What Now?

CLEMSON - With 10 days remaining until the Tigers travel to Wake Forest, the team knows it has a lot of work to do to get back into contention in the ACC.

A strange season got even stranger Saturday afternoon in Death Valley.

With Clemson on top of Maryland by a semi-comfortable 17-6 lead in the third quarter, C.J. Spiller raced around the left side of the line for a surprisingly easy 59-yard touchdown run.

At that point in time, Saturday's game looked exactly like the one that was played in College Park a year ago when Clemson raced out to a 30-3 lead before putting it on cruise control in a 13-point victory.

Except this time it turned out to be different.

Much different.

Spiller's scoring run was brought back due to a holding penalty called on Aaron Kelly and that, as they say, was that. The Terps scored the game's final 14 points en route to a 20-17 win, leaving fans, players and even coaches somewhat speechless afterwards.

"Disheartening is the only way I know how to describe it," said tight end Michael Palmer. "I think we just made some stupid mistakes, some penalties and some uncharacteristic decisions by some people that usually make good decisions.

"It felt like we were winning the game. I don't know what happened."

Tommy Bowden had a better perspective, calling his team's performance a "self-implosion" during his post-game press conference.

While fans aren't exactly anxious to look ahead after Saturday's performance, the fact remains the Tigers have seven more games this season to right the ship on what was thought to be one of Bowden's best teams in his 10 years in Clemson.

But sitting at 3-2 overall and 1-1 in the conference doesn't leave very much wiggle room, if any at all.

After a much-needed off-week, the Tigers face off with Wake Forest in a nationally televised game at Groves Stadium- a place where Clemson was very fortunate to win in 2006 after losing two consecutive games before that.

Then comes Georgia Tech followed by road trips to Boston College and Florida State.

"We are sitting at 1-1 in the ACC. We still have a chance to make up some ground," said Cullen Harper. "Some other teams are going to get beat because it's going to be tough to go through this league undefeated and we have to be ready for that when it happens."

Saturday's games in the ACC support Harper's statement. Wake Forest, the conference favorite since the Tigers lost to Alabama to open the season who looked so good under the direction of Riley Skinner this season in wins at Baylor, at home against Ole Miss and on the road at Florida State, looked surprisingly beatable after losing at home to Navy.

That's right, Navy- a team that hadnt' beaten a ranked opponent in 23 years.

Florida State has been up and down but moved back up after a surprisingly easy win over Colorado Saturday.

Boston College is a relative unknown but is clearly not the same team it was last year under Matt Ryan.

And Maryland? Well the Terps have gone from a loss at Middle Tennessee to wins over California and Clemson.

Chances are no team in the ACC will make it through the league unscathed, but then again, none of that matters if Clemson plays how it has the first five games of the season.

Inconsistency on defense, the inability to get the ball downfield in the passing game and injuries have seen this team gone from preseason favorites in the ACC to one of the most disappointing teams in college football through the first half of the season.

And while the off-week should help heal injuries to starters like Chris Hairston, David Smith and possibly even Rashaad Jackson, it's also another week to ponder the disappointing start to a season that began with such high expectations.

"With the expectations we've had this is obviously the last place we thought we would be right now and quite frankly, we don't want to be here," said Palmer. "But the fact is we are and there is nothing we can do about the past.

"I was talking to Landon [Walker] in the locker room afterwards and this is the most disheartening loss we've ever had but we have turn on the game film and learn from it. We've got Wake Forest coming up on a Thursday night game. We just have to take the bye week heal up a little bit, mentally and physically and come ready for them on that Thursday night."

So what now?

For the Tigers, the players get a chance to heal with two days off before trying to pick up the pieces to rebuild what is left of their 2008 season.

"Practice isn't going to be fun these next two weeks," said senior wide out Aaron Kelly. "But that's how it is going to have to be. We have to work hard and really focus on details because it was the small details that got us beat against Maryland."

For the coaches, it's an additional week to go back to the drawing board, figure out what's working, what's not and try to move on.

And for the fans? Well, it looks to be another season of wondering just what is going on and asking the question, "When will the roller coaster that is Clemson football finally get back on track and most importantly ... stay there?"

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