#2 Clemson: 1981 Football National Championship

Clemson / USC Top Ten Moments

(WSPA) – The sports team at WSPA has created a ‘Top 10 Moments in Clemson Athletics History’ countdown. Starting Tuesday, April 14 we will be revealing portions of the list daily on WSPA Channel 7 News and online at wspa.com leading up to the top moment in Tigers history. Be sure to follow along as we break down these monumental achievements featuring interviews with former Clemson Sports Information Director and longtime color analyst Tim Bourret, who’s still heard on their radio network and works with the Clemson sports department covering Tigers Golf. 

#2 1981 Football National Championship 

Overview 

The 1981 Clemson Tigers completed the first 12-0 season in program history on their way to collecting their first national championship. The Tigers weren’t even in the national conversation coming into the season, but midway through their schedule it was hard to ignore the team’s potential. With questions being raised prior to the season about Danny Ford’s capability as a head coach, an undefeated championship campaign came at just the right time for Clemson football. 

Clemson’s Perry Tuttle on the cover of Sports Illustrated after the Tigers defeated Nebraska 22-15 in the 1981 National Championship.
(Photo Courtesy: Clemson Athletics)

Season 

In the 1980 season, Clemson finished 6-5. They had won the Gator Bowl two years before, and won eight games in 1979, but concerns were being raised about the head coach, Danny Ford. Thus 1981 was an important season for Ford, and the Clemson program. But they had to prove their worth along the way. 

Clemson didn’t garner a single vote to be in the top 25 of the AP Preseason Poll. By mid-season, they pushed their way into the Top 10. 

Several starters returned to the lineup in the 1981 season. And the Tigers had ended the previous season on a good note, beating South Carolina and Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers to finish with a winning record. 

“There was a bit of a carryover effect,” said Tim Bourret, former Clemson Sports Information Director. 

The Tigers relied heavily on their defense, a stout group that allowed fewer than nine points per game. They were led by two future College Football Hall Of Fame members in defensive back Terry Kinard and linebacker Jeff Davis. 

“Early in the season it was the defense [that] carried the team, and the offense got better late in the season,” said Bourret. 

The Tigers started the ‘81 season against Wofford, an NAIA club at the time and a replacement opponent for originally scheduled Villanova, which dropped football prior to the season. And the Terriers, with a first quarter lead, threatened Clemson’s entire season. But the Tigers bounced back and won, 45-10. After that game, the defense didn’t allow a touchdown the next four weeks. 

Clemson defeated Tulane at the Superdome in New Orleans, and then beat number four Georgia, 13-3, on national television. That victory put the Tigers on the map as they jumped to 

No. 14 in the college football rankings. Another convincing win followed, with a 21-3 defeat of Kentucky, pushing them inside the Top 10. 

Three more wins against Virginia, Duke, and N.C. State, respectively, brought them to 7-0 ahead of a record-breaking game on Halloween. 

Clemson defeated Wake Forest 82-24 on October 31, 1981, going 12-12 on third downs, moving the Tigers to number two in the nation trailing Pitt, led by quarterback Dan Marino. 

The Tigers stayed at number two for the remainder of the regular season, finishing with three more victories over North Carolina, Maryland, and South Carolina, respectively. Their game against UNC was the ACC”s first ever league meeting between two Top 10 programs. Clemson beat the number nine Tar Heels, 10-8, in Chapel Hill. 

They held a ranked team to under ten points for the second time that season. The defensive dominance can’t go understated. 

“Clemson forced 41 turnovers that year in just 12 games, which is still the record in Clemson history for a single season,” said Bourret. 

Clemson sat at number two with an 11-0 record, but got some help from Penn State. The Nittany Lions defeated Pitt, effectively bringing the number one ranking to the Upstate. An Orange Bowl matchup against number four Nebraska awaited he Tigers. 

MIAMI, Fla. (January 1, 1982) – Head Coach Danny Ford is carried off the field after the Clemson Tigers won the Orange Bowl over Nebraska, securing the progam’s first national championship. (Photo Courtesy: Clemson Athletics)

National Championship (Orange Bowl: January 1, 1982) 

The Nebraska Cornhuskers brought plenty of notoriety into the 1982 Orange Bowl. Having won seven bowl games, including two national titles, in the ‘70s, they were one of the premier programs in all of college football. 

“At the time, of course, Clemson was still looked at as a team from the ACC that didn’t have much experience in games this big,” said Bourret. ”But this Clemson team, and coach Ford, had a belief they could pull it off and they did.” 

Clemson’s defensive presence was felt in the opening series. Nebraska, facing a third and short, went with the option. But defensive tackle William Devane burst through the line grabbing quarterback Mark Mauer’s leg, tripping him up, and forcing a bad pitch, resulting in a fumble. Davis recovered it giving Clemson the ball. 

“Talking to Jeff in the later years about that game, he always said that was huge, because it told them ‘okay this isn’t going to be any different than what we’ve done all year,’” said Bourret. 

That led to a 41-yard field goal by Donald Igwebuike, giving Clemson an early 3-0 lead. 

MIAMI, Fla. (January 1, 1982) – Clemson defensive lineman William Devane (#94) dives for the football after forcing a fumble against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl. (Photo Courtes: Clemson Athletics)

The Cornhuskers responded on the following drive with a 25-yard halfback pass from Mike Rozier to Anthony Steels. Nebraska took the lead 7-3. And following another Igwebuike field goal, the Tigers pulled within one at 7-6. 

In the second quarter, Clemson forced another Nebraska fumble, and this time they converted it into six points. Cliff Austin plunged past the goal line to give the Tigers a 12-7 advantage at the half. 

In the third quarter, Clemson’s offense picked up where it left off. 

Quarterback Homer Jordan found Perry Tuttle on a 13-yard touchdown pass to increase Clemson’s lead. And following another field goal, they were up 22-7 entering the fourth quarter. 

Future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Roger Craig provided a spark for the Cornhuskers, keeping Nebraska in the game midway through the fourth quarter. Craig burst through for a 26-yard touchdown run making it a seven point game, 22-15. 

“They really didn’t threaten after that,” said Bourret. 

On the final drive of the game, Jordan kept the Tigers moving as they drained over four crucial minutes off the clock. A 23-yard run by Jordan with just over two minutes left all but sealed the win for Clemson. He was named the game’s MVP. 

“You’ll find no video of him doing interviews after that game, and it’s because he was so exhausted that he had to have some IVs in the locker room after the game,” said Bourret. “He left everything on the field that day.” 

Clemson was a national champion for the first time in program history, and Danny Ford became the youngest coach to win such a title at 33-years-old. 

“That victory certainly told everybody this guy could do it,” said Bourret. 

The ‘81 team set a standard for Clemson Football. And they continued to have success under Ford, winning four more bowl games in the ‘80s. 

“Having that 1981 team win the national championship tells all the other classes ‘hey you can get it done at Clemson, you can win a national championship,’” said Bourret. 

The Tigers added two more national championships in 2016 and 2018, but the first holds a special place in program history. 

Clemson Top Ten List:

#10: ’08 football win over South Carolina

#9: 2020 Men’s Basketball win at North Carolina

#8: ‘0/’05 Women’s Tennis Final Four

#7: 1978 Gator Bowl win

#6: 1980 Men’s Basketball Elite Eight

#5: 2003 Men’s Golf National Championship

#4: ’84/’87 Men’s Soccer National Titles

#3: 2018 CFP National Championship

#2: 1981 Football National Championship

#1: 2016 Football National Championship

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