Clemson played in one of the greatest National Championship games in college football history this past January. It was a thrilling, storybook ending to a two year narrative of a program that eschewed winning at all costs for having fun and doing things the right way. It was the biggest win the Tiger program has enjoyed, but it’s not the only big one.
We took a look back through history and uncovered 10 of the biggest, most meaningful wins the Clemson Tigers have ever earns.
Cotton Bowl Classic: Clemson vs. Boston College (1939 Season)
Five years after the inception of IPTAY, Jess Neely’s Clemson Tigers accepted a bid to their first ever bowl game. The 8-1 Tigers, their lone loss coming in their second game at Tulane, would face off against 9-1 Boston College in the Cotton Bowl Classic. The Tigers won in a 6-3 defensive battle and Hall of Famer Banks McFadden won the game’s MVP award. The O’Rourke-McFadden trophy is now given to the MVP of this (now annual) contest (O’Rourke was the Boston College QB in the game).
It would be Jess Neely’s last game as Clemson’s head coach as he accepted the same position at Rice. Frank Howard would become the Head Coach at Clemson for the next 30 years. The Tigers would go eight seasons without a bowl (five losing seasons) before Frank Howard had one of his best seasons as a Head Coach, winning the Gator Bowl over Missouri 24-23, in what he would call the greatest game he’s ever seen, to finish 11-0. Two years later they’d beat Miami in the Orange Bowl to finish 9-0-1. Neither year did they finish higher than #10 in the country.
Clemson vs. Georgia (1981 Season)
North Carolina 1981 led to the Nation Championship we won 10-8.— John McCall (@JohnJomccall) July 28, 2017
Also beat Georgia 13-7 same year & they were defending NC.
Georgia, Penn State, Miami, Nebraska, Clemson... That’s 80s smashmouth football. Danny Ford, after two fairly mediocre seasons, began what would become a very special 1981 season. The Bulldogs were the defending National Champions and #4 in the country after beating Tennessee 44-0 and taking care of California. Clemson, was unranked after narrowly escaping New Orleans with a win over Tulane.
Georgia’s Hershel Walker scored 18 TDs in 1981, but he didn’t break the goal line against Clemson’s dominant defense. Terry Kinard forced a Walker fumble in the red zone, quelling his best chance. The Tigers won 13-3. (A more detailed look at this game can be found here.)
Clemson at. North Carolina (1981 Season)
In 1980, Lawrence Taylor come up with a crucial sack to quell a Tiger comeback and the Tar Heels tamed the Tigers in Death Valley. In 1981, the stakes were higher. When Clemson traveled to Chapel Hill, they were 8-0 and #2 in the country. They had already beaten the defending Champion Bulldogs and the #8 Tar Heels - with their tough physical defense - offered their biggest hurdle to playing for a title.
A homecoming crowd of 53,611 - the largest in Kenan Memorial Stadium to that point in history - was present. It included a huge contingent of Tiger fans who made the trip up to cheer on their undefeated Tigers. In the third quarter, with a chance to take the lead, the Heels offense reached first and goal on the four yard line. The traveling Tiger faithful’s noise necessitated a UNC timeout, and with the loud support, the Tiger defense managed to keep them out of the end zone. They wouldn’t reach pay dirt all day and the battle ended in a 10-8 win for the Clemson. Much of the slugfest of a game can be viewed below.
The Tigers would beat Maryland and South Carolina by 14+ to close out a perfect regular season and accept a bid to the Orange Bowl.
Orange Bowl: Clemson vs. Nebraska (1981 Season)
The Tigers and Cornhuskers were still battling when the Orange Bowl turned into a true national championship game. #2 Georgia and #3 Alabama lost their bowl games, meaning the winner of this game would almost certainly finish #1 in the polls. Tom Osborne called this his best team (to date, he’d go on to win three national championships in the 90s).
The Tigers took a 22-7 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Nebraska would cut it to a one possession game, but the Tiger offense was able to drain the clock to 0:06 remaining thanks to a big 23-yard first down scamble from QB Homer Jordan. The 33-year Danny Ford would earn a National Championship and prove that it could be done at Clemson, a lesson that would come in handy later.
The entire game can be viewed in its 80s greatness here:
Clemson vs. Florida State (2003 Season)
2003 FSU. Goalposts in the reflecting pool. Amazing. First time we showed we COULD be great again!— RockdaleTiger (@Rockdale_Tiger) July 28, 2017
2003 upset of #3 FSU. Atmosphere was insane. Goal posts were down. https://t.co/2MeOETSd51— ㅤㅤ (@DaretoDabo) July 28, 2017
Dabo was in his first year back in coaching after a two-year hiatus after Tommy Bowden had hired him away from AIG (real estate). The 2003 season got off to a poor 5-4 start, and the Tigers were coming off a loss to Wake Forest. Florida State was a road favorite, coming into Death Valley ranked #3 in the nation.
