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Clemson Football: Putting Tommy Bowden's Tenure in Perspective

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Clemson Football: Putting Tommy Bowden's Tenure in Perspective

I have been toying around with the idea of projecting the winner of every college football game in 2008.  It's a fool's errand, I know, but it would be fun—it's something to do during the long offseason, and it would give me something semi-solid to base a preseason top 25 on.

I went ahead and started going alphabetically in the conferences, beginning with the ACC.  I got all the way to the second team on the list before running into one of the biggest conundrums of 2008: how good will Clemson be?

Tommy Bowden has been there since 1999, and he hasn't won a conference title yet.  He has the longest tenure of any I-A coach who hasn't won his conference.  I don't know about every guy who has ever run a program, but it seems unlikely that many coaches suddenly get better after nine years on the job.

In my prior piece about following coaching legends, the only legendary coach on the list who didn't win at least six conference titles was Shug Jordan at Auburn.  He had only one SEC title in his 25 seasons on the plains, but it came in his seventh year.  Tommy Bowden has obviously passed that point already.

With that in mind, I went ahead and took a look at his record. Here it is broken down by site, in glorious PivotTable-o-vision.

 

Tommy Bowden at Clemson
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 39 16 55
Away 23 21 44
Bowls 3 5 8
Totals 65 42 107

 

These totals exclude games against I-AA schools.  He wins about 71 percent of his home games, is roughly even on the road, and he's not so great in bowls.

What about his opponents though?  Here's another table with his opponents broken down by tiers.  The fourth tier is made of opponents with a winning percentage of .000-.249, the third is for teams with a winning percentage of .250-.499, the second is for teams with a winning percentage of .500-.749, and the fourth is for teams with a winning percentage of .750-1.000.

 

Tommy Bowden at Clemson
Tier Wins Losses Pct. Avg. Scored Avg. Allowed
First 4 21 .160 17 27
Second 28 17 .622 27 22
Third 22 3 .880 36 18
Fourth 11 1 .917 44 17

 

He's awful against the best teams, wins two thirds of them against pretty good teams, and he cleans up against bad and mediocre teams.  The one loss against a fourth tier opponent, if you're curious, was a 16-13 loss to 2-9 Duke in 2004.

An interesting angle is to think of it this way: in 13 of Clemson's 21 losses to first tier teams, the opponent would have dropped back into the second tier had the Tigers defeated them.  Winning those games would have made Bowden a more respectable 4-8 against college football's top tier.

A common refrain I've heard about Clemson under Bowden is that the team usually gets off to a bad start but gets bailed out by beating either Tommy's dad at FSU or South Carolina.  It's a nice idea to think his daddy was gifting wins to keep Tommy employed, but Clemson has played FSU in the second half of the season only five times. The Tigers went 2-3 in those games.

As for the bad start/good finish/beat South Carolina theory for Bowden keeping his job, here's what the record shows.

 

Clemson Season Splits
Year First Half Second Half Beat SC? Overall
1999 3-3 3-3 Y 6-6
2000 6-0 3-3 Y 9-3
2001 4-2 3-3 N 7-5
2002 3-3 4-3 Y 7-6
2003 4-2 4-2 Y 8-4
2004 2-4 4-1 Y 6-5
2005 3-3 5-1 Y 8-4
2006 5-1 3-4 N 8-5
2007 4-2 5-2 Y 9-4

 

The narrative about beating FSU to save his job holds true for 2005 only, since Bowden's other second-half win over FSU came in 2003.

The narrative about beating South Carolina to save his job does appear to ring true, since he is 7-2 against the Gamecocks. The whole bit about slow starts also holds water, as Clemson has lost fewer than two of its first six just twice in Bowden's tenure.

To give a point of reference, I tried to find a coach who has won his conference, is considered to be one of the best, and who has been at his school about the same amount of time Bowden has been at Clemson.

Turns out there is such a coach: Bob Stoops.  He has been in Norman the same nine years that Bowden has been in Clemson.  Here is his record at OU.

 

Bob Stoops at Oklahoma
Site Wins Losses Totals
Home 53 2 55
Away 27 11 37
Neutral 12 4 16
Bowls 4 5 9
Totals 96 22 118

 

Stoops' lone I-AA opponent is not counted. The neutral site games are the annual Texas game, any Big 12 championship games, and one Kansas game played in Kansas City.  Here is his win percentage against the four tiers.

 

Bob Stoops at Oklahoma
Tier Wins Losses Pct. Avg. Scored Avg. Allowed
First 17 10 .630 28 23
Second 36 9 .800 35 19
Third 28 3 .903 37 15
Fourth 15 0 1.000 47 7

 

Stoops basically does to the first tier what Bowden does to the second tier.  Even with his famous struggles in BCS games post-2000, he is still very good against the top teams in college football.

Of those 10 losses to first tier teams, only one would have dropped back to the second tier had Oklahoma won.  The first tier teams the Sooners have lost to are well-entrenched there.

The clearest difference between Bowden and Stoops is the home record.  They have both had 55 home games against I-A opponents—Bowden has lost 16 of them, while Stoops has lost two.

The next clearest difference is the performance against the top two tiers.  That's the difference between greatness and an conference also-ran: protecting your home turf, winning games against your peers, and winning some that you maybe aren't supposed to win.

There is good news for Clemson though.  In 2007 the Tigers posted a winning record in both halves of the season for just the second time under Bowden.  That becomes more notable when you consider that it was done without star RB James Davis.  Plus, Clemson has the best quarterback in the ACC in Cullen Harper.

Most importantly, it's not clear that more than one or two teams on the schedule will be a first tier team.  Clemson averages three games a year against the top tier, and surprise: Clemson has yet to lose fewer than three games in a season under Bowden.

Alabama has a shot at 9-3 or better if you believe in second-year magic under Saban, and Wake Forest might get there too.  Boston College figures to take a step back without Matt Ryan, and Virginia will do the same without Chris Long.  There is no Virginia Tech on the schedule, and I think FSU will still be down in 2008.

Even if the Tigers go 3-2 against those opponents listed here, it'll almost certainly be enough to win the division as long as one of those wins is over Wake Forest.

If Tommy Bowden is ever going to win an ACC championship, or at least a division title, this figures to be the year.  He has the best quarterback and best two running backs in the conference.  The schedule looks very friendly with only four road games, and it doesn't appear to have more than one or two of the kinds of games he normally loses.

This is it for Tommy Bowden—it's doubtful that he can survive failing to win the ACC Atlantic even if he does beat South Carolina.  Taking care of the rival only buys you so much time.

Good or bad, 2008 will define Tommy Bowden's coaching career.

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