- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

CLEMSON, S.C. | The last time anyone other than Clemson fans checked, the Tigers had been pounded by Alabama, leaving their championship dreams looking like road kill among the orange paw prints on streets around campus.

A month and three victories later, No. 20 Clemson gets its chance against surprising Maryland this week to show there was indeed some substance to the preseason hype.

“I think we’ve rebounded really well after that first game,” receiver Jacoby Ford said Tuesday. “We’re really starting to come together as one big unit. People realize what we have going on here and it can be a really great season still.”

Those hopes start this week as the Tigers (3-1, 1-0 ACC) jump back into league play against the Terrapins (3-1).

Clemson began the season the runaway favorite for its first ACC crown since 1991. Three Tiger stars - quarterback Cullen Harper, and runners James Davis and C.J. Spiller - went 1-2-3 in preseason player of the year voting.

The glittering expectations dulled after the Alabama defeat. In one sickening performance, the Tigers went from No. 9, the team’s highest preseason ranking in 17 years, to out of the Top 25.

The victories since are nice, offensive lineman Mason Cloy says, but don’t dilute the horrible memories from the Georgia Dome.

“That’s unforgivable what happened,” Cloy said. “Everything we do is to make up for that game, to keep getting better and not let that happen again.”

Since its season-opening defeat, Clemson has outscored its opponents 126-26. Two of those were Championship Subdivision teams, The Citadel (45-17) and South Carolina State (54-0). The other was N.C. State (27-9), which this past week upset previously unbeaten East Carolina.

Now comes a difficult stretch that will make or break the Tigers’ championship hopes. After Maryland, which earlier this season stomped on then-No. 23 California, comes a trip to Wake Forest, the ACC’s highest-ranked team and another title contender. Then there’s Georgia Tech at home Oct. 18 and road games with Florida State and Boston College.

Clemson coach Tommy Bowden sensed his club was ready for the increased challenge. Watching tape of the South Carolina State shutout last Saturday, Bowden said his seniors felt empty despite the lopsided win.

Then again, Bowden says judging player attitudes and how they’ll perform is unreliable.

“I thought we were focused going into Florida State last year and we were,” the coach said of the 24-18 victory. “I thought we were focused going into Alabama and we weren’t.”

Harper, the quarterback, has not had the start he did a year ago when he threw for 12 touchdowns and nearly 1,000 yards his first four games with no interceptions. He has hit on better than 66 percent of his throws this fall but has just three TD passes and four interceptions.

Harper says the flow of games is different this year with the Tigers concentrating on their running attack behind stars Davis and Spiller.

“We’ve got to keep getting better,” Harper said. “But I think we are where we need to be at this time of the season.”

Despite the win streak, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

The Tigers’ offensive line will change again Saturday with senior Bobby Hutchinson expected to play because starter David Smith is injured.

Clemson’s defense, an expected strength, stands seventh in the ACC.

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