Note: The following appears in the Boston College gameday football program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 150th season of college football. The author of this article, Tim Bourret, is one of 150 college football historians on a committee formed by ESPN that is selecting the top teams, games, players and programs during the first 150 years. In conjunction with that, Bourret is writing articles this year on the great moments in Clemson football history. Below is the fifth installment of the series.
When the preseason top-20 polls for the 1981 season were released by AP and UPI (USA Today had not started yet and the polls only picked 20 teams then), Clemson was not on the list. In fact, the Tigers did not get a single vote, meaning none of the 62 AP voters thought Clemson was a top-20 team.
The Tigers were coming off a 6-5 record in 1980. It was a frustrating year, as the Tigers lost at home to Duke, still the only time that has happened since 1972. There were actually rumblings about Danny Ford’s job security as the team prepared to play No. 14 South Carolina and eventual Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers.
Clemson upset the Gamecocks 27-6, as the Tigers held Rogers out of the endzone. Willie Underwood had two interceptions, the first two of his four-year, 47-game career, 17 tackles and was named national defensive player-of-the-week by Sports Illustrated.
In many minds, including mine, the run to the 1981 national championship began with that victory over the Gamecocks to end the 1980 season. That game might be included in a top-10 moments in school history.
Another candidate for a top moment in Clemson history took place on Sept. 19, 1981, the 39th anniversary of the first game in Memorial Stadium, in a 13-3 victory over defending national champion Georgia and future Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker. The Tigers forced a school-record nine turnovers and kept Walker out of the endzone, just as they had done with Rogers four games earlier.
That triumph put Clemson in the national spotlight, as it would be the only regular-season loss of Walker’s three years at Georgia. The victories continued, including a 10-8 win at No. 8 North Carolina in the first meeting of top-10 ACC teams.
The Tigers won at South Carolina 29-13 to close the regular season, but still ranked No. 2 on Thanksgiving Day.
That all changed when Penn State hammered top-ranked Pittsburgh 48-14 behind quarterback Todd Blackledge. When Blackledge comes to Clemson to broadcast a game for ESPN, we should carry him into the stadium on a throne like he is an ancient Roman king.
That moved the Tigers to the No. 1 ranking, the seventh different top-ranked team in 1981, still the most in a season since the AP poll began in 1936.
The Tigers were matched with a two-loss, No. 4 ranked Nebraska team that was a perennial national power under Head Coach Tom Osborne, but he had yet to win a national title.
Nebraska took the opening kickoff and fumbled on its third play from scrimmage. William Devane recovered the fumble by quarterback Mark Mauer (who was playing for an injured Turner Gill), and the Tigers kicked a field goal for a 3-0 lead.
The Tigers took a 12-7 halftime lead on a two-yard rushing touchdown by Cliff Austin, who spent two hours stuck in an elevator at the team hotel earlier in the day.
Clemson won the third quarter 10-0 and took a commanding 22-7 lead. The Tigers drove 75 yards on their second possession of the second half, a drive that culminated with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Homer Jordan to Perry Tuttle. Tuttle’s celebration after the catch was depicted on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week.
With a 15-point lead, Johnny Rembert nearly had a pick-six that would have made the score 29-7. However, Nebraska came back to score on a 26-yard run by future San Francisco 49er running back Roger Craig, who also scored a two-point conversion run from eight yards out after a Cornhusker penalty on the initial try.
Similar to Clemson’s 10-minute drive to close out the 2018 national championship win over Alabama, the Tigers went on a five-minute drive to run the clock down to six seconds. The Cornhuskers had one final desperation pass, but Andy Headen knocked the ball to the ground and Clemson had its first national title in any sport.
For the record, only Auburn’s 2010 team has gone from no poll votes to the national championship since the Tigers’ 1981 team.