Bowden survives with big finish

Tommy Bowden is alive and well as Clemson football coach, and that has the Tigers highly confident heading into the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Clinging precariously to his job after Clemson's 5-4 start this season, Bowden and the Tigers recovered with an almost miraculous turnaround, winning their last three games in impressive fashion to finish 8-4 and earn a bowl game appearance. The resurgence no doubt saved Bowden, who recently agreed to a three-year contract extension that will keep him in Clemson through 2010.

The news went over well with the Tigers, who have rallied around their coach as they ready to meet what some believe will be an uninspired Tennessee team, which feels it was snubbed by more prestigious bowl games.

''I think that made a lot of people happy -- players, coaches and fans,'' said Clemson kicker Aaron Hunt, a former Oak Ridge High standout. ''The strong finish certainly didn't hurt him. I think it gives us momentum.''

The Tigers appear to be more excited about playing in the Peach Bowl than do the Vols. On a roll after wins over Florida State and arch rival South Carolina, Clemson could improve its national ranking significantly with a victory. Tennessee, on the other hand, lost its opportunity to play a top opponent in a BCS bowl game and many anticipate a less-than-spectacular performance from the Vols.

Tennessee will try to redeem itself for an abysmal showing in a loss to Maryland in last yearís Peach Bowl.

Clemson's redshirt seniors played in the Peach Bowl as freshmen and hope to go out winners in their return trip to Atlanta.

''It is great for Clemson and our program,'' Tigers' defensive end Khaleed Vaughn said. ''We have been playing well and will have the opportunity to take on an SEC powerhouse. We hope to finish with one more win and be ranked in the Top 25 in the final poll. That should carry on to a Top-25 preseason ranking for the program next year because we have so many players back.''

If Clemson maintains its outstanding play of late, the Tigers should provide a stiff test for the Vols. The Tigers defeated their final three opponents by a combined margin of 129-34, posting wins over Florida State (26-10), Duke (40-7) and South Carolina (63-17).

But Bowden is quick to point out that Tennessee won its final six games, including a 10-6 victory at Miami, to enter the Peach Bowl on a roll. He also pointed to Tennessee's embarrassing loss to Maryland last year as a motivational tool for the Vols.

''I think the fact that they didn't have a good showing last year and won their last six this year is big for them,'' he said. ''There are things on the table for Tennessee. Because of what happened last year and they are ranked sixth in the nation and they broke Miami's streak, there is a lot more on the table for them than 'I'm sorry, you have to play Clemson.' ''

Bowden, continuing to go overboard in his praise of Tennessee's program, compared the two schools' past national championships.

''We won the national title 20 years ago, and they won it five years ago,'' he said. ''Our guys weren't even born yet when we won it.''

Clemson and Tennessee have three common opponents this season. Both teams defeated Duke and South Carolina, but lost to Georgia. Both squads have two wins over ranked opponents.

Both teams feature competent quarterbacks. Tennessee's Casey Clausen is 37th in the nation in passing efficiency with a 135.5 rating. He has completed 202 of 357 passes for 2,584 yards and 25 touchdowns. Clemsons Charlie Whitehurst is 30th in passing efficiency with a 138.8 rating. He has set 26 Clemson records this year, and has passed for 3,315 yards and 21 touchdowns.

Defensively, both teams feature three players with 100 or more tackles. All-ACC linebacker LeRoy Hill leads Clemson with 133 tackles, including 25 tackles for loss. John Leake has 120 tackles.

Tennessee is led on defense by Gibril Wilson and Kevin Simon. Both have recorded 106 tackles.

''Tennessee is a real physical team,'' Bowden said. ''They are real big. They have big safeties, big corners and linebackers. They are probably better looking physically than Florida State. It's impressive when you can go to Miami and win. We know we will have to play extremely well.''

Success in recruiting in recent years gives Tennessee an edge, Bowden said.

''They have had a Top 10 class the last several years,'' he said. ''The team with the top players usually wins.''

Still, the Tigers aren't without motivation.

''They are ranked and we are unranked,'' Bowden said. ''That should be a great motivation for our players. If we win, it gives us a chance to be in the Top 25. That's a lot of incentive for us.''


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