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Sep 30, 2021

1981 National Champions

By: Tim Bourret

Note: The following appears in the Boston College football gameday program.

The 1981 team is celebrating its 40-year reunion at Memorial Stadium this weekend. We welcome those former Tigers who helped the program capture its first national title back to Clemson.

Today, we celebrate Clemson’s 1981 national championship season. Forty years ago, I was in my fourth year at Clemson, and the memories are still very vivid.

One of the reasons they are so strong is because the accomplishments were so noteworthy. Many of them still stand as records or near records today. And as the years go on, they gain in stature because they have not been duplicated.

Here are a few to reflect on.

• Clemson did not receive a single point in the preseason AP poll, then went on to win the national title. The 1981 team is the only one to go from “pointless” to national champion in FBS history. Five other schools have gone from unranked to champion (Brigham Young in 1984, Miami (Fla.) in 1983, Southern California in 1962, Minnesota in 1960, LSU in 1958), but only Clemson has accomplished the feat without a preseason poll point.

• Danny Ford was just 33 years old when Clemson won the national title, still the youngest head coach to do so in history. Bud Wilkinson was 34 when he took Oklahoma to the title in 1950.

• I was with Jeff Davis at a practice in August and we were talking about the accomplishments of the 1981 team. I told him that he and Terry Kinard have gone on to make the College Football Hall of Fame from that team. They both came to Clemson in the same 1978 recruiting class. He was shocked to learn that the 1978 recruiting class is the only one in ACC history to have two future members of the College Football Hall of Fame. That accomplishment might not hold forever, as Clemson has had some good classes recently. But it will always be the first.

• Perry Tuttle was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his receiving touchdown in the 22-15 national championship victory over Nebraska. He was the first Clemson athlete pictured on the cover of that noted publication. The very next week, former Tiger Dwight Clark, who helped recruit Tuttle to Clemson, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated making one of the most celebrated receptions in NFL history.

• A look to the final AP poll for the 1981 season shows that Clemson won the championship in a season in which 12 of the other 19 teams were coached by mentors who are now in the College Football Hall of Fame. During his career, Ford defeated five of them (Joe Paterno, Vince Dooley, Tom Osborne, Don Nehlen, Barry Switzer). He beat Paterno, Osborne, Nehlen and Switzer in bowl games as well.

• Clemson won the title in one of the craziest seasons in history. Seven different schools held the No. 1 position in the AP poll during the year, the most in one season in history. Clemson was the only undefeated and untied team that year and the only team to defeat three teams that finished the season ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll.

• There were many program defensive standards established that still stand today. The Tigers forced nine turnovers in the victory over No. 4 Georgia. The takeaways were by nine different players. The 13-3 win over the Bulldogs was the only regular-season loss of Herschel Walker’s Georgia career. The Tigers forced 41 turnovers that season, still a school record even though Clemson has played as many as 15 games in subsequent seasons. The record of 3.4 turnovers forced per game may stand forever.

• Clemson scored 82 points in the win over Wake Forest. No Clemson team has reached that total since. The Tigers had 536 rushing yards and were 12-12 on third down, offensive standards that still stand today.

• Homer Jordan became the first African-American starting quarterback of a team from the South to win the national title. Many have followed since, but he was a trailblazer.