Despite the poor start to the year, the Clemson faithful packed Death Valley for the Bowden Bowl and made their presence felt. The Tigers raced out to a 26-3 lead and hung on for a 26-10 win. FSU was solidly in the running for the national championship, but the loss in Clemson knocked them out of the race.
The Tiger victory snapped an 11-game losing streak over to FSU - every matchup since they joined the ACC. It was a win that reminded Clemson faithful of where they’d been and that it was possible they could return it. It was also cause for an epic celebration as fans ripped down the goal post (this was prior to the days of the posts that lowered) and drug it around campus!
“The Finish” kept Bowden in Clemson for another half decade. Had he left sooner, Coach Swinney may not be a head coach today, let alone Clemson’s elite leader. The 2003 win over FSU ranked as the best Clemson game of its decade in a 2010 post which you can see here.
ACC Championship: Clemson vs Virginia Tech (2011 Season)
In the 11 years from 1981 to 1991, the Tigers won the ACC seven times (they were ineligible to be crowned champions for one of them) and went an amazing 100-24-5. The years that followed were... “drier.” A 30 year gap between conference titles was feeling as long as it sounds and after losing to Georgia Tech in 2009, the Tiger faithful wanted this win badly.
Clemson had already beaten the Virginia Tech Hokies, the Coastal Division Champion, in Blacksburg, 23-3, in week 5, but the rematch felt more ominous. The Tigers went just 4-3 after that win while the Hokies rallied and kept that as their lone loss, rising to #5 in the polls. With the Tigers losing to the Gamecocks the week prior, a loss to VT would leave the Tigers with a meaningless, championship-less year.
Fortunately, Kevin Steele’s defense dominated Virginia Tech for the second time and the Tigers won 38-10, sending a school from SC to a BCS bowl for the first time ever. This game stands out in particular for me. I remember sneaking down to the lower deck in the closing minutes to watch a Tiger championship for the first time. A man in front of us stood on his chair, and screamed “That's why Carolina's in Chapel Hill and USC's in California and the university in this state always has been, always will be Clemson."
Winning the ACC was step #2 (with winning the division in 2009 being step #1) towards Clemson’s slow and steady build to a National Championship. It knocked down any remaining barriers preventing Dabo from near universal appreciation across the fan-base - something elusive to post-Ford coaches. At the time, it was the biggest win in the lives of many young Clemson fans!
Clemson vs Notre Dame (2015 Season)
Notre Dame, in the ☔️.— CUunderground (@CUunderground) July 28, 2017
A literal hurricane was hitting the coast of South Carolina and the edges of the hurricane were whipping into Clemson, SC. There was talk of rescheduling the game, a nationally televised ABC night game in Death Valley, but with College Gameday and the nation’s attention, the Clemson administration made it work.
Fans made it work too. They came piling in wearing ponchos to watch their #12 Tigers take on the #6 Fighting Irish. ESPN and CBS analysts seemed to be favoring the Irish. Some said they would dominate in Death Valley. They hearkened back to the Tigers getting blown out at home in 2013 to FSU. The famous line that caught Clemson’s attention can be heard in the video embed below:
“I think this is going to be the game that elevates the Irish to the National Championship run they’re going to go on, I believe, and it’s going to make Clemson fans very lugubrious.”
The had enjoyed some big wins, but hadn’t joined the nation’s elite. They still owned a reputation, though somewhat undeserved at this point, of flopping in the biggest of moments. It wouldn’t happen on this night. The Tigers raced out to 21-3 lead, but had to hang on for dear life as Notre Dame cut the lead to 22-24 and attempted a two-point conversion to tie the game. In one of the most famous plays of his Clemson career, Ben Boulware led the charge to stuff the run and end the game.
In his post-game interview, surrounded by a horde of orange Dabo Swinney said:
“We give you scholarships, stipends, and meals, and a place to live. We give you nice uniforms. I can’t give you guts, and I can’t give you heart! And tonight, hey, it was BYOG. Bring your own guts! And they brought some guts and some heart and they never quit until the last play.”
This was the night when Clemson re-introduced themselves to America as a late team and the night National Championship aspirations truly arose.
