A Different Mindset

CLEMSON – As reserve players with an up close view of the happenings, Thomas Austin and Cullen Harper could see and sense something was amiss last year as the Clemson football team prepared for its bowl game against Kentucky in Nashville.

Each were in the midst of it all as the Tigers prepare for the Music City Bowl, but far enough removed from the starters that they had a better perspective of what was taking place and what was about to happen when the two team met on the field.

"Sometimes when you have the talent level like we did last year, sometimes you can get by with not giving 100 percent," said the center Austin, a starter this season, but someone who played every third series in last year's bowl game. "I think we definitely got complacent last year. There wasn't that excitement, there wasn't that enthusiasm.

"It was kind of like we were just going through the motions. That's a tough thing to say, but I had a bad feeling about the game in the week leading up to it, so it wasn't a surprise that it ended the way it did."

The way it ended was with Kentucky walking out with a 28-20 victory to win its first bowl game in 22 years, while putting a cap on Clemson's very disappointing season, in which it lost four of its last five.

Fans and media probably should have seen this result coming from a mile away. And while Tigers head coach Tommy Bowden said Thursday that he saw no difference in the attitude of the players, Harper said it was pretty obvious.

"Just the way we finished off last year, we started off 7-1 and everybody was talking BCS, and then to fall down and finish 8-4," said Harper, now the starting quarterback for Clemson. "You kind of sensed that people didn't want to be at the bowl game. It was almost like people were ready for the season to be over and to move on and start getting ready for this year and the seniors starting to get ready for their pro careers."

But just as disinterested the team was about playing in that bowl game last year, they're twice as psyched to be headed to this year's Chick-fil-A Bowl against No. 23 Auburn on New Year's Eve.

"Being on the sidelines, it was almost like everybody was just ready for it to be over with just the way we finished the season," Harper said. "I think that's the biggest difference this year, we're in a bowl game that we're really excited about to be in against a team we're really excited to play. There's a lot out there for us to take and set up next year, too."

Should Clemson get the win, it will give the Tigers 10 wins on the season and no doubt make them a preseason top 10 team next year, especially with 17 starters returning. They should be the favorite to win the Atlantic Division and maybe even the ACC.

"We have a chance to be really special next year, I feel like," Harper said. "I just think there are a lot of good things that can happen for us next year and that's even more of an incentive to go out there and play well."

But Clemson has been in this position before, especially the last two years. But the Tigers have stubbed their toe against teams with records equal or better than theirs. In order to be taken seriously for 2008, Harper and Austin believe it has to start with a win against Auburn.

"In the past, Clemson has always been able to win the big game and lose to a lesser opponent like Duke or someone like that," Austin said. "This year we proved we're not going to give up those smaller games, but we couldn't beat Virginia Tech or Boston College. This is a great opportunity to get a win against one of the top programs in the nation."

Harper had even more to say on the topic.

"We did get beat by Virginia Tech and Boston College and both of those guys were playing in the ACC Championship Game," he said. "When you lose some games, you want to get beat by some teams like that. You don't it to be to teams that aren't playing in the ACC Championship Game.

"We really do want to come out and prove that we belong in the same conversation as the top programs around the country. That's something that this whole team wants to accomplish. We want to be mentioned along the same lines as Georgia, Florida, (Southern Cal), Michigan, when they're up there.

"We want that national recognition that I think has faded over the last couple of years. So we're just trying to bring that back. And going out and beating a team like Auburn and finishing the season with 10 wins, with 17 (starters) coming back, I think that would really help a lot."

CUTigers.com Top Stories