Clemson: A National Championship History

The Clemson Tigers first took the field in football in 1896 finishing 2-1 under head coach Walter Riggs. The team enjoyed its first undefeated season just four years later when College Football Hall of Fame coach John Heisman (yes, that Heisman) led the Tigers to a 6-0 finish in 1900 while outscoring their opponents 222-10.

Clemson’s next undefeated squad came in 1906, but the Tigers finished with almost as many ties as they did wins in a 4-0-3 finish under Bob Williams. It would be 42 years before the Tigers could manage another undefeated season, this time under Frank Howard whose name is now on the field at Clemson. Howard’s 1948 squad finished 11-0 including a a 24-23 win over the Missouri Tigers in the Gator Bowl on New Year’s Day in 1949. Still, it was only good enough to earn the Tigers a ranking of No. 11 in the final polls.

Howard’s Tigers would finish unbeaten again in 1950 with a 9-0-1 mark, but that 1948 squad would remain the best on campus until a young coach took over the program in the late 1970’s. Clemson’s first national title was just around the corner.

National Titles: 2

First Year of Football: 1896

First Title: 1981 (12-0)

Most Recent: 2016 (14-1)

1981 Schedule

9/5/1981: Wofford, 45-10
9/12/1981: at Tulane, 13-5
9/19/1981: Georgia, 13-3
10/3/1981: at Kentucky, 21-3
10/10/1981: Virginia, 27-0
10/17/1981: at Duke, 38-10
10/24/1981: NC State, 17-7
10/31/1981: Wake Forest, 82-24
11/7/1981: at North Carolina, 10-8
11/14/1981: Maryland, 21-7
11/21/1981: at South Carolina, 29-13
1/1/1982: vs. Nebraska, 22-15@

@ – Miami (FL)

Danny Ford
Danny Ford was just 30 years old when he took the reins of the Clemson program replacing Charley Pell who left after the 1978 regular season to take the Florida job. Ford’s first game as the Tigers’ head coach came in the infamous 1978 Gator Bowl against the Ohio State Buckeyes. It was in this game that legendary Buckeyes’ head coach Woody Hayes punched Clemson nose guard Charlie Bauman after he intercepted a pass and was forced out of bounds on the Ohio State sideline.

Clemson won the game 17-15, and the Ford era was officially under way. He followed the Gator Bowl win with an 8-4 record in 1979 before stumbling to a 6-5 finish in 1980. Understandably, expectations for his third season were modest, and the Tigers entered the 1981 season unranked. Ford and the Tigers, however, were about to author one of the more remarkable national championship seasons in college football history.

The Tigers breezed to a 45-10 win over Division I-AA Wofford in the 1981 season opener followed by an escape at Tulane with a narrow 13-5 win. The Tigers then returned home to face the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs, and a 13-3 win got the nation’s attention. The Tigers rocketed up to No. 14 in the polls, and a 21-3 win over Kentucky the following week pushed them into the Top 10 at No. 9.

Wins over Virginia (27-0), at Duke (38-10) and over NC State (17-7) pushed them even higher in the polls, and by the time the final gun sounded in an 82-24 win over Wake Forest, the Tigers were on their way to a No. 2 ranking. Another big upset – this time on the road in a 10-8 win at North Carolina – solidified Clemson’s status as a national title contender, and they backed it up by closing the regular season with wins over Maryland (21-7) and at rival South Carolina (29-13).

Due to more late season upsets, Clemson entered the postseason as the nation’s top-ranked team earning a bid to the Orange Bowl to play No. 4 Nebraska on New Year’s Day. No. 2 Georgia and No. 3 Alabama then both lost early in the day, theoretically setting the Orange Bowl up as a de facto national championship game. As it had all season, Clemson put the game in the hands of its defense limiting Nebraska to one early touchdown on a trick play while slowly building a 22-7 lead over three quarters that would ultimately prove insurmountable in a 22-15 win.


Unlike Clemson’s first national title, it would be hard to categorize the Tigers’ 2016 championship as completely unexpected.


On the contrary, the Dabo Swinney-led Tigers had played for the national championship at the conclusion of the 2015 season losing to Nick Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide 45-40. When the beginning of the 2016 season kicked off, the Tigers were in prime position to make another run ranked No. 2.

The season opener presented a test right out of the gate with a trip to Auburn, and the game was a battle. Clemson ultimately returned home with a 19-13 win, however, and then avoided an upset bid by Troy in the second game holding on for a 30-24 win. The narrow win over the lowly-regarded Trojans, however, resulted in Clemson dropping to No. 5.

The next game offered a breather against FCS opponent South Carolina State (59-0), and the Tigers then opened their ACC schedule on the road with a 26-7 win at Georgia Tech. The first real big test since the opener came the following week when a red-hot Louisville team ranked No. 3 made the trek to Death Valley. In a battle of Heisman Trophy candidates featuring eventual winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville, it was Tigers’ quarterback Deshaun Watson rallying his team for a 42-36 win. Clemson rose to the No. 3 spot after the victory.

Wins on the road at Boston College (56-10) and Florida State (37-34) were sandwiched around a close call at home against NC State with the Tigers escaping 24-17 in overtime. Clemson appeared to be set up for a relatively smooth ride to the finish starting with a 54-0 win over Syracuse before disaster struck. In early November, Clemson suffered a 43-42 loss at home to Pittsburgh leaving their playoff hopes dangling in the balance.

The Tigers, however, finished strong with wins over Wake Forest (35-13) and South Carolina (56-7) to advance to the ACC Championship Game. A wild 42-35 win over Virginia Tech then clinched a playoff spot for the Tigers once again.

From there, it’s history. The Tigers gave Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer the first shutout loss of his career in a 31-0 blanking. And then Swinney and company etched their names in stone with an incredible last-second 35-31 victory over the Crimson Tide preventing Saban from winning his sixth title which would have tied legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most national championships in history.

2016 Schedule

9/3/2016: at Auburn, 19-13
9/10/2016: Troy, 30-24
9/17/2016: South Carolina St., 59-0
9/22/2016: at Georgia Tech, 26-7
10/1/2016: Louisville, 42-36
10/7/2016: at Boston College, 56-10
10/15/2016: NC State, 24-17 (OT)
10/29/2016: at Florida State, 37-34
11/5/2016: Syracuse, 54-0
11/12/2016: Pittsburgh, 42-43
11/19/2016: at Wake Forest, 35-13
11/26/2016: South Carolina, 56-7
12/3/2016: vs. Virginia Tech, 42-35@
12/31/2016: vs. Ohio State, 31-0#
1/9/2017: vs. Alabama, 35-31$

@ – Orlando, FL
# – Glendale, AZ
$ – Tampa, FL

Dabo Swinney



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