Clemson vs. Louisville (2016 Season)
Clemson had fallen just a play or two short of a National Championship in 2015, and were on a mission for redemption in 2016. Louisville though, had title aspirations of their own. There couldn’t be more on the line. This game would not only impact National Championship hopes, but decide the ACC Atlantic division.
Louisville had just beaten Florida State 63-20. Lamar Jackson had already secured the Heisman, at least in the mind of voters, and the Cardinals come into Death Valley as favorites. The Tigers jumped out to a 28-10 halftime lead and looked to be the superior team.
Things took a turn after halftime. The Tigers threw two interceptions (one ricocheting off McCloud’s chest) and lost a fumble on three of their next five drives (the others ending with punts). This wore out their defense and allowed the eventual Heisman winner, QB Lamar Jackson, to make his mark. Louisville exploded for 26 points and led 36-28 with 7:56 remaining in the game.
A long Artavis Scott kick return brought the Tigers to the Louisville 23 and two plays later they were in the end zone. The two-point conversion failed and they kicked off and hoped a tired defense could get a stop. Heroically they did, and the Tiger offense would reward them as QB Watson completed a 31-yard touchdown to Jordan Leggett to give them the lead, but 3:14 remained.
The Cardinals drove 72 yards, but were stopped on downs when CB Marcus Edmond pushed the receiver out of bounds just before the first down marker. The Tigers never gave up and managed to pull off a comeback victory. It would end up being a make or break moment in their National Championship season. To this day, this is the best sporting event I’ve ever watched.
CFP Semi-Final/Fiesta Bowl: Clemson vs. Ohio State (2016 Season)
The 2016 Fiesta Bowl showed the nation that Clemson and Alabama were ready for a rematch and this little four team playoff wasn’t really needed. Clemson was better than Ohio State in all aspects of the game. Despite being the underdog, Clemson won 31-0 and moved to 3-0 all-time against the Buckeyes. The blowout was one of the most impressive in Clemson history. It was the first time an Urban Meyer coached team had ever been shutout. It got the nation’s attention and gave Tiger fans reason to believe they could beat Alabama.
National Championship Game: Clemson vs. Alabama (2016 Season)
One of the best championship games ever played capped of the 2016 college football season. A rematch of an instant classic the year before, the Tigers were seeking redemption against Nick Saban’s Alabama squad.
Alabama was again favored and jumped out to a 14-0 lead after Bo Scarbrough rumbled into the end zone twice, once due to a missed holding call. Clemson didn’t break though, though scoring before half to make it a 14-7 game. Later, a Clemson fumble recovered by Alabama threatened the Tigers’ dreams, but a shoe string tackle by Hunter Renfrow limited the damage to a field goal. The Tigers were down by 10, but they continued to battle and slowly but surely wore down the vaunted Alabama defense.
The Tigers scored a minute into the fourth quarter to cut the lead to three and found the end zone again with 4:38 remaining to take their first lead of the night. The Crimson Tide was quick to counter with a touchdown of their own thanks to a trick play and a long QB scramble.
With 2:07 remaining, an Alabama touchdown was merely the set-up for the most memorable drive in Clemson football history. Deshaun Watson swiftly moved the Tigers downfield with a mix of deep passes to Mike Williams and Jordan Leggett and check downs to Hunter Renfrow to move the chains. Each iconic play was bigger than the last, and the long ride that has been the Dabo Swinney era at Clemson reached the top of the mountain when Hunter Renfrow broke to the boundary completely open and caught the National Championship winning pass.
Others Worthy of Mention:
There are so many other great games that didn’t get mentioned. You can reach back to the 1948 season, when the Tigers beat Missouri in the Gator Bowl to finish 11-0. Two years later, they’d play in their first Orange Bowl, defeat Miami to end the year 9-0-1 and be voted into the top 10 for the first time since the inception of the AP Poll.
There are plenty of games from the 1980s. The Gator Bowl win over West Virginia and QB Major Harris in what would be Danny Ford’s final game on the Clemson sidelines (1989) comes to mind.
More recent victories over Georgia Tech (2006), LSU (2012), UGA (2013), Ohio State (2013), and Oklahoma (2015) are all worthy of any list. The 2013 win over UGA was particularly special to me, as I grew up in Atlanta and never dreamed Clemson could field a better team, let alone become a better program, than UGA.
There are so many great moments in Clemson history. It’s why we invest so much into following this program. I hope you enjoyed this walk through history as we look forward to seeing what moments the Tigers give us in 2017.
Please join us in the comments to tell us which games meant the most to you!