CLEMSON, S.C. - Of all places, a dimly lit locker room in Winston-Salem, N.C., is where Clemson's 2003 season - and perhaps its entire football program - turned on its head.
Coach Tommy Bowden told his team rather emphatically Nov. 1 that it would beat Florida State seven days later, and that it would be a win to springboard the Tigers on a streak that would last the rest of the season, right through the bowl game.
Pretty big talk from a coach who didn't know if he'd have a job by week's end, moments after his team had been annihilated, 45-17, by perennial Atlantic Coast Conference doormat Wake Forest.
With every reason to laugh, the players bought into the speech. Bowden's pleading conviction forced their hands.
"It's kind of hard to explain," junior quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said. "There was just something in his voice when he said it. You had to believe him."
The assistant coaches heard their boss loud and clear, too, with their jobs likely depending on the employment of the head coach.
"There was definitely more of a commitment from everybody, head coach on down, through us, and to the players," defensive coordinator John Lovett said.
What resulted was a prophetic 26-10 trouncing of Florida State, Clemson's first win over the Seminoles since they joined the conference in 1992.
Bowden had the rest of his team's story right, too.
The Tigers breezed past Duke, 40-7, the next week.
A week later, with Bowden's job still somewhat in the air, they dominated South Carolina, 63-17 in Columbia.
Icing was applied a month later when Clemson had no problems with Tennessee, beating the Volunteers, 27-14, in the Peach Bowl.
"It was kind of a miraculous turnaround," Bowden said. "Divine intervention, as I like to say."
Those four consecutive wins and any help from above mean nothing now, right? Try again.
When the Tigers had Fan Appreciation Day a couple of weekends ago, what do you suppose was playing on the videoboard while players signed autographs until their hands went numb?
The blowout of South Carolina.
Several players, including North Augusta's Reggie Merriweather, camped out in the stands and on the field and watched for a few minutes.
"I haven't seen this too many times," Merriweather said. "This is all right."
When you walk into the McFadden Building, which houses the football offices, what's the first thing you see? Well, the 1981 national championship trophy. But second is the 2004 Peach Bowl trophy.
The constant reminders of last year's late-season success have the Tigers looking and feeling different on the practice field, cornerback Justin Miller said.
"There's definitely a different swagger guys have out there," said Miller, a junior who leads a Tigers secondary that is expected to be one of the best units in the country.
"Everybody knows we have the ability now because we've done it against quality competition. I think now everyone wants to go out and continue to do that."
The Tigers will certainly get their chance.
Judging by the preseason coaches' poll, of Clemson's 11 regular-season games, four (at Florida State, at Miami, at Virginia and Maryland) are against top-25 competition. North Carolina State (home) and Texas A&M (away) aren't far off the poll's radar, either.
"I don't know if Clemson has ever faced a tougher schedule in their history," said Bowden, who added this year's team might have more talent than the 2003 team, but end up with more losses.
Like the days and weeks when Bowden's job was hanging by threads, Whitehurst said the current expectations paired with the difficult schedule are just new challenges.
"The expectations, internally within the team, are higher than anybody's going to put on us," said Whitehurst, who broke out last year with a 3,500-yard season as a sophomore.
"The goal is to win every game. We finished strong and the expectations are high, and they should be."
Reach Travis Haney at (706) 823-3219 or email@example.com
AT A GLANCE
2003 Record: 9-4 (5-3 ACC)
Coach: Tommy Bowden, 56-28 overall, 38-24 in five years at Clemson.
Starters returning: 15 (7 offense, 7 defense, 1 special teams)
Key returnee: QB Charlie WhitehurstKey to success: Another solid year from Whitehurst and the Tigers receivers.Trouble area: Games at Texas A&M, Florida State, Virginia and MiamiCircle the calendar: Oct. 7, at Virginia. Forget Florida State and Miami, this Thursday night tilt will be key in bowl seeding.Projected finish: Fourth in ACC.2003 postseason: Beat Tennessee 27-14, in the Peach Bowl.
Stadium: Clemson Memorial StadiumWeb site: www.clemsontigers.com
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