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Clemson looks to finally live up to expectations with loaded backfield


CLEMSON, S.C. -- Tommy Bowden sat in his office last week, his bare feet on his desk and a bottle of Fuse in his hand, and he pondered forces of nature. Tailback C.J. Spiller is "Lightning," and backfieldmate James Davis is "Thunder." So, what, Bowden was asked, does that make 227-pound freshman back Jamie Harper?

Bowden was the fourth and final participant in the survey. The three previous participants' answers are listed below.

Spiller: "He's 'Earthquake.' "

Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper: "Big Baby?"

Davis: "Did anybody say 'Earthquake?' "

"I don't know," Bowden said with a shrug. "He's an earthquake or something."

Bowden understands forces of nature -- and the nature of his profession -- better than most coaches. As a young man in West Virginia, he saw a dummy shaped like his dad, Bobby, hanging in effigy when the elder Bowden's Mountaineers didn't live up to expectations. In Tommy Bowden's nine previous seasons at Clemson, his teams have failed to live up to the annual expectation of being an ACC championship contender. This season, the stakes feel even higher. With Lightning, Thunder, Earthquake, Harper under center and an experienced, track-meet fast defense, Clemson has the talent to win the ACC. Shoot, on paper, the Tigers have the talent to compete for the national title.

So Bowden knows that if he doesn't at least lead Clemson, ranked No. 9 in the AP poll to start the season, to its first appearance in the four-season-old ACC title game, the upstate South Carolina ground may open up and swallow that six-year contract he signed after an offseason flirtation with Arkansas. Clemson fans and boosters, starved for a conference title since 1991, put up with an overtime loss at Death Valley to Boston College in 2005. They grudgingly accepted the one-point home loss to Maryland that kept Clemson out of the 2006 title game. They gave Bowden another chance after BC quarterback Matt Ryan's mad scramble and miracle touchdown pass knocked the Tigers out of the Atlantic Division race last season. Bowden knows their patience won't last forever.

"It has been disappointing to be so close, so close," Bowden said. "That'll only keep the wolves off for so long."

But this year, Bowden has to feel he has fate on his side. He might have the nation's most complete backfield. Spiller's jet-propelled moves make him almost impossible to tackle in space. Davis can slam it between the tackles, but if he breaks through the first level, he can keep running for a while. Meanwhile, Harper could be the battering ram the Tigers need on short-yardage plays. The group should allow Clemson to control games and avoid the surprise losses that have derailed it the past few seasons. The fact that all three forces of nature converged on Clemson at the same time is a minor miracle, considering the confluence of events required to make it happen.

Bowden could laugh last week when he recounted the drama of Jan. 9, 2007. But that day, when he was sure he'd lost Spiller to the freshly crowned national champs, he wasn't laughing. "He was gone," Bowden said.

Spiller sucked the air out of the Lake Butler (Fla.) Union County gym on signing day 2006. Students had worn their Florida and Florida State gear that day, certain at least one contingent would walk away happy. So when Spiller reached down and grabbed a Clemson cap, the gym fell silent. Not long after the smattering of polite applause that followed the silence, Spiller's mother, Patricia Watkins, cried, and they weren't tears of joy.

The tears dried, and Spiller seemed happy as he tore up the ACC as a freshman. He rushed for 938 yards and 10 touchdowns. He scored touchdowns on six plays of 50 yards or more. Then Spiller returned home after the Tigers' Music City Bowl loss to Kentucky. Lake Butler -- 28 miles from Gainesville -- was abuzz as Florida prepared to face Ohio State for the national title. As Spiller spent the break with his then-nine-month-old daughter, Shania, friends and family members told him he should be in Arizona with fellow freshmen Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin, preparing for the Buckeyes. So as the Gators crushed Ohio State for the title, Spiller seemed pretty sure he would join them in 2007.

"He had a lot of family pressure on him to go to Florida," Davis said. "I can't imagine how tough it was. There was so much pressure on him."

But Watkins didn't raise a coward. If he was going to leave the Tigers, Spiller intended to tell Clemson coaches in person. So, on Jan. 9, 2007, he drove north. Florida beat writers in Arizona, alerted to the possibility that Spiller might transfer, furiously dialed Spiller's cell phone number. He randomly picked up the call from The Tampa Tribune's beat writer, who at the time happened to be me.

"It has nothing to do with them winning the national championship," Spiller said that day. Spiller sounded conflicted, as if he wasn't sure of the correct decision. That shred of doubt was all Bowden needed. When Spiller arrived in Clemson, Bowden and his coaches hustled Spiller into a room and re-recruited him. By late that afternoon, Spiller had changed his mind.

"I'm very glad," Spiller said last week. "I would have sat out a whole year. It probably would have hurt me a little bit. I stayed here to help this team do great things."

With that crisis averted, Bowden knew he'd have Spiller and Davis together for one more season. That's all he expected. So when Davis told Bowden in January that he intended to enter the NFL draft, Bowden wasn't surprised. He wished Davis the best, and Davis moved out of his apartment and went to Florida to train for the draft. While in Florida, Davis trained with several former Virginia Tech players. They regaled him with tales of their 2007 ACC title. As Davis listened, something gnawed at him. He still wanted a championship ring before he turned pro.

First, Davis called his mom. She was thrilled, and not just because she'd already invested in a new set of Tiger paw magnets to decorate her Ford Explorer. He also called Spiller and asked for a favor. Could he crash for a few weeks? "I didn't have a place to stay when I came back," Davis said. "C.J. had an extra bedroom."

Bowden also got a call. His grin probably stretched from Anderson to Hilton Head. "I thought once we got over (the transfer scare), I'd have (Spiller) for three (years)," Bowden said. "I didn't think I'd get James for four. So this year, I totally anticipated playing with C.J. and two freshmen. All of a sudden, James came back."

Naturally, Davis' return created another problem. Harper, who expected to play right away, wasn't sure Clemson was the right place if he had to sit behind Davis and Spiller. And it's not like he didn't have other options. Georgia wanted him, and if Harper didn't want to wait behind Knowshon Moreno, he could have gone to Florida, Florida State or Miami.

"Now, when James came back, my man Jamie, wooo," Bowden said, laughing. "He about flew the coop on us."

Harper chose to sign with Clemson anyway. That thrilled Spiller and Davis, who think they can teach the youngster a few things before they leave. In return for their tutelage, they expect Harper to deliver on fourth-and-inches. "We found us a back who can get those tough yards," Spiller said.

But can the forces of nature gain those yards when it matters most? Can they run hard enough to overcome the inevitable letdown game the Clemson faithful have learned to dread? More to the point: Can they keep Bowden employed at a job he loves?

Unlike most coaches, Bowden readily acknowledges the pressure he faces. He knows he can relieve it only by winning some sort of title. And he's so close now. But how much more time can he buy? More than likely, at some point this season, the score will be deadlocked, and Bowden's future will hang in the balance. He'll be a tipped pass, a broken tackle or a fumble recovery away from either job security or unemployment. He'll have Lightning, Thunder and an Earthquake on his side, but will they be enough?

"(Texas coach) Mack Brown, for all those years, was close, close, close, close. He finally did it," Bowden said. "My father. Close, close, close, close. He finally did it. Tom Osbourne. Bo Schembechler. ... If you can survive -- and I've been lucky to survive -- I think you can eventually do it."