CLEMSON, S.C. -- Questioning a college football team's toughness is like insulting the coach's mother.
Just ask Clemson's Tommy Bowden if the his team's 55-15 loss in the Tangerine Bowl last December or his re-emphasis of the running game was because the Tigers weren't tough enough.
"I never said the team wasn't tough," Bowden said. "I talked about improving the running game and, y'all associated that with a lack of toughness. I never associated that with a lack of toughness."
But Bowden acknowledges that since the blowout defeat, the charge about the Tigers' toughness has clung tightly to a team that looked on the rise a month earlier with three victories in its final four regular-season games.
"Again, that is the perception about the running game, 'Boy, y'all weren't very tough,' " Bowden said. "That is on the table and it has been addressed."
Clemson offensive coordinator Brad Scott says criticizing a team's toughness is an easy answer fans and others come up with when wondering what went wrong. "A lot of times the people who say those kinds of things don't have a background in the game of football either," Scott said. "Because football is a chess match now. Sometimes when you do really well, it's because you had the best players on the field and the best plan.
"Sometimes when you do poorly," Scott says, "your plan wasn't very good."
In the bowl game, Clemson's plan, "which I'm responsible for, wasn't very good. It looks like they're not a very physical team."
That wasn't the case only weeks earlier, Scott says, when Clemson put together two fourth-quarter scoring drives, then stopped South Carolina's last series, for a come-from-behind, 27-20 victory over the Gamecocks.
"Everybody was real excited after the South Carolina game because they thought we were a physical football team," Scott said.
Bowden spent more time than usual picking apart the mistakes in last year's 7-6 season, his fourth at Clemson. He found that besides not rushing for 2,000 yards - the first time that happened since 1999 - the Tigers needed more production in short-yardage and goal-line running situations.
That led to more I-formation with tailback Yusef Kelly and others bursting through a beefed-up offensive line during spring drills and in early fall workouts.
Kelly said he and the other runners didn't waste a lot of time worrying about the need to toughen up in the offseason. "We're taught not to read what others say," Kelly said. "I mean, we're still going to read it and we're still going to think that's messed up. It doesn't matter to us."
Kelly sees the same ferocity and fire with this group as with last year. "Every team is going to go through some bad plays" like the Tigers did last year, Kelly said.
Kelly has no doubt that this year's offensive line, which features three starters at 300-plus pounds and a fourth in William Henry just a couple of sandwiches away at 295, will create the holes that were closed last year.
"It makes you very comfortable," Kelly said of the beefed-up line. Kelly was the Tigers' leading rusher this past season with 521 yards and eight touchdowns.
Scott, the offensive coordinator, says the I-formation just gives the team "two more hats to improve our running game with a tight end and a fullback."
At the same time, Scott says Bowden has made it very clear the Tigers won't sell out an effective passing attack, led by quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, to concentrate on the run. "With the skill we think we have at receiver and Charlie's accuracy, I think we can be a pretty good passing team" from the I-formation, Scott said.
And that could make it tough on Clemson's opponents this season.