CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson boasts enough talent to give potential opponents weeklong headaches. The Tigers also have enough breakdowns to give their fans a yearlong heartache.
The Tigers demonstrated Monday why they're one of the nation's most fun teams to watch, as long as you don't have a vested interest in the results.
All of Clemson's personalities were on display in front of a nationally televised offense as the Tigers nearly blew a 21-point lead before escaping with a 24-18 victory over Florida State.
"We can be as good as we want to be," Clemson running back C.J. Spiller said afterward.
How good does Clemson want to be? That's the question facing perhaps the most talented and least predictable team in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Tigers spent the entire first half running circles around Florida State. They spent the rest of the night painting themselves into a corner.
Clemson owned a 24-3 lead at halftime after allowing the Seminoles only one first down, which came on the game's opening snap. Clemson's defense dominated Florida State so thoroughly in the early going that you would have thought former All-America defensive end Gaines Adams hadn't moved on to the NFL.
"I definitely think we have the fastest defense in the nation," Clemson defensive end Ricky Sapp said.
And they certainly have one of the fastest offenses in the nation.
Spiller and James Davis give Clemson one of the nation's top running-back tandems. Davis rushed for 102 yards Monday and delivered a highlight-worthy 29-yard touchdown in which he broke two tackles at the line of scrimmage.
Spiller ran for 48 yards and set up a field goal with a 52-yard kickoff return.
Aaron Kelly provided enough quickness on the outside to turn a short completion into a 41-yard touchdown. Speedy sophomore Jacoby Ford set up Clemson's first touchdown with a 34-yard reverse.
But that same overpowering offense only managed to gain 82 total yards - including just three rushing yards on 20 carries - in the second half. Those second-half statistics are skewed by a snap that sailed over Clemson punter Jimmy Maners' head and resulted in a safety and 49-yard loss, but the Tigers still picked up only five first downs in the final two periods after moving the ball at will in the early going.
And a Clemson defense that held Florida State's Antone Smith to no rushing yards in the first half allowed him to run wild for 90 yards in the final two quarters.
Offensive player of the game: Clemson WR Aaron Kelly caught five passes for
98 yards and utilized his speed to turn a short completion into a 41-yard touchdown that put the Tigers ahead 21-0 in the second quarter. Kelly also made two big fourth-quarter catches that helped calm Clemson down after Florida State cut the lead to 24-18.
Defensive player of the game: Clemson DE Phillip Merling forced a Preston Parker fumble that led to the Tigers' second touchdown. Merling also helped seal the Tigers' victory when he sacked Drew Weatherford on fourth-and-10 from Clemson's 31-yard line with 2:24 left in the game.
Best call: Florida State remained relatively patient and didn't abandon the running game when it fell behind early. After gaining no yards on six carries in the first half, Antone Smith ran eight times for 90 yards in the second half to help the Seminoles creep back into the game.
Surprise performance: True freshman tight end Brian Linthicum scored the game's first touchdown when the former three-star prospect caught an 11-yard pass from Clemson quarterback Cullen Harper with 6:07 remaining in the first quarter.
What this means for Florida State: The Seminoles clearly need more time to adjust to the overhaul of their offensive coaching staff, particularly on the line. Florida State's blockers opened up more running room in the second half, but they still gave up five sacks. The second-half comeback at least offers some reason for optimism heading into Saturday's home opener with UAB.
What this means for Clemson: The Tigers enter the softest part of their schedule with back-to-back home games against Louisiana-Monroe and Furman the next two weeks before they return to ACC competition Sept. 22 at North Carolina State. Clemson should be encouraged by the performance of Cullen Harper, who went 14 of 24 for 160 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in his first career start.
Etc.: New Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett's emphasis on speed and attitude over size already is having an impact. Florida State's five starting offensive linemen in last year's Clemson game averaged 305.2 pounds per man. The Seminoles' heaviest starting offensive lineman Monday was 283-pound guard Jacky Claude, the lone blocker to start in both games.
… Weatherford's 15-yard scoring strike to Richard Goodman in the fourth quarter represented his first touchdown pass against Clemson in three starts. It also was Goodman's first career touchdown. … Clemson coach Tommy Bowden now has won his last three meetings with his father, though Florida State coach Bobby Bowden still owns a 5-4 lead in this family rivalry.
"We probably got a little unfocused," Spiller said. "We thought the game was over."
Clemson's special-teams breakdowns allowed Florida State to get back into the game. A blocked punt in the second quarter resulted in a field goal. Florida State added a safety in the third period after that botched snap forced Maners to run into his own end zone.
Before you knew it, a 24-3 blowout had turned into a 24-18 squeaker. The opening game of Clemson's 2007 season was turning into a miniature version of Clemson's 2006 season.
After being ranked as high as 10th in the nation last October, Clemson ended the season out of the national rankings. The Tigers dropped four of their last five games to finish with a disappointing 8-5 record.
Clemson failed to reach the ACC championship game despite beating both division winners – Wake Forest and Georgia Tech.
In a matter of months, Tommy Bowden went from leading one of the hottest teams in the nation to being on one of the hottest seats in the nation.
Clemson entered this season intent on correcting the mistakes of last season. The Tigers went through preseason drills wearing T-shirts that said, "Finish the job."
The Tigers barely finished this one.
Florida State had a first down at Clemson's 31-yard line late in the fourth quarter and appeared intent on adding one more devastating defeat to the Tigers' collection.
This time, however, Clemson refused to budge. After forcing Florida State into a fourth-and-10 situation, defensive end Phillip Merling sacked Drew Weatherford with 2:24 remaining to end the Seminoles' last major threat.
It wasn't a pretty victory, but the Tigers weren't complaining. After all, they'd just won the type of game they typically have lost in the past.
"When you win the game, it's always a step in the right direction," Kelly said. "As long as you're winning, everyone's happy."
But the Tigers know they can't keep living on the edge.