Putting Tommy Bowden 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 there 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% 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 the Bowden and Stoops is the home record: they both have 55 home games against I-A opponents and 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. 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 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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12 Responses to Putting Tommy Bowden in Perspective

  1. JTooms says:

    Very nicely done analysis.

    I think part of the reason that we have not won games against top tier teams is that we didn’t really have top tier talent in the 2-deep in the past. I think we have had some elite players and a very good group of starters during his tenure but we have not had the depth of talent we will have this year yet.

    I agree this is really his chance at greatness this year. If he doen’t get it done he will have another shot in a couple of years when some of our recruiting classes mature. He won’t be going anywhere anytime soon with a 4 million dollar buyout that reduces by 500K each season.

  2. year2 says:

    Thanks, JTooms. I hadn’t even thought of looking at his buyout; I guess he probably will be sticking around a little longer even if he doesn’t win the Atlantic this year.

  3. CU90 says:

    Bowden has had two major problems in his nine years that can not be used as an excuse this year. 1) With a constant Hot Seat mentality he has had very up and down recruiting classes. Last years senior class was actually one of the least talented he has had. With the West End Zone starting its second phase and a big contract extension, recruiting has been going quite well the last few years. 2) Lack of good coordinators: When Bowden came from Tulane he brought a coordinator named Rich Rodriquez. Since then we have had several guys that were dead weight. Rob Spence is a future head coach and Koenning is probably the best D coordinator we’ve had (although Herring was good too).
    As an aside, Clemson has lost a multitude of close games due to special teams. That could easily happen again this year. We are also thin at the o-line and linebacker spots and a injury to a starter at either position could be a season breaker. On the flip side we are very deep elsewhere.
    Also, I’m not sure who you are talking about (Jacoby Ford?) but Davis did not lose any significant playing time last year. He did miss a game and a half his Freshman year. He also played hurt a few games his soph. year but still had a 1000 yd season.

  4. Class Of 92 says:

    Just a little history. Tommy was aware when Clemson hired him in 1999 (following a 3-8 campaign in 1998) that Clemson had spent the least on facilities in the ACC over the previous 10 years. He accepted the job with the understanding that Clemson would immediately embark on a huge upgrade. Nothing happened for 5 years. Recruiting struggled mightly and we could never build the depth to compete with upper tier teams. However, talent upgrades have quickly followed the facilities upgrades that began in 2004. See below. My comments are excuses for Tommy but not for Clemson. Clemson has simple been just above average and I personally hold the Administration responsible more than Tommy (AT THIS POINT).

    Rivals.com Team Recruiting Rankings

    2003 67
    2004 53 (Start facilities construction)
    2005 17
    2006 15
    2007 16
    2008 12

  5. Class Of 92 says:

    BTW, really enjoyed the article.

  6. year2 says:

    Re: Davis

    C90, I could have sworn Davis lost time to injury. My bad. I guess he just failed to hit his 2006 yardage mark.

  7. CU90 says:

    2005: Davis ACC rookie of the year, 879 yards (split time w/ Merriweather)(Broken wrist in NCST game and missed GT game) (5.3 yd/carry 9 TD’s)

    2006: Davis 1st team ACC RB 1187 yard season (split time w/ Spiler) (hurt his shoulder but still played) (5.8 yd/carry 17 TD’s)

    2007: Davis still 1st team ACC RB 1064 yard season (split time w/ Spiller) (I don’t remember injuries last year. ) (5.0 yd/carry 10 TD’s)

  8. RazzMaTazz says:

    Wow! I was searching for Tommy Bowden’s record versus Top 25 teams and stumbled across this blog. What excellent analyes you’ve done! I love statistical analyses like this that cut through the BS with hard data. Where did you get the data?

  9. rob anderson says:

    Nice analysis, but you forgot one. Ever since he took over and we get ranked in the top 10, he loses miserably. Then we drop out of the top 10, usually down to the 20’s or worse, and then he rolls off a few wins over crappy teams.

    He needs to go. Its clear he can’t get this team over the hump and as long as he stays, we will always be a 7-5, 8-4 team, losing at least one game each year that we shouldn’t and then winning one we shouldn’t too.

    Todays loss to Alabama was a joke. The team was unprepared, unmotivated, and out coached by Saban and Alabama. Clear evidence – how many 3rd and longs did our db’s play 5 yards behind the first down marker and then give up the first down pass. That was ridiculous.

    We have the recruits, facilities, and existing talent, we just don’t have a damn coach.

    Fire Tommy Bowden NOW

  10. Chad says:

    I hope Clemson fire’s Tommy Bowden! He even called the Bama couch and asked what he could of done diffrent. What a loser!

  11. Clay says:

    I know he did not call you chad to ask how to spell. couch

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