Twice this week, on different radio programs, I have participated in a discussion of the most talented teams to ever play in Death Valley against Clemson. It is an interesting discussion, mostly because there are no right or wrong answers.
My lack of experience—some might call it “youth”—hinders me somewhat on this topic. I never saw Joe Montana, George Rogers, Herschel Walker, or Boomer Esiason play at Clemson, so my perspective is limited to the recent past. Some of your memories may be more, shall we say, expansive, which makes the discussion more full and rich.
I decided to list the top ten teams I can recall playing in Death Valley. There are a couple of things I tried to keep in mind when preparing my list. First, I decided I would not include teams that finished outside the top 20 at the end of the season. Some teams might have looked like world-beaters on the day I watched them play and were actually much worse over the course of the season.
This list includes teams like the 2001 North Carolina team with Julius Peppers and company. The Tar Heels whipped the Tigers on Homecoming by a score of 38-3 en route to a pedestrian 8-5 season. Although I left the stadium that day thinking the Tar Heels could beat the Carolina Panthers, my perspective was tainted by Clemson’s lackluster play coupled with a peak performance by John Bunting’s bunch. The relative strength of Clemson’s team at the time was measured when I ranked the foes, as well.
Now, on to the list…
10. 2007 Virginia Tech
The Hokies exited Death Valley with a 41-23 win on the legs of quarterback Tyrod Taylor and a special teams performance for the ages. Frank Beamer brought a team stocked with talent into Clemson, particularly on defense. Guys like Xavier Adibi, Vince Hall, Brandon Flowers, and Victor Harris made things difficult for the Tigers all night long. The offense was loaded too, as Josh Morgan and Eddie Royal stretched the field while Branden Ore and Darren Evans pounded the ball on the ground. The Hokies finished the season ranked ninth in the country.
9. 2005 Miami (FL)
This game brought unmatched enthusiasm to Death Valley, as the elite talent on this Hurricanes squad was met by sound barrier-busting noise from the Tiger faithful. The 36-30 triple-overtime thriller featured several future NFLers, including defensive backs Kelly Jennings and Brandon Meriweather, left tackle Eric Winston—who won the Jacobