As Scott Schaefer fires up his unranked 3-6 Syracuse Orange to give Dabo Swinney's top-ranked and undefeated (9-0, 6-0 ACC) Clemson Tigers a warm welcome in the Carrier Dome this weekend, we consult the historical record to gauge just how heated this series has been. Despite the vast geographic distance between Syracuse, NY and Clemson, SC (roughly 860 miles), the two universities and football programs seem, on the surface of things, to share at least some common ground. Orange is the primary color of both schools, but it wasn't always that way. Clemson sported run-of-the-mill red and blue as its official colors from its founding in 1889 until Walter Riggs fielded the first Tigers football team in 1896 and changed the colors to the unique combination of burnt orange (less burnt than it once was) and northwest purple. Syracuse fielded its first football team in 1889, and they were clad in the school's official colors of rose pink and azure blue. But in 1890 the school adopted orange as its official color and its athletic teams henceforth became known simply as "the Orangemen." This change came only after athletes complained that when they "tried to ‘whoop it up'" after a victory, they didn't meet with much success, for "what kind of "whoopee" can be made with pink and blue, the pale kind you use on babies' what-do-you-call-thems? It just couldn't be done!"
Both football programs boast a legion of renowned legends that span most of the mid-to-late twentieth century. Famed running backs Jim Brown (1954-1956), Ernie Davis (1959-1961), and Floyd Little (1964-1966) all donned the now-retired number forty-four for the Orange. Other notable Orange football alums include running back Larry Csonka (1965-1967), wide receiver Art Monk (1976-1979), fullback Darryl Johnson (1985-1988), quarterback Donovan McNabb (1995-1998), wide receiver Marvin Harrison (1992-1995), and defensive end Dwight Freeney (1998-2001). And Syracuse won its only national title in 1959.
Clemson's roster of all-time legends is far too numerous to list in full, but three Clemson players: Banks McFadden (1937-1939), Jeff Davis (1978-1981), and Terry Kinard (1978-1982) and three Clemson coaches: John Heisman (1900-1903), Jess Neely (1931-1939), and Frank Howard (1940-1969) have been inducted into the college football hall of fame. Other legendary Tiger players include Fred Cone (1948-1950), Charlie Waters (1966-1969), Bennie Cunningham (1872-1975), Steve Fuller (1975-1978), Jerry Butler (1975-1978), Dwight Clark (1975-1978), Perry Tuttle (1978-1981), William "The Refrigerator" Perry (1981-1984), Michael Dean Perry (1984-1987), Terry Allen (1987-1989), Levon Kirkland (1988-1991), Brian Dawkins (1992-1995), Woodrow Dantzler (1998-2001), CJ Spiller (2006-2009), Sammy Watkins (2011-2013), and Tajh Boyd (2010-2013), just to name a select few. Clemson claimed its only national title to date in 1981 with an undefeated 12-0 season, coached by Clemson Ring of Honor member Danny Ford (1978-1989).
It's at this point, however, that the similarities largely end. Clemson Tigers football is known for its traditions (the hill, the rock, the valley; tiger rag), its prowess on the field (690-455-45 all-time with much of it highlighted on film here, here, here, here, here, and here), and its hospitality off of it. Syracuse, meanwhile, well, here's a synopsis of why we Tigers believe Syracuse Orange is tainted. The historical record further corroborates the Orange identity crisis, as they've had numerous mascots of questionable-at-best success, and countless debates over what he/it/they should be called.
This is identity confusion of epic, borderline Auburn-esque proportions. Clemson football, by contrast, celebrates where it's been, basks in the glory of where it currently is (#1 in the nation!), and knows where it's going (Swinney: "This is the ‘good old days'" and "we're just getting started!")
Clemson and Syracuse have met just three times on the gridiron, with the Tigers holding the overall advantage at 2-1-0. The first meeting came in the 1996 Gator Bowl, when Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison engineered an aerial assault against Tommy West's Tigers that ended a dreary day in Jacksonville with the Tigers on the losing end of a dismal 41-0 score. The next two meetings, however, took a different turn that resembles the divergent directions of both programs currently—the Tigers trounced the Orange both times and have catapulted into the national rankings and spotlight, while Syracuse remains mired in something-less-than-mediocrity.
In 2013 Dabo Swinney's third-ranked 4-0 Tigers peeled away any remaining doubt that Scott Schafer's first Syracuse Orange squad wasn't yet ripe for success in its inaugural ACC campaign, as a juiced Tiger offense routed the Orange 49-14 in the sweltering and cacophonous Carrier Dome. A lot of hot air spoiled the Orange's weekend, as they played an absolutely rotten game despite considerable pre-game jawing and in-game antics. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd finished with a single-game school record 455 yards and record-tying five touchdowns through the air. Wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Adam Humphries both contributed to Boyd's big day by going over the century mark in receiving yards (Watkins 4 catches/126yds/1td; Humphries 3 catches/118yds/2tds) as the offense rolled up 624 yards of total offense (468 passing, 156 rushing), while the defense turned up some heat of its own to hold the ‘Cuse to just two touchdowns.
The Tigers would end the year at 11-2 (7-1 ACC) and #7/8 (AP/Coaches) in the final polls after outdueling Urban Meyer's Ohio State Buckeye's 40-35 in the Orange Bowl to claim the program's (and state of South Carolina's) first ever BCS bowl victory in the final year of the BCS system. Syracuse ended the year unranked but beat Minnesota 21-17 in the Texas Bowl to finish 7-6 (4-4 ACC).
In 2014 Swinney's twenty-first ranked 5-2 Tigers played host to Scott Schaefer's second Syracuse Orange team in Death Valley. Having lost freshman-phenom quarterback Deshaun Watson to a broken finger on his throwing hand two weeks prior, the Clemson offense led by senior quarterback Cole Stoudt struggled to move the ball and committed four uncharacteristic turnovers to allow the Orange to keep the game close despite gaining just 170 yards of offense against a stout Tigers defense led by d-linemen Grady Jarret and Vic Beasley, as well as linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward. Down 6-3 at the half, the Tigers scored thirteen unanswered points in the second half to secure the hard-fought 16-6 victory, thanks in large part to the tough running of running back Wayne Gallman, who finished with twenty-eight carries for 101 yards.
Clemson would win four of its last five, only losing when Deshaun Watson went down early in his first game back from injury against GA Tech in Atlanta. But a hobbled Watson was still good enough on one good knee to beat the archrival Gamecocks 35-17 upon return and break the dirt-peckers unprecedented five game winning streak in the state championship series. With Watson having gone under the knife after the regular season finale, Cole Stoudt again assumed the reigns of the offense, and rode off into the proverbial sunset with a brilliant performance in a 40-6 blowout of the Oklahoma Sooners in the Russell Athletic Bowl. The win capped a fourth straight double-digit-win season at 10-3 (6-2 ACC) and #15 in both final polls. Syracuse would end the year unranked at 3-9 (1-7 ACC).
Having clinched the ACC Atlantic Division title with its momentous victory over perennial power FSU last week, will the Tigers' season suddenly go South as they head north to take on the desperate Orange? Or will the #windshieldmentality prevail as the Tigers wipe away yet another overmatched ACC bottom-dweller to secure a fifth straight double-digit-win season and keeps their college football playoff hopes and number one national ranking intact? History says that unless McNabb and Harrison exercise some heretofore-unknown remaining eligibility to run out onto the Carrier Dome turf once more, the Tigers will have little trouble slicing up the Orange on both sides of the ball to keep the juices flowing into next week's purpled-out battle with the Demon Deacons.