Conference Openers Mean More

As bitter a pill as the 30-0 whipping Georgia handed out in the first game of the 2003 season was to swallow, in the grand scheme of things it really didn't mean that much.

Sure, the Tigers and their faithful would have loved nothing more than to beat the almighty Bulldogs, who were ranked near the top of the polls, but the loss was nothing more than a little pride being bruised.

It had absolutely no affect on the rest of the season.

The same, however, can't be said for Saturday's game against Wake Forest, which is one of eight Atlantic Coast Conference match ups on the slate in 2004. A loss to the Demon Deacons to start the season and the Tigers will already be in a major hole.

"Last year was a huge game for us because (Georgia) was so highly ranked, but this year, it probably means a little bit more," Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said.

"You can't kind of mess around and lose a game here early like we did last year. We kind of got away with it. We had a good season, anyway. But the conference game is definitely more important."

While last year's game against Georgia renewed a rivalry that hadn't been played in several years and was a chance for the Clemson players to show the country and the ACC that they could play with the top teams in the nation, Saturday's game has even more riding on it.

The players and coaching staff for the Tigers all remember the whipping Wake Forest put on them last year in Winston-Salem, N.C. They also remember that was the game that almost cost Clemson coach Tommy Bowden his job.

"I kind of like the I-AAs, as long as it's not Wofford or Furman," Bowden said. "Give me somebody else other than those two. Those two are too good, even at I-AA."
"I think the team's pretty focused because of the ramifications of a conference loss," Bowden said. "The positive is the fact that you have their attention. But it puts you behind the eight ball if you lose early."

The fact that Clemson opens with the Demon Deacons and a conference game is something that the coaching staff, players and fans might have to get used to.

Now that there are currently 11 teams, and soon to be 12, in the ACC, the odds of having to open with a conference foe increase for the Tigers. It's commonplace for squads in the Southeastern Conference, Big 12 and Big 10 to open their season within their conference.

But that's not exactly how Bowden likes it. He would rather play a much lesser team, say a Utah State for example.

"To be honest, I'd prefer that because of the unknowns coming out of preseason," Bowden said.

"You have new positions, freshmen's roles and things like that, and in our case, the offensive line has some changes. It gives you a little more room for flexibility and margin for error, where as a team like Wake Forest, there's no margin for error."

Beginning the season against a team from within the conference due to the addition of powerhouse Miami and perennial quality teams in Boston College and Virginia Tech is just one of the factors that will likely make future schedules for Clemson very difficult.

Each year a team is allowed three out of conference games, but in the Tigers' place one of those three is guaranteed against South Carolina. So, that leaves two additional games a year to play.

And Bowden, if he has his way, will make those games against very easy competition. In fact, the Tigers just dropped a home-and-home series scheduled in a few years against Oklahoma. Odds are patsies will take the Sooners' place.

"I kind of like the I-AAs, as long as it's not Wofford or Furman," Bowden said. "Give me somebody else other than those two. Those two are too good, even at I-AA."

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