Clemson’s 42-36 victory over Louisville on Saturday was a game for the ages. Raucous crowd, star power on both sides, coaching heavyweights, momentum swings, a furious finish near the goal line—all of it combined to make for a truly special piece of college football history.
I’ve heard many observers remark that the atmosphere was the best they’ve ever seen. At the risk of being labeled a “millennial” that only sees the present and doesn’t care about history, I’ll point out that some “more experienced” folks felt the same way. In fact, I haven’t interacted with a single person who puts another game behind this one in terms of the caliber of the atmosphere from start to finish.
In my brief history of attending Clemson football games (that spans all 27 years of my life, several of which I have retained no memories), I can’t put any game ahead of what I experienced on Saturday, either. However, there are a few games that approach 2016 Clemson-Louisville’s class, as well as other great ones that were similar. Here is a list of my top ten all-time favorite environments at Memorial Stadium:
- 2007 Boston College
The game itself had all kinds of implications. It was Clemson’s first crack at a division title, with the winner of this matchup representing the Atlantic. It was a night game in November that was pretty cold, if I remember correctly. It is also one of three games on this list that Clemson lost, as Matt Ryan’s heroic late touchdown pass gave the Eagles a 20-17 win. I remember sitting in my chair in the press box as a student worker for probably 15 or 20 minutes after the game was over, in stunned silence. That was a great football game.
- 2011 Auburn
It was a tough call between this game and the Florida State game the following week, but the matchup with Auburn stands out more for me. The visiting Tigers boasted the nation’s longest winning streak heading into the game and were the defending national champions. It was a revenge game for the Tigers. It was also Chad Morris’ first opportunity to impress a national audience, and he and quarterback Tajh Boyd did that with authority in a 38-24 win. It was also the game where Dabo Swinney proclaimed that he didn’t know of a better place he could’ve been than “Death Valley, South Carolina, baby!”
- 2007 Florida State
This was my first game as a student at Clemson, a Labor Day evening meeting with the Seminoles. The calendar made it weird, but the crowd was incredible that night. It played a major factor in a 24-18 Clemson win. That was also my first game as a student worker in the SID office for Clemson. I can vividly remember seeing my high school friend and teammate Jarvis Jenkins get his first career sack, then telling the Stats, Inc. employee to whom I was dictating plays over the phone to “give me a minute, my friend just got his first sack” as tears welled up in my eyes.
- 2005 Miami
When Charles Bennett sacked Kyle Wright on third down late in this game, I couldn’t hear myself scream. It was so loud in Memorial Stadium at that moment that my ears were slow to catch up to it. The earth legitimately shook as the college football sound barrier was broken. That was a really fun game, as the Tigers overcame a ten-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining before ultimately falling to the Hurricanes in triple-overtime.
- 2009 Florida State
This game was a blowout compared to many of the games on this list. Two things distinguishes the 40-24 Clemson victory from other games. First, it was the game where DeAndre McDaniel pointed at Christian Ponder after an interception, then leveled him on the sideline. The impact injured Ponder to the point that he never returned. The second moment was when the stadium sang “We Will Rock You” with one voice, at the top of its lungs. It remains one of the coolest impromptu crowd moments I’ve ever seen.
- 2000 South Carolina
I remember exactly where I was when I saw “The Catch II”. The Clemson crowd was stunned after a Gamecock touchdown gave South Carolina a 14-13 lead with less than a minute to play. I thought the game was basically over, because I had never seen a Hail Mary converted before then. Woody Dantzler rolled right to escape pressure, then he launched the ball into the night (I can still see the ball) down Clemson’s sideline. Rod Gardner leaped and made the catch for a 50-yard gain, and the place went bananas. That was one of the few times I’ve felt Death Valley shake. Freshman Aaron Hunt nailed a 25-yard field goal that gave Clemson a 16-14 win in the rivalry. For me, “The Catch II” is the iconic play of my Clemson-South Carolina experience.
- 2013 Georgia
Any season-opening game is going to be a charged-up affair, and this one was no different. Both the Tigers and the Bulldogs were ranked inside the top ten. Quarterback Aaron Murray was harassed early and often by Clemson defensive line. That harassment was led by then-unknown Vic Beasley, who had his national coming-out party against the Bulldogs. A late onside kick for Georgia failed, giving the Tigers a three-point win—the first of 11 on the season.
- 1999 Florida State
This is, by far, the most chaotic game I’ve ever attended in any capacity. Bowden Bowl I was a madhouse. The attendance record of 86,092 was set that night. Back then, there was no West Zone Club, so everything was different on “our” side of the stadium. They had temporary bleachers in front of my family’s seats, and people were legitimately filling up the walkway at field level to the point that you couldn’t get to the restrooms and concession stands. There were side hills at the northwest and southwest corners that were filled beyond capacity. I can remember a slew of tailgates that featured Dillard’s bags to mock Lavernaeus Coles and Peter Warrick, who were arrested for getting outrageous discounts on merchandise weeks earlier. The Tigers shouldn’t have stood a chance against an elite team like the Seminoles, but that contest was a nail-biter, with father Bobby beating son Tommy by a field goal.
- 2015 Notre Dame
This game had some competition for the second slot. The torrential downpour helped give this already-hyped matchup even more pizzazz. It also helped unify the Clemson fan base, as historic flooding that ultimately cost some South Carolinians their lives made it difficult for fans to even get to the stadium. Clemson went ahead 21-3 to silence its critics, then went on to a 24-22 win that ended with a missed two-point conversion attempt for the Irish. The nail-biting finish perfectly punctuated a long, wet, wacky day of football.
- 2016 Louisville
What more could you ask for? The weather was perfect. The crowd was boisterous, almost from start to finish. There were division, conference, and national title stakes riding on the result. Two Heisman candidates in Deshaun Watson and Lamar Jackson battled. It was a game of runs, with the Tigers finishing it off with 14 unanswered points and a fourth-down stop at the three-yard line. Just an amazing experience overall, in every way. What a blessing to be there. It will take something truly extraordinary to top this one.