CLEMSON, S.C. -- It's easy to chuckle when Clemson coach Tommy Bowden portrays his team as a fragile bunch.
This is the same coach who guided the Tigers to a Peach Bowl berth and a 6-6 record in his first season after taking over a program that went 3-8 in 1998. Despite the Tigers' rise in the polls, Virginia went against common logic scheduling its homecoming game. Richmond two weeks ago? Nope. Must be Maryland on Oct. 7, right? Wrong.
Fifteen games into the Tommy Bowden-era, No. 11 Clemson visits unranked Virginia (2-1) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday as the Cavaliers' homecoming opponent.
For a program two years removed from a three-win season, the scheduling snafu doesn't offend Clemson sophomore defensive end Nick Eason. Throw in Virginia's 4-2 record in the past six meetings, and the decision seems to make more sense.
"Nobody expected us to ranked as high as we are," Eason said. "They know they have a challenge. We're making a statement, and it's like revenge for them."
Bowden maintains the Tigers' 3-0 record hasn't fully restored the national perception established by former coaches Frank Howard and Danny Ford. All Clemson has done is whip three opponents that have a combined 2-7 record.
Virginia presents a formidable challenge for the Tigers. Facing a legitimate opponent in a hostile environment will reveal if Clemson's highest ranking since 1991 is warranted.
"We tell them, `This is what you wanted, can you defend it?"' Bowden said of the No. 11 ranking. "(Virginia will) be more excited to play us. Our consistency level will be mirrored by the level of competition. Virginia and other teams we'll play are stronger. Against those teams, consistency will be key."
Far from the comfortable setting of Death Valley, where the Tigers have pounded opponents by a combined 155-16 this season, Clemson faces a proud program. The Cavs have won seven or more games for 13 consecutive seasons.
Remaining perfect will require another stellar performance. Recent renovations have pushed Scott Stadium's capacity to 61,500. The Tigers will be bombarded by verbal tirades from the Virginia student section located behind the opposition's bench.
"I like to be booed," senior safety Robert Carswell said. "I like that atmosphere."
Offensive guard Will Merritt said an unwelcome reception will force the Tigers to concentrate on their assignments. Merritt said Virginia will be Clemson's sternest test to date, and doesn't understand how some fans and media outlets have conceded Saturday's game to the Tigers.
"There's something special about being hated by 60,000 people," Merritt said. "It's absurd for people to think we've been given this game."
Reach Jimmy DeButts at (706) 823-3221