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Historical Eye of the Tiger: ACC Championship Edition-Clemson vs. UNC

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The Clemson Tigers take on the North Carolina Tarheels in a border battle for the Atlantic Coast Conference crown in the Queen City.

Hearkening Back to 1981
Hearkening Back to 1981
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

This week Dabo Swinney's 2015 Clemson Tigers make the short trek north up I-85 to Charlotte, North Carolina to take on Larry Fedora's North Carolina Tarheels in a battle for cross-border braggin' rights between the Palmetto State and the Old North State in the Queen City. Many historical accomplishments will also be on the line, including Clemson's first ever thirteen-win season, the longest winning streak ever at sixteen games, just the second ACC Championship game victory for the program, and a spot in just the second iteration of the College Football Playoff to compete for the program's second national championship.

Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney & UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora

Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney & UNC Head Coach Larry Fedora

The Tigers roll into town 12-0 and ranked number one in all the polls, while the Tarheels have reeled off eleven straight victories after an embarrassing opening-week loss to the lowly Gamecocks to ascend into the top ten nationally. Both teams employ HUNH offenses that put up yards and points in bunches, but there the similarities between these two teams and programs ends. Clemson's total defense is yet again ranked in the top ten in the country, while UNC's "D," though much improved over last year's unit, falls outside the top fifty. And both special teams units are a mixed bag, with Clemson holding an edge in the kicking department, while the ‘Heels have a decided advantage in the return game. Beyond the gridiron there's no love lost between these two programs and their fan bases. North Carolina posits itself as the pride of the ACC, elite teams with elite academics and elitist fans ever ready to don their baby blue cardigans and look down their noses at anyone who didn't attend "Chapel Hill" and doesn't consider a Bordeaux red paired with Roquefort cheese suitable tailgating fare. Such animosity runs even deeper in the historical record, where a contentious cultural relationship between North and South Carolina abounds with ironic and contrasting perceptions of elitism and provincialism, prosperity and poverty, prestige and disgrace.

The history of the Carolinas began in tumult, and North and South Carolina have largely been at odds ever since. After centuries of Native Americans reigning over the region, expeditionary incursions by Spanish missionaries and conquistadors in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries resulted in only limited and isolated European settlement, mostly along the South Carolina coast. The English were the first Europeans to attempt permanent settlement on any considerable scale, beginning with the ill-fated Lost Colony of Roanoke in 1585 under the direction of Sir Walter Raleigh and funded by Queen Elizabeth I. But it was King Charles I of England who granted the original colonial charter for what would become the Carolina Colony to English nobleman Sir Robert Heath in 1629, named Carolina in reference to the Latin translation of Charles, Carolus. Disputes over the religious affiliations of intended settlers combined with the execution of Charles I during the English Civil War in 1649 to delay settlement until the restoration of the English monarchy under King Charles II in 1660. Charles II issued a new colonial charter in 1663 establishing the Carolina Colony as a proprietary colony presided over by eight English noblemen, called the Lords Proprietors.

The Carolina Colony, 1663-1712 (Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons - httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwikiFileCarolinacolony.png#mediaFileCarolinacolony.png)

The Carolina Colony, 1663-1712 (Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons - httpscommons.wikimedia.orgwikiFileCarolinacolony.png#mediaFileCarolinacolony.png)

Extensive settlement and population growth under the Lords Proprietors remained limited, however, concentrated mainly around the Albemarle Sound on the far northeastern coast of the colony (1650s) and at Charles Town on the southeastern coast (1670). Though both colonies attracted migrants from Virginia and the New England colonies to the north, as well as wealthy migrants from English colonies in the Caribbean, namely Barbados, these last became far more prominent and influential in shaping colonial development in the south, while in the north displaced former indentured servants moving south from Virginia comprised the bulk of settlers. These initial patterns hardened into long-term distinctions between the northern and southern regions of the colony. But the two regions of the Carolina Colony remained under one government until 1712, when these cultural distinctions fomented the formal division between North and South Carolina. Thenceforth citizens of the "Old North State" have made a virtue of these humble beginnings, especially as contrasted with the conspicuous pride, pomp, and circumstance they alleged to be the defining traits of their South Carolina neighbors. North Carolinian Mary Oates Spratt Van Landingham, daughter of the Queen City itself, went so far as to assert in 1900 that North Carolina was a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit (Virginia and South Carolina).

How ironic, then, that Chapel Hill, North Carolina now serves as a bastion of elitism, its self-annointed paragons casting an ever-disapproving gaze upon their lowly ACC brethren in lil' ol' Clempson and implying that we Tigers lack intelligence and breeding, as these can only be conferred with a degree from "Carolina." Buy my how the high-and-mighty have fallen with the academic scandals of late, doling out AFAM Studies degrees to "student"-athletes like candy to children on Halloween night. And all the while "Swoffy" turns a blind eye and deaf ear, administering little more than a slap on the wrist for his alma mater's transgressions. Had Clemson perpetrated such academic fraud you better believe his baby-blueblood cronies in the ACC would have invoked the full power of their office and unleashed the wrath of NCAA sanctions to "make an example." But such is life in the ACC. Clemson has overcome all such obstacles along the Tobacco Road to reach the ACC Championship game in Charlotte. But having done so, shall we go ahead and set the odds on whether Ron Cherry and his officiating crew "earn" the distinction of refereeing said title bout? How about the over/under on the number of phantom holding calls, inexplicable personal foul calls, and nonexistent passing interference penalties assessed against the orange-clad Tigers in support of the baby-blueblood boosters?

ACC Commissioner & UNC Alumnus John "Swoffy" Swofford

ACC Commissioner & UNC Alumnus John "Swoffy" Swofford

The one area where Clemson can resolutely refute the Tarheels' pretensions to prestige is on the football field, where the Tigers have historically dominated to the tune of 36-19-1 in the all-time series that dates to 1897. Since 1977, the Tigers have compiled a stellar 22-9 record against the Tar Heels, including a 9-6 mark on the road in Chapel Hill. In three neutral-site games all-time, Clemson holds a 2-1 advantage, including a 22-10 Tiger victory over the ‘Heels in Charlotte in 1901. It is to that game, and another from the only other season on record that even remotely compares to the current 2015 run—1981—that we now turn for historical sustenance leading into Saturday's historic showdown in the Queen City.

Clemson last seized the ACC crown in the Queen City in 2011

Clemson last seized the ACC crown in the Queen City in 2011

In 1901 John Heisman's second Clemson Tigers squad defeated the University of North Carolina Tarheels 22-10 in Charlotte, NC to complete a 3-1-1 campaign, 2-0-1 in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAA), which was good enough for second place in the conference behind the champion Vanderbilt Commodores. The 1901 Tigers team played just one home game (on Bowman field), its opener against Guilford College, a lopsided 122-0 victory which still stands as the most points and largest margin of victory in the annals of Clemson football. The Tigers tied Tennessee 6-6 in Knoxville, beat Georgia handily 29-6 in Athens, and lost 11-17 to Virginia Tech in Columbia before salvaging the season with the win over the ‘Heels. North Carolina finished the season 7-2-0 overall, 2-1-0 in the SIAA to finish in a tie for fourth in-conference.

Arguably the biggest football game in the history of the ACC at the time it occurred on November 7, 1981 was the gridiron match between Danny Ford's second-ranked, 8-0 Clemson Tigers and Dick Crum's ninth-ranked, 7-1 North Carolina Tarheels in Chapel Hill, NC. This was the conference's first-ever football matchup between top-ten teams, and it turned out to be a defensive classic. Both teams relied on hard-hitting defenses and sound special teams to try and gain an edge in field position, but turnovers and timely offensive bursts proved the difference in this nail-biter. North Carolina got on the board first with a second-quarter field goal, but Clemson answered with a 14-play, 81 yard touchdown drive to go up 7-3. The Tigers kept the momentum until the closing minutes of the first half, when the ‘Heels gained new life with a blocked punt that went out of the back of the Clemson endzone for a safety and a narrow 7-5 Clemson lead at the half.

Jeff "The Judge" Davis, LB, Clemson, 1978-1981

Jeff "The Judge" Davis, LB, Clemson, 1978-1981

The Tigers defense, stout all year, shifted momentum back to the Clemson sideline by forcing the ‘Heels offense into a three-and-out to start the second half. Then Homer Jordan directed six minute drive that resulted in a 39-yard Donald Iguebuike field goal to push the Tigers' lead out to 10-5. But the Tarheels wouldn't go away without a fight, as they embarked on a 17-play, 79-yard drive that might have resulted in a touchdown had it not been for Tiger defensive standouts Jeff Davis and Terry Kinard stepping up to thwart a running back sweep for a five yard loss, forcing the ‘Heels to settle for three and preserving the Tigers' lead at just 10-8. That score would prove to be the final tally, but not before some late-game drama. North Carolina drove to the Clemson forty yard line with under two minutes to play in the game, but a controversial fumble recovery by defensive tackle Jeff Bryant sealed the victory for the Tigers.

1981 Clemson Tigers' National Championship Ring

1981 Clemson Tigers' National Championship Ring

Clemson would of course finish off its 1981 regular season 11-0 and would defeat #4 Nebraska 22-15 in the Orange Bowl  on January 1, 1982 to finish as the only undefeated team in the nation, a perfect 12-0 (6-0 ACC Champions), to claim the program's only national championship. North Carolina ended the year 10-2 (5-1 ACC) and ninth in the final polls after defeating Arkansas in the Gator Bowl to cap the season.

While a "10-8-cious" defensive slugfest is unlikely in the impending 2015 matchup between the Tigers and Tarheels, history shows that the contest will likely be too-close-for-comfort. Both offenses will probably run more plays in the first half than either of the 1981 teams ran in their entire game (Clemson 71, UNC 72), and will undoubtedly surpass the 1981 total yardage numbers well before halftime (Clemson 254, UNC 263). But though the final score this weekend could well be 50-48 in favor of the last team with the ball, the more things change, the more they stay the same; Clemson has owned North Carolina on the gridiron throughout its history, and one of the best Clemson football teams to ever take the field will be on full display come Saturday night. When push comes to shove, the historical record corroborates the assumption that Clemson at its best tops North Carolina at its best where football is concerned. So here's hoping the Tarheels return to their historical roots this weekend with a nice big plate of humble pie after a historic victory propels the Tigers into the College Football Playoff and on to elite status as national champions.

ACC Championship Trophy

ACC Championship Trophy

GO TIGERS!