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Oct 08, 2020

125 Years of Clemson Football – The First National Championship

By: Tim Bourret

Note: The following appears in the Miami gameday football program.

Editor’s Note – This is the 125th season of Clemson football. To commemorate the first 125 years, Tim Bourret is writing articles this year on some of the most important moments in Tiger history. Below is the third installment of the series.

While the two national championships in 2016 and 2018 have been great benchmarks in Clemson football history, in many ways, the Tigers’ 1981 national title stands alone.

Any time you do something for the first time, that breakthrough season is examined with incredible importance, because you showed future teams and generations that “it can be done at Clemson.”

With nearly 40 years to reflect on the accomplishments of Danny Ford’s third team, let’s take a look at some of the remarkable moments for the 1981 Tigers.

First, this team came from nowhere. The Tigers were not only excluded from the preseason top 20 (only 20 teams were selected each week in 1981) after a 6-5 season in 1980, they did not receive a single vote from any of the voters in the AP or UPI polls. Only three times since 1962 has a team been unranked in the preseason and won the national championship. The 1981 Tigers are one of the three (Miami (Fla.) in 1983 and Brigham Young in 1984 are the others).

The season began against Wofford, an NAIA school who came on the schedule in the summer after Villanova decided to drop football. The Terriers ran the ball with a “wingbone offense” successfully against Clemson’s defense and took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter. Think of the odds you could have gotten for the Tigers winning the national title at the end of that first quarter when the score was 3-3. Clemson won 45-10, but it was clear there was much to be done.

On Sept. 19, the season changed as the Tigers faced heavily favored Georgia, who won the national title the previous year behind freshman Herschel Walker.

Nine different Tiger defenders accounted for nine takeaways, still the most forced turnovers by Clemson in history. Walker lost two fumbles, and the Tigers won 13-3, the only regular-season loss of Walker’s legendary college career.

That win vaulted Clemson into the top 20 of the AP poll at No. 19. Clemson had an open date the following week and jumped five more spots without playing.

A sound second half led to a 21-3 win at Kentucky in a game televised by ABC. That publicity helped account for a leap to No. 9 in the polls.

Wins over Wake Forest usually did not lead to national attention, but the Tigers’ Halloween Day victory by a score of 82-24 did. It was the most points scored in the nation in 1981, as Clemson converted all 12 third-down attempts, another record that stands today. Tiger mascot Ricky Capps did 465 pushups.

Clemson faced North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the ninth week in the first matchup of top-10 ACC teams in history. The Tigers led 10-8 as North Carolina took over for one final drive.

On a third-down play, North Carolina quarterback Scott Stankavage threw a swing pass in the right flat that was incomplete. Only one player hustled after the ball thinking it could have been a backwards pass. That player was Clemson All-American Jeff Bryant.

The headline in the Greenville News the following day was, “Tigers are 10-8cious.”

Clemson clinched the ACC title with a 21-7 win over Maryland, then completed its perfect regular season with a 29-13 victory at South Carolina. That might have been the most pressure on the team all year, as blowing a perfect season against the Gamecocks would have been gut-wrenching.

However, the McSwain brothers came to the rescue. Rod McSwain blocked a punt that was scooped up by Johnny Rembert, who raced in for a touchdown that changed the momentum of the game. Chuck McSwain led the Clemson ground game that wrapped up the 29-13 victory, as he gained a career-high 151 yards on 25 carries and scored two touchdowns.

Clemson moved into the No. 1 spot in the polls for the first time the week after the South Carolina game when Penn State, behind quarterback Todd Blackledge, beat top-ranked Pittsburgh 48-14. The Tigers became the seventh different No. 1 squad in 1981, still the record for most top-ranked teams in a season.

The Tigers were matched with No. 4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Even though the Tigers were ranked No. 1, Clemson was the underdog in the game. But the Tiger defense, led by defensive MVP Jeff Davis, rose to the occasion, and Perry Tuttle’s receiving touchdown from offensive MVP Homer Jordan proved to be a big play in the 22-15 win.

Clemson finished the year as the only team with a perfect (12-0) record, including a national-high three wins over top-10 teams. The squad that had not received a single poll point in the preseason had 977 in the final poll, 115 more than second-place Texas.