Clemson had finished unbeaten and untied twice in its history before (1900 and 1948), but 1981’s 12-0 run ushered in a new era for Tiger football under third-year coach Danny Ford. At age 30, Ford took a program that had success here and there and turned it into a consistent winner. In ’81, powered by defensive stalwarts Jeff Davis (ACC player of the year, All-American) and Terry Kinard (two-time consensus All-American) and quarterback Homer Jordan (All-ACC) – Clemson rolled through the ACC, downed reigning national champ Georgia and took the national title themselves by beating Nebraska, 22-15.
That was just the start. Built on defense and powered by the run, Clemson won five ACC titles under Ford in the ’80s. From 1981-84, they won 20-straight conference games. Individually, seven consensus All-Americans and three ACC players of the year were produced in Tiger Town. Individually, seven consensus All-Americans and three ACC players of the year (Davis, William Perry, Michael Dean Perry) were produced in TigerTown.
In the 1990s, Clemson continued the run with a new coach (Ken Hatfield), hitting the double-digit win mark again (10-2) in 1990 — adding a sixth ACC title in 11 seasons in 1991.
Fall from the Pedestal
In early 1990, Ford resigned under pressure from the Clemson administration because of mounting NCAA violations during his tenure. Ford denied wrongdoing, and the NCAA never delivered any major punishment for the violations.
The end of the Ford era didn’t go over well as the players even threatened a boycott of the ’90 season. Hatfield was in an unenviable spot, but after a successful first two seasons, Clemson lost more games the next two (9) than it did the previous the four (8) and Hatfield was the out the door.
Florida State joining the ACC and dominating from the start also eased the Tigers into a lower tier on the national stage. Clemson and FSU played a pair of classics to end the ‘80s, but when the decade turned, the Seminoles put their mark on the conference with nine-straight titles and 11-straight wins over the Tigers.
Climbing back to the top
The third coach in the post-’80s era, Tommy Bowden’s Tigers finally slew the FSU dragon in 2003 (26-10) and brought the program to the brink, but just short, of an ACC title game berth in 2007. With Clemson faltering under the weight of high expectations in 2008, Bowden was gone by midseason — making way for Swinney, at age 38, to assume interim-then-full time head coach status.
A share of three division titles and the first ACC championship since 1991 later, Clemson is again running with the big boys of college football. The next step? Matching Ford’s success.
The Tigers can post three consecutive double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1988-90 and take a pair of ACC championships in a three-year span for the first time since 1986-88. On the national stage, they’re aiming for their first top-10 finish in back-to-back seasons since 1987-88 and really their first national title hunt since 1981.
Setting the stage
Offense isn’t the issue, but it’s not completely devoid of questions. Chad Morris’ unit posted top-25 finishes in total offense (18), and scoring offense (24) in 2011, and added red zone offense (1), pass efficiency (4) and even better finishes in scoring (6) and total (9) offense last season.
Morris wants to push the pace and at the same time reduce turnovers (21 last season — 54th nationally). No doubt Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd will also be missing Daniel product DeAndre Hopkins, who moved on as a first-round NFL draft pick of the Houston Texans this April.
The Tigers have proved they can win without a great defense, but to step up in weight class nationally, defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ task is to produce a more than serviceable ‘D.’ Before the last two season’s drop-off, Clemson had finished in the top-25 in total or scoring defense each from 2005-2010. They came on down the stretch in 2012, finishing 22nd in sacks (34) and forcing eight three-and-outs against LSU.
Beginning, middle and end — that’s where the Tigers’ main tests fall on the schedule starting with the renewed Georgia rivalry. Five yards from a date in the 2012 title game, the Bulldogs enter a night matchup in Death Valley as a top-five team again and boast some of the nation’s top offensive talent.
Midseason, Atlantic Division rival Florida State comes to town. FSU hasn’t won in Clemson since 2001, but they are only ACC team on par talent-wise and have alternated division crowns with the Tigers since 2009.
Closing the regular season is the annual rivalry showdown — South Carolina in Columbia — in a series that’s turned on its head of late for the Tigers.
Key all season though is keeping Boyd upright and out of harm’s way. His leadership and talent makes the Clemson offense go and any drop-off behind him will show in the Tigers’ point-production. The balance between Boyd being a more mobile QB like last season (296 more rushing yards than 2011) and staying healthy will be critical.
From the outside looking in
Clemson has had its steps forward and stumbles nationally the last couple seasons. Two years ago, the Tigers climbed to as high as No. 5 in the BCS standings and garnered the respect that comes it, but Swinney and his QB Boyd have admitted they didn’t handle it well. Of course, Clemson proceeded to lose four of its final six games, including the Orange Bowl 70-33 debacle.
In 2012, Clemson improved on a No. 14 preseason ranking to as high as No. 9 by season’s end — both losses coming against opponents in the final AP top-10.
And the national respect is there with a top-10 preseason ranking for ’13.
Much of the perception will fall on Clemson’s conference, the ACC, which hasn’t produced a true, down-to-the-wire national contender since 2000 when FSU made the BCS Championship Game. The skeptics will be skeptical from the journey’s start in Memorial Stadium late August until the presumed spot in Charlotte come December. Only results on the field this season will change that for years to come.