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Clemson Football: Golden Years?

The last three seasons have seen Clemson football reach heights not seen since the 1980s, but many signs suggest more is in store.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

If you haven't heard or weren't around, things were pretty good in Tigertown during the 1980s in football.  The program began the decade with a lackluster 6-5 season, but it followed that up with the historic undefeated title run in 1981.  From 1980 to 1990, the Tigers were 87-25-4, won 5 ACC titles, and notched landmark wins over Georgia, Nebraska, Penn State, Florida State, and Oklahoma.  This all happened despite harsh NCAA and ACC sanctions levied in 1983 that kept the Tigers out of a bowl in '83, '84, and '85 and cost the Tigers the '83 ACC title.

The current decade began with a lackluster 6-7 mark in 2010, but the program now approaches the spring game prequel to the 2015 season with a 48-18 record, one ACC title, and landmark wins over FSU, LSU, UGA, Ohio State, and Oklahoma.  However, instead of staring NCAA sanctions in the face at this point as Danny Ford's Tigers did in 1985, the program is coming off its best recruiting class since the end of the 80's.  As Anthony Michael Hall states in Sixteen Candles, "This is getting good!"

There are many reasons to believe this is the new golden era of Clemson football.  The facilities are no longer lagging behind as they were in the 1990's and early 2000's, the defense has finally returned to a level considered status quo during the 1980's, and the program has a legitimate franchise quarterback at the helm.  Those of us who were around in the 1980's often wonder what might have been had the Tigers had a truly dynamic quarterback during the 87-90 run.  There is no doubt that Deshaun Watson is the real deal - if he can stay healthy.

The naysayers and cynics are out there and have a lot of historical ammunition.  Many will point to the offensive line situation, the losses from last year's defense, and the fact Watson could not stay healthy in 2014.  Truth is, if you are going to run the table these days, some luck has to be on your side.  FSU had a full season with Winston and really every other major producer in 2013.  In 2014, Ohio State lost quarterbacks, but they benefited from a relatively weak Big 10 long enough to get rolling in time to handle playing with the third stringer in January.  Their loss came early and the Big 12's lack of a true champion put them in the playoffs when they otherwise (and by the old BCS system) would have been left out. Clemson would need some luck on its side to win huge in 2015 or 2016, but it is certainly not out of the question.  Here are more common denominators between the run in the 80's and now:

  • System stability: Clemson is now completely settled on both sides of the ball in terms of scheme and attack.  There wasn't much change despite some coaching turnover during Ford's run in the 80's.  His brief attempt at changing up the offense in 1985 was scrapped when the move to Rodney Williams was made.  This allowed for more pinpoint recruiting and more consistency despite the personnel losses from graduation which is the reality of the college game.
  • Line of scrimmage: The teams of the 80's were dominant on the defensive line of scrimmage and often imposed its will on the offensive side with the run game.  Clemson's defensive line was dominant last year and while some dropoff is likely in 2015, there is plenty of talent on board to stay among the best in the country on the DL.  In fact, when Christian Wilkins enters the scene this summer, the DL will actually have a higher star rating as a group than in 2014.  Meanwhile, the staff has finally begun to right the ship in terms of numbers on the offensive line.  Reports have come from many sources (and not just the propaganda machines) that the competition between first and second team is becoming legitimate for the first time in a very long time.  The attitude adjustment there will mean as much as anything else.
  • Fan interest: The fan interest in the late 1970s and early 1980s helped to create the two upper deck additions to Death Valley.  However, many season ticket holders operated at a loss during the 1990's when folks could easily walk up and land lower deck tickets for most games for well under face value.  Now some are paying for their entire season ticket packages by selling off one big game like UGA or FSU.  I predict some record prices for the upcoming Notre Dame visit.  The interest has helped fuel additional box seating and club seating in Death Valley.  It is now pretty normal to see 80,000 for conference games outside of the FSU game despite relatively low visitor turnout from most ACC schools.  Considering Clemson's location and the huge increase in television coverage and quality since 1990, that is impressive to say the least.
  • Star power: The teams of the 80's had some star power, which is a must for the power teams in college sports.  Guys like The Fridge, The Judge, Terry Kinard, Michael Dean Perry, Levon Kirkland, and Chester McGlockton were front line guys on the national scene.  The great C.J. Spiller was the game changer the program needed to get things really going again.  Since then, guys like Sammy Watkins and Vic Beasley have become household names across the country.  That type of talent attracts similar talent as we have seen.  It was a central part of the rises of Miami and FSU.  Coach Swinney has done as good a job as any coach at Clemson of keeping the connections strong with players who have moved on to the NFL which only helps to foster this progress.

Now, there is a lot left to be done and things always happen that you don't necessarily expect (such as an injuries to key players or opponents).  Sometimes a guy bursts on the scene and changes things for a team.  Sometimes a freaky weather situation alters the course of a contest.  Sometimes a team just plays out of its mind and beats you (see Ole Miss beating Tebow's Florida or Alabama last year).  However, things are set up very nicely for Clemson to build on the first half of the decade.  The odd uprising of the poultry in Columbia is waning and the Tigers have enough marquee games on the schedule to be in the mix should it secure another ACC title.  FSU has to come to Clemson and with a new quarterback (and the chances of having another 2013 Jameis Winston emerge are not strong).  Notre Dame has to come to Clemson.  Georgia Tech has to come to Clemson.  All the skill on offense that really mattered is back while perhaps the best coached unit on the team is on the other side of the ball.

It isn't hard to think that the Tigers will be better at every position group on offense in 2015.  Last year's plan B at right tackle was the starting right guard.  Now the program has two guys who could emerge should Gore falter in Fruhmorgan and Hyatt.

It is becoming hard to doubt what the Clemson defense has become under Brent Venables.  While guys like Grady Jarrett, Vic Beasley, Crawford, Stephone Anthony, and the Gambler (Garry Peters) were great players, we've already seen huge step up performances from Ben Boulware and Dorian O'Daniel when they were pressed into expanded roles last year.  This should breed confidence that the defense won't fall far from the lofty perch the 2014 group ascended to.  It's hard to imagine a group with MacKensie Alexander and Ben Boulware on it NOT being about business.

It is getting harder to be a pessimist about the Tigers when you see what is going on.  It is even harder when you lived through the Hatfield and West sagas and rode the Tommy Bowden roller coaster.  The Tigers are a power player on the national scene now and I will be very interested to see how the winning percentage and conference titles compare to the 1980-1990 stretch.  Clemson won 75% of its games from 1980 to 1990 and is currently at 73% for this decade.

Check out the poll to rate your opinion.  It somewhat takes into account the more difficult path to the ACC title (added championship game) and national title (playoff format).  I equated 4 ACC titles this decade to the 5 from the 80's and a national title game appearance (which would require a playoff appearance and semifinal win) to the '81 Orange Bowl win.  To me, winning a title now is a bigger accomplishment due to the format.