As I empty out the season-long notebook, here's a hodge-podge of thoughts worth discussing before Clemson's postseason destination is determined this weekend:
THE GOOD: Let's start with Cullen Harper. In a season that saw him complete 67 percent of his passes for 2,887 yards and 27 touchdowns with just six interceptions, it has become crystal clear he has nothing left to prove. In fact, he should be one the leading candidates for 2008 ACC Player of the Year next summer. Simply put, Harper makes all the throws, he generally makes good decisions and he turned a weakness of the team in 2006 into a strength in 2007.
James Davis had another good year. After rushing for over 120 yards Saturday night against South Carolina, Davis finished the year second in the ACC in rushing (82 yards/game), trailing only Georgia Tech's Tashard Choice. He should go over 1,000 yards for the season in the bowl game.
Davis also assumed a natural leadership role with this team and had no problem being the voice of the team to the media.
Then there's Aaron Kelly. The redshirt junior broke Rod Gardner's single season reception record after his 9-catch, 134 yard performance against the Gamecocks. He also finished second in the ACC in receptions with 84 and first in the league in receiving yards with 1,045. Kelly will continue to the trend established by former Clemson wide outs Airese Currie and Chansi Stuckey by being named first-team All-ACC later this week.
And how about that defense? The Tigers are currently ranked No. 5 in the country in total defense and allowed more than 21 points just twice all season (La.-Monroe and Virginia Tech). This unit came to play every single game and gave the Tigers a chance to win all 12 games.
While the defense isn't as praised as much as Clemson's skill players week in and week out, it is clearly a championship caliber group.
THE BAD: It's hard to feel anything bad about a team that has won nine games before playing in a bowl, but the offensive play-calling at times is questionable. While it's important to point out the Tigers were running behind a patch-work offensive line this season, the short-yardage calls against Boston College and South Carolina were microcosms of the year.
The stats will tell you Clemson had the No. 2 offense in the league behind Boston College this season. That's great. But the film tells you this offense had the ability to accomplish so much more.
There is a thought that the Clemson offense "out-thinks itself" at times instead of relying on the big guns that move the chains and put points on the board.
Case in point: First and goal at the 2-yard line against Boston College ... the Tigers attempt one running play and two passes. Or how about first and goal at the 5-yard line against South Carolina? It's one run with C.J. Spiller before Harper throws an interception on second down.
In addition, the whole idea of a running back rotation should be thrown out the window in short yardage situations. Put in James Davis and hand him the ball three times and lets see what happens.
Bowden will go through the traditional self-scouting with his coaching staff this offseason just like he does every year. You have to think Clemson's inability to run the ball as effective as it should with the current talent on the field will be one of the things looked at under a microscope.
THE UGLY: How did this team lose to Georgia Tech? Nine dropped passes, a blocked punt and four missed field goals were obviously critical, but this is the one that really stings (no pun intended). Even with a loss to Boston College the Tigers could have slipped into the BCS picture had they simply beaten Georgia Tech in Atlanta in late September. Ouch.
QUESTION WORTH PONDERING: What's wrong with C.J. Spiller? Sure, it's hard to find fault with a player that averaged 125 all-purpose yards per game and was one of the most electrifying return men in the conference, but shouldn't it have been more?
Some have suggested he's too quick to get out of bounds and isn't tough enough to run straight up field between the tackles. Others point to an offseason which had him pondering a transfer. Or maybe he simply didn't get enough carries as James Davis took control as the starter or because Clemson became a passing team.
Whatever the reason, Spiller took a step backwards this year.
The good news is he still was productive and could have as many as two more years in the program to show he is one of the most talented players in college football today.
There's also the possibility of him exploding with a monster performance in the bowl game.
THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE: The Tigers appear to be bound for one of two postseason destinations: the Gator or Chic-Fil-A bowls. A trip to Jacksonville would likely feature a matchup of Clemson against a school from the Big 12.
Texas Tech figures to be that school at the present moment, although that could change.
A trip to Atlanta would likely pit the Tigers against Auburn.
If Boston College beats Virginia Tech to win the ACC, the Hokies would likely head to Chic-Fil-A bowl. If Virginia Tech wins the conference, the Tigers could end up in Atlanta.
Call me crazy, but I saw all I needed to see of Texas Tech five years ago at the Champs Sports Bowl. Visions of Graham Harrell turning into Kliff Kingsbury and throwing 70 times isn't something any Clemson fan should hope to see in a bowl game.
On the other hand, Auburn offers better name recogonition in a setting that would see at least 35,000+ Clemson fans in attendance.
THE LONGTERM FUTURE: One thing to feel great about is next season. With 18 starters returning (assuming all juniors return), including all key skill players, the Tigers will be favored to win the Atlantic Division and maybe the league.
The Tigers will have the best quarterback, running back and wide receiver in the ACC returning next year to go along with one of the top defenses in the country.
Go back and read that paragraph again if it didn't sink in properly the first time.
Regardless of what happens in the bowl game, Clemson should be preseason ranked in the top 15 if not higher.
While there will be questions on the offensive line as the Tigers look to replace Barry Richardson, Chris McDuffie and Brandon Pilgrim, two starters have been found with Thomas Austin at center and Barry Humphries at right guard. Also look for several new names to emerge, especially at tackle where Chris Hairston, Landon Walker and David Smith will compete for the starting positions.
Sure, the same old questions will be thrown around next summer: Can Clemson win the big game with everything on the line? Can the Tigers avoid the classic letdown? Can Tommy Bowden lead this program to an ACC Championship? And yes, the schedule could be more dicey with trips to Florida State, Boston College, Virginia and a potential neutral site game in the Georgia Dome to open the year against Alabama- but still, the Tigers would likely be favored to win most if not all of those games.
Bowden has gotten the program close in each of the last three years. A play here or a play there and Clemson has played in multiple ACC championship games and probably moved on to a BCS bowl.
Odds are he'll get there and odds are he'll win one in the very near future. And the good news is those odds should be more favorable given the talent returning next season.
PARTING SHOTS: Honorable mention good surprises: special teams improvement since the halfway point of the season, Thomas Austin at center, Tyler Grisham's production, improved play at cornerback with Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor. Areas of improvement needed: pressure on the quarterback from the defensive line, more consistency on punts and field goals.
Thoughts, Rumblings, Things Left Unsaid
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