(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.
#3: 2018 Clemson Football National Championship
Capping off an unprecedented, undefeated season, the 2018 Clemson Tigers overthrew the Alabama Crimson Tide to become national champions for the second time in three seasons. Led by freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers thwarted the reigning national champs to become the first team since Penn in the late 1800s to go 15-0.
Entering the 2018 season, the Tigers had a sour taste from the year before after falling to the eventual national champion Crimson Tide in the 2017 Sugar Bowl, a College Football Playoff semi-final game. It was a bitter defeat as the Tigers managed to score just six points in the game, falling to the Crimson Tide, 24-6. Nonetheless, it was still a relatively successful year under first-year starting quarterback Kelly Bryant. Clemson finished 12-2 with another ACC championship among its achievements.
But early in 2018, Bryant split time with the top-ranked recruit in the nation, Lawrence. Through its first four games the team was 4-0 with Bryant as the starter. However, Lawrence showed his highly-regarded ability, playing key snaps in a reserve role by tossing nine touchdowns with two interceptions compared to Bryant’s two touchdowns and one interception.
After that fourth game, head coach Dabo Swinney made the call. Lawrence would become the starter. Bryant departed the program that week. He later transferred to Missouri.
By midseason, Lawrence looked like a polished veteran and the Tigers kept on winning.
The offense was lighting up the scoreboard to the tune of 44 points per game. Combine that with the nation’s top defense and the Tigers had the perfect recipe for dominance. Through a four-game stretch in the middle of the season, they outscored their opponents 240-36.
“The 2018 team was just, basically, a dominant team, beating teams by an average of thirty points over the course of the season,” said Tim Bourret, former Clemson Sports Information Director.
The defense allowed a mere 13.1 points per game, the best in the country, and Clemson was blowing out opponents by an average margin of 31.6 points per game. They returned nearly all of the front seven from the 2017 defense, including a defensive line that featured All-Americans. Clelin Ferrell, Austin Bryant, Dexter Lawrence, and Christian Wilkins made up the best defensive line in college football and one of the best in the history of the college game. Ferrell led the ACC in sacks (9.5), Lawrence constantly drew double teams up the middle, paving the way for Wilkins’ motor and Bryant’s athleticism to shine.
Clemson finished the regular season 12-0, and was ranked second behind Alabama. And while the level of competition increased in December, their streak of dominance continued.
Clemson opened postseason play with the ACC Championship game against the Pitt Panthers.
At Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, the Tigers put on a show highlighted by the ground game. Running back Travis Etienne tallied 156 yards rushing and two scores on just 12 carries. As a whole, the Tigers logged over 300 yards on the ground en route to a 42-10 win over the Panthers.
In the College Football Playoff semi-final, Clemson was pitted against third-seeded Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The Fighting Irish were also undefeated, but they were clearly no match for the superior Tigers.
This time the offense featured a healthy mix of passing and rushing. The Tigers recorded over 500 yards of total offense (327 passing, 211 rushing). The defense was simply spectacular. As they had done all season, the Tiger defense took over the game, allowing just eight first downs, forcing two turnovers, and surrendering just three total points.
The Tigers left little doubt that day they were worthy of another national title game appearance.
National Championship Game (January 7, 2019)
Lawrence made history becoming the first freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national championship game in the CFP era and the first since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway (who Clemson, coincidentally, defeated in the Citrus Bowl following the 1988 season) with the potential to guide his team to a national championship as a starter for most of the season. Holieway took the Sooners to a national title with an Orange Bowl victory to cap off the 1985 season.
But Lawrence and the Tigers were facing their most difficult test, on a national stage, in the biggest game of his first collegiate season. And, he had to go against a Nick Saban defense, a unit that was consistently ranked among the greatest in college football and was by far the best the Tigers would face that season.
“People just thought they were unbeatable,” Bourret said.
It was number one against number two at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. Swinney versus Saban. Lawrence versus Tua Tagovailoa. Who could’ve asked for a better showdown?
Clemson couldn’t have asked for a better start, defensively.
After a quick three-and -out by the Tigers, Alabama began its first possession on its own 29-yard line. Three plays later they’d be staring at a 7-0 deficit.
The Crimson Tide opened the drive with two Tagovailoa passes moving them to their own 41. His third toss, however, ended up going for six the opposite way. Clemson sophomore cornerback A.J. Terrell jumped the route in the flat on an underthrown pass and took it 44 yards to the house, perhaps foreshadowing the final score. Clemson took an early 7-0 lead.
But Alabama was resilient, and Tua responded with a 62-yard touchdown to Jerry Jeudy on the ensuing drive to tie it up. Both teams traded scores after that. Etienne found pay dirt from 17 yards out, then Tua connected with Hale Hentges for a score to make it 14-13, Clemson, following a missed extra point.
A Crimson Tide field goal at the end of the first quarter, though, gave Alabama the lead, 16-14. It appeared things were shaping up to be a title game for the ages. Instead, Clemson went on a run for the ages.
Lawrence took the Tigers down the field on a six-play 65-yard drive ending in another Etienne score. Clemson regained the lead, 21-16.
The defense retained momentum after Trayvon Mullen intercepted a Tagovailoa pass, returning it 46 yards to the Alabama 47.
Lawrence completed five of six passes, quickly capitalizing on the field position. He found Etienne for a five yard touchdown pass eight plays later, and Clemson began to pull away.
“He was just as cool as could be in that game,” Bourret said of the freshman quarterback.
Clemson went into the half up, 31-16
Alabama had the ball to start the second half. Determined to get back in the game, the Tide put together a 13-play, 51-yard drive deep into Clemson territory. But the Tiger defense never broke, and came through with another clutch play in the game, stopping Alabama on a fourth-and-six attempt at the Clemson 22.
Lawrence and company took the cue, and continued to shred the Alabama defense. Three plays later, Lawrence hit Justyn Ross for a 74-yard touchdown increasing the lead to 37-16.
The defense forced another turnover on downs, damaging any chance Alabama had at getting back in the game. But the offense was eager to deliver the dagger.
Lawrence engineered a 12-play, 89-yard drive ending with another touchdown throw, his third of the game, to Tee Higgins pushing the lead to 44-16, which was the final score.
“That domination on that drive was the season in a microscope,” said Bourret.
After trailing 16-14, Clemson scored 30 unanswered points, capturing the national title for the second time in three seasons.
“I thought it was the greatest performance by a Clemson team in history,” said Bourret.
Of course it wasn’t all because of Lawrence. The defense made game-changing plays and the offensive weapons were plentiful.
“He had great help, now, we must point out,” said Bourret, referencing some incredible catches made by the Tiger receiving corps, especially two highlight plays by Ross.
But Lawrence, becoming the first freshman quarterback in over 30 years to lead his team through the bulk of a season to a game to decide a national title, and winning it, proved Swinney and his staff’s decision to hand the reins to a freshman as the correct option.
“The architect of everything that happened on offense was Trevor Lawrence, who was just outstanding against a great Alabama defense,” said Bourret.
In total, he finished the season with 3,280 yards passing, 30 touchdowns, and four interceptions and a first-year resume that showed no losses and a national title.
Clemson Top Ten List: