflecting a huge portion of general opinion here –– thought that reflected badly on the ACC more than it did positively on Clemson:

By contrast, the ACC -- with three teams in the top 25 and one more receiving votes -- looks like it's still going to struggle in its attempts to be taken seriously as a football superconference. Let's put it this way -- when your standard-bearer is a Tommy-Bowden-coached Clemson team, you're probably not ready for The Show just yet. The Tigers, incidentally, are pretty consistently pegged in the high single digits to low teens across the board, but let's be honest, most of us have heard this song before.
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We have, but not for a few years: the Tigers haven’t been ranked in the top 15 overall since 2000, Bowden’s second season. What Doug’s reflecting is the widespread notion (spread by my own commenters) that Clemson has regularly underachieved. Which is true, to an extent:

* Preseason rank based on Stassen Preseason Conesensus
** In games w/ line greater than +/– 3, based on Phil Steele listings; N/A for 1999-2000
*** Arbitrary, but generally: games w/ final margin 2X greater than line
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Clemson has regularly underachieved, the last three years it began the season in the polls. This takes different forms –– the team collapsed in ‘01 (2-5 following a 4-1 start) and ‘06 (four losses in last five after a 7-1 start) but had to rally to salvage Bowden’s job in ‘03 (win in five of the last six, including over No. 3 FSU and No. 6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl) and scrape into a bowl game in ‘05 (six wins in the last seven, the only loss by one point, after losing two overtime games in September).

But Bowden’s teams have just as often overachieved, based on preseason expectations. Measured in terms of winning the conference championship, "underachievement" is not the criticism when the team has never been expected to achieve a conference championship –– that crown belongs to Florida State, which has been picked by the vast majority of polls to top the conference or division every year since it joined the ACC, even after its run of immutable dominance ended in 2001, and even though Tommy has taken four of the last five from Papa Bobby. In the big picture, the real criticism for Clemson is "inconsistency." It regularly wins games it’s not supposed to win, sometimes by wide margins –– think of the nighttime beatdown it put on Georgia Tech in ‘06, two weeks after beating eventual conference champ Wake Forest on the road –– but there’s no question it’s also lost too many games in the last two years it was not supposed to lose, and can’t lose if it’s going to be a player: two straight to Virginia Tech, three straight to Boston College, three out of four to Georgia Tech, with scattered slip-ups against Maryland, Wake and even Duke since 2005. The blow fourth quarter lead against B.C. with the Atlantic title on the line last November, at home, was a handy summary for the ‘choke’ narrative.

What’s holding Clemson back? Nothing it can't break through.
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This team has easily the highest expectations of the Bowden era, and is probably the most talented, based on the marked improvement in recruiting over the last three years. That stems directly from beating Florida State on a consistent basis and contributes to sustaining the cycle, and the biggest difference between this outfit and its predecessors is that it’s finally supposed to be better than FSU –– significantly better, in fact, since FSU’s stock has fallen to the point that even Wake Forest is projected in front of the ‘Noles by most of the polls so far. Clemson is the big, fast team the league needs to fill the post-FSU power vaccum. It’s easy to sympathize with the pundits on personnel alone: nobody who watched the Tigeres run out in front of Florida State in the first half last Labor Day can doubt that they look the part now, athletically, and on paper. The defense finished in the top ten nationally in scoring and total defense, with the entire (probably entirely NFL-bound) secondary and three-fourths of the starting line back and one-time recruiting freak Ricky Sapp moving into the Gaines Adams/Phillip Merling role off the edge. The offense is frighteningly balanced: for all the attention heaped on the running backs, the Tigers ran 300 times and passed 300 times in ACC games, and were only slightly run-oriented in the neck-and-neck games with South Carolina and Auburn. Cullen Harper led the ACC in passing efficiency, and threw less than a third of the interceptions Matt Ryan did (at least some people think Harper can be a Ryan-like pro prospect). Aaron Kelly led the league in receiving and passed up the NFL.

But balance is not a substitute for consistency. Clemson prefers to run, and when it does, the results are obvious: in nine wins last year, the Tigers averaged 202 yards per game on the ground, compared to 69 yards in four losses, at more than double the per-carry average. The fruits of those efforts are evident in Harper’s stats: his touchdown:interception ratio in wins was a terrific 28 TDs to 2 INTs; in losses, when Harper threw far more often, it was two scores to four picks. Three new offensive linemen means James Davis and C.J. Spiller are destined to run into a few walls. What happens to Harper then? Woody Dantzler didn’t have the defense; Charlie Whitehurst didn’t have the running game; Will Proctor didn’t have the arm. Harper has the whole package. Bowden, probably for the first time, has the whole package –– Clemson should win the ACC. That you haven’t heard before. Depending on how it goes with the ‘consistency’ thing, you may be hearing it for most of the next decade, or else not again for the forseeable future.