A question for all football stylists: Is Clemson the Regis Philbin look of this season, or is it as pass� as pashmina? Coach Tommy Bowden took over a team that had struggled to win three games in 1998 and guided it to the Peach Bowl in his first season. Surely the Tigers would have won even more games last year if they hadn't played Florida State, Virginia Tech and Marshall, the only teams in Division I-A that finished the regular season unbeaten. Clemson has since traded the Hokies and the Thundering Herd on its schedule for Missouri and The Citadel in 2000. If George Steinbrenner hears about that swap, someone at Clemson is the New York Yankees' next general manager.
But now Bowden is begging the bandwagon to slow down. "Our 16 returning starters won six games," he says. "That's what I tell my alums, and I'm sticking to it."
That may be the only time this season you'll hear Bowden suggest that things are moving too fast. We've all heard about the importance of speed in modern football—and Bowden can sing from that hymnal as well as the next coach—but what he craves is speed of another sort. Yes, he wants the Tigers to run fast, but he also wants them to play fast. In the playbook taught by coordinator Rich Rodriguez, the Clemson spread offense is designed to operate with the efficiency and precision of an assembly line. The 25-second clock should never tick beyond, gulp, 19.
The Clemson offense waits for no man, not even the guys who were working the chains at Maryland last year. They held up the Tigers so often in Clemson's 42-30 victory that Bowden wrote a letter to the ACC office asking for help.
At every practice, Bowden sets aside one 10-minute period to work on getting plays off quickly, during which the coaches use walkie-talkies to simulate the communication from the press box to the sideline during a game. Even the Clemson defenders benefit from the offensive pace. After practicing against it all week, they look forward to Saturdays, when the pace slows down. "We're in better shape," says junior linebacker Keith Adams, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 1999. "We're ready to play when other teams are gasping for air."
Still, only a collapse by Florida State will give Clemson a chance to win the ACC tide. Bowden knows better than to believe he can match the Seminoles athlete for athlete, but the scare that Clemson put into Florida State last year at Death Valley got the attention of every coach in the conference, including one Bowden has known all his life. "I'm glad we've got them in Tallahassee this year," Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden says of Clemson. "My crowd instead of his."