Tommy Bowden underwent a startling professional resurrection in only 61 days. Bowden's job security was razor-thin after a 45-17 loss at Wake Forest left Clemson with a 5-4 record. Then the Tigers won four games by an average of 27 points (including wins over No. 3 Florida State and No. 6 Tennessee). That earned Bowden his second ACC Coach of the Year award in five seasons and a three-year contract extension with a $4 million buyout.
"Lazarus was in the cave for about three days," Bowden said. "I was there for about three weeks."
Clemson players shouted, "We're back!" as they left the Georgia Dome after dominating Tennessee 27-14 at the Peach Bowl. But Bowden cautions that is not the case yet.
Buoyed by the momentum but cognizant of the difficulties ahead in the new ACC, Clemson is determined to define the final four games of 2003 as the program standard.
"We can play at another level, and we're going to need to," Bowden said. "We've been talking about setting a standard. That's going to be needed to carry on the momentum from last year, because last year's leadership is gone. These guys need to pick up the torch and carry it on."
OffenseBowden wisely staked his future on Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback rather than former starter Willie Simmons, who transferred after the 2002 season. Whitehurst returns as arguably the ACC's best signal-caller. Now a fourth-year junior, Whitehurst joined N.C. State's Philip Rivers as the only ACC quarterbacks with 5,000 career passing yards after their first two seasons.
Running backs Duane Coleman and Yusef Kelly return, and Bowden hopes Clemson can rush for between 2,300 and 2,500 yards as a team this season. Coleman is a shifty runner. When healthy, Kelly has nice a blend of size and burst.
Converted quarterback Chansi Stuckey slides to wide receiver to replace Derrick Hamilton, who left early for the NFL. Airese Currie, rising star Kelvin Grant and Curtis Baham should ensure little drop-off at receiver despite the loss of three key contributors.
Clemson starts two new offensive tackles, Roman Fry and Marion Dukes. Depth is a concern at that position. Guard Cedric Johnson and center Tommy Sharpe, who are returning starters, provide comfort inside.
DefenseThe strength of the defense starts at the rear. All four starting defensive backs are returning. Cornerback Justin Miller struggled at times in 2003, but he is capable of dominating games with his coverage skills and hard hits.
Middle linebacker Leroy Hill enters 2004 as an All-America candidate because he makes plays behind the line of scrimmage. The Tigers lose the experience of departed linebacker John Leake, however.
The front four presents the most serious questions. Three of the four starters are gone, including tackle Donnell Washington, an early NFL Draft entrant. Defensive end Maurice Fountain, the line's only returning starter, needs to replace Khaleed Vaughn as the group's leader.
Clemson is excited about junior college transfer Corey Groover, a defensive tackle who practiced in the spring. The front four must set the tone if the Tigers are to continue playing the dominating brand of defense they showed during their season-ending, four-game winning streak.
"We can play at another level, and we're going to need to," Bowden said.
SpecialistsPunter Cole Chason returns after an up-and-down first season. Jad Dean was expected to replace four-year starter Aaron Hunt at kicker, but Dean struggled in the spring, and walk-on Stephen Furr moved ahead of him.
Miller is a dynamic returner. Redshirt freshman C.J. Gaddis, a talented two-sport athlete, could also return punts and kicks.
Final AnalysisThe next step for Clemson is the most difficult, particularly with the additions of Miami and Virginia Tech in the ACC. The Tigers will now be the hunted. Bowden made sure there was no complacency by reshuffling five coaches on his staff.
Given enough protection from two new tackles, Whitehurst can be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. The defensive line must adjust to its new starters. There are enough good athletes in the program for that to happen.
Clemson's greatest hurdle may be its schedule, which includes road games at Miami, Florida State, Virginia and Texas A&M. Given this schedule, eight wins would constitute a successful season. Just don't tell that to Clemson fans, whose expectations are always high.