Clemson's 1981 Football Season
Setting the standard of national champions
Clemson’s football team, The Tigers, was formed in 1896, and won their first national championship almost a century later. This breakout season, led by third-year head coach Danny Ford, paved the way for Clemson’s football team as a perennial powerhouse.
The Tigers began the season outside of the preseason top 20 after a very average 6-5 season in 1980. In fact, they received no votes from any voters in the AP or UPI polls. Since 1962, only three teams had started the season unranked yet still ended up winning the national championship. Clemson was undeterred by the unfavorable odds. The season started with a 45-10 victory over Wofford despite an inauspicious start. This grit was only a sign of things to come, but Clemson had much to prove.
They sent a big message on September 19, 1981 by Georgia, the defending national champion. Led by freshman Herschel Walker, one of the greatest running backs in college football history, no one expected Clemson to come close, nonetheless come out with a win. But they did just that, winning 13-3 and handing Walker the only regular-season loss of his college career. Nine different Tiger defenders accounted for nine turnovers, a Clemson record that still stands. Clemson’s climb up the AP poll began.
Later in the season, Clemson played Kentucky, and won, 21-3 in a game televised by ABC. This victory shot them to spot No. 9 in the polls. They proceeded to play Wake Forest on Halloween Day, which gained them a lot of national attraction. This is because it was a 82-24 victory, and was the most points scored in the nation in that year. But the game that cemented the Tigers as a legitimate national title contender was what many still consider one of the greatest games played in Atlantic Coast Conference history- the tense, exciting and hard-fought Clemson 10-8 victory against the North Carolina Tar heels on November 7, 1981. The stakes couldn’t be higher for this game played at the Tar heels’ home field at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The game signified the first meeting of top-10 ACC teams in league history as undefeated Clemson was ranked #2 in the nation and the 7-1 Tar heels were ranked #8. The game proved to be an epic defensive battle with only one offensive touchdown scored. At the end of the first half, Clemson was ahead 7-5 and would not relinquish the lead. UNC could only muster a field goal before a final drive that could have resulted in a game-winning drive for the Tar Heels. But with 57 seconds left in the game, Clemson’s defensive tackle Jeff Bryant fell on an apparent incomplete pass which actually turned out to be a lateral pass and a resulting game-ending turnover for the Tigers. This game strengthened and defined Clemson heading into their Championship run. As stated by linebacker Jeff Davis: “The North Carolina game did more for us winning the national championship than any other game.” “It was the ultimate test for us.”
Led on offense by All-ACC quarterback Homer Jordan and on defense by All-American linebacker Jeff Davis, Clemson went into the National Championship Orange Bowl game undefeated. The dream season concluded with an Orange Bowl victory and Clemson’s first National Championship. It also marked the first time a Black starting quarterback led an FBS (then Division I-A) team to a unanimous national championship and to this date, coach Danny Ford is still the youngest head coach to win a football National Championship. This first championship helped catapult Clemson into national significance wherein football has become a big priority at the university. Per Rivals.com, the school has ranked in the top 10 in national recruiting rankings 6 of the last ten years. But more importantly, Clemson now ranks second in annual revenue among ACC teams, having generated over $63 million during the 2020 season.