THERE WEREN'T many highlights Clemson senior quarterback Cullen Harper could point to after his team's sloppy 21--17 loss to Georgia Tech in Death Valley last Saturday—the Tigers' third defeat in as many games, and the first since coach Tommy Bowden abruptly resigned on Oct. 13—but there Harper was, in the stadium tunnel, telling reporters how excited he and his teammates were. "We had fun today," he insisted. "That's been missing in the past."
This is an article from the Oct. 27, 2008 issue
When despair is the only other option, then fun will have to do. But no matter how successful interim coach Dabo Swinney is at instilling his charges with fresh enthusiasm, it's unlikely that the Tigers (3--4, 1--3 ACC) will give their fans much to remember the rest of the way. For one thing, Harper had surgery on Sunday to repair a fracture to his left (nonthrowing) shoulder and could be out for up to four weeks. His backup, Willy Korn, bruised his right (throwing) shoulder and may not be ready to start Clemson's game against Boston College on Nov. 1.
The 38-year-old Swinney, who had been the Tigers' receivers coach, led cheers from the sideline and wrapped Howard's Rock in a bear hug before the game on Saturday. But his antics couldn't overcome his team's mistakes (six turnovers) and inability to execute (3 for 12 on third-down conversions). For a team with a new attitude, the Tigers resembled the underachieving outfit that cost Bowden his job.
In his 10 seasons at Clemson, Bowden was an excellent recruiter and his record was 72--45. His teams, though, often seemed better suited to track and field than to the gridiron. The Tigers were ranked No. 9 in the preseason because they returned five standout skill-position players—Harper, running backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller, and wideouts Jacoby Ford and Aaron Kelly. But an injured and inexperienced offensive line negated all that firepower. In a season-opening 34--10 loss to Alabama, the Tigers rushed for zero yards. Against the Yellow Jackets they ran for just 51.
So where to go from here? Swinney is popular, but his head-coaching experience amounts to one game. Several high-profile names have been floated as candidates to replace him, including former Oakland Raiders coach Lane Kiffin, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson. And since athletic director Terry Don Phillips says that he will "turn over every rock" in his search, it seems like the school will look elsewhere for a replacement.
The overhaul required will take a few years, and the current troubles are already having an effect on recruiting. Two highly touted defensive backs rescinded their verbal commitments after Bowden stepped down. Faced with such a dire situation, Swinney chose to focus on the positive. "You can quit, or you can man-up and go to work," Swinney said after the game. "I don't care what anybody says. We went forward today."
ONLY AT SI.COM
Expert college football analysis on The Sweep blog.