Inability to finish frustrates Clemson

ATLANTA --- One play made all the difference, Clemson linebacker Cortney Vincent said.

Vincent was talking about Auburn's 12-yard pass on third-and-13 in overtime, a key to its 23-20 victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday night. But Vincent could've been rehashing Clemson's entire season of almosts.

What if the Tigers hadn't given up Matt Ryan's 43-yard TD throw to Rich Gunnell in the final minutes of Boston College's 20-17 comeback at Death Valley in November?

Or if Aaron Kelly had held on to Cullen Harper's nicely thrown ball near the goal line on Clemson's final possession?

Or if the Tigers special teams had made one play in a loss to Virginia Tech instead of allowing the Hokies touchdowns on a punt return and a kickoff return?

Or if kicker Mark Buchholz hadn't missed four times in an unlikely loss to a Georgia Tech team two months away from firing its coach?

Finishing off any of those games might have brought the Tigers even bigger things than their 9-4 record -- the team's best mark since 2003.

Vincent shook his head remembering the 12-yard completion to Rodgeriqus Smith and what followed Monday night -- Brandon Cox sneaked for a first down on fourth-and-1, and three snaps later, Kodi Burns finished off Auburn's bowl victory with a 7-yard TD run.

"I'll probably see that again when I go to sleep tonight," Vincent said after the game.

Clemson fans had high expectations that 2007 was the season coach Tommy Bowden's team would reach its championship potential.

The Tigers opened 4-0, then lost to Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech to bring out the grumblers that perhaps Bowden's ninth season should be his last.

Instead, Bowden rallied Clemson to five wins in the final six games.

While the Tigers missed out on the Atlantic Coast Conference title game because of a loss to Boston College, Bowden during December pointed toward a 10th victory -- something the program hadn't achieved since 1990 -- and what it would mean toward next year.

Now Bowden and his players can point to the team's effort and the potential that exists for 2008.

"I thought everything went OK," said James Davis, who had 72 yards to finish off his second consecutive 1,000-yard season. "We went overtime with these guys, and we fought hard to the last play. That's something you want to see out of your teammates."

Bowden and Clemson fans are hopeful they will see Davis again next year. The junior star says he's leaning on a return to Clemson instead of the NFL.

Should Davis come back, the Tigers would likely be ACC favorites. Without him, Clemson would lose the "Thunder" punch of its "Thunder and Lightning" backfield. C.J. Spiller, a junior next season, showed his electrifying skill with an 83-yard TD run against Auburn.

The coaching staff appears stable after Bowden agreed with the university on a deal that ties him to Clemson through 2014. Offensive coordinator Rob Spence interviewed for the same position at Tennessee, but was not offered the job.

Clemson is expected to have close to 20 players who started the Chick-fil-A Bowl back for 2008.

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