GREENSBORO, Ga. - When Clemson safety Michael Hamlin dines with teammates at Zaxby’s, it’s inevitable that a restaurant manager or customer will approach the players and tell them this is the year the Tigers win it all.
“That’s all everybody has talked about,” Hamlin said. “This is the year the team is going all the way.”
Add the ACC media to the believers. Fifty-one of the 65 voters in the preseason poll picked Clemson to win the conference.
It’s the first time since 1991 that Clemson has been a preseason ACC favorite. That year also was the last time the Tigers won the ACC.
The next year, Florida State joined the conference and cast a huge shadow over the league, winning or sharing 12 of the next 14 conference titles.
Within a few years, Clemson was so insignificant on the national stage that I didn’t know who the Tigers’ coach was when I was working at the Watertown (N.Y.) Daily Times in 1995.
I had to call sports information director Tim Bourret to learn that Tommy West was the coach before I interviewed for the Clemson beat reporter job at the Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina.
Neither West nor Tommy Bowden has won more than nine games in a season. Bowden both embraced and rejected the media’s ranking Sunday.
“I’ve been coaching long enough to know it’s insignificant,” Bowden said. “. . .The end (of the season) is the big part, but this does say we’ve accomplished something, stability in the program.”
Stability and the ranking won’t prevent Clemson fans from worrying that their team will fall short of expectations.
Their hearts were broken in 2000 when Georgia Tech’s Kerry Watkins made an acrobatic touchdown catch under the shadow of Howard’s Rock to ruin an 8-0 start.
Last season, Aaron Kelly dropped a pass against Boston College that would have sent the Tigers to the ACC championship game.
On Sunday, a concerned Bourret scribbled a statistic as I asked quarterback Cullen Harper about the Tigers’ four new offensive line starters. “79-66-4,” Bourret wrote. That’s Clemson’s record since 1965 in seasons with four new offensive starters. The crowd at Zaxby’s might be right.
This may be the year Clemson wins the ACC. Its skill players and speed are magnificent. But after all the anguish I’ve witnessed at Clemson, I will have to see the trophy hoisted to believe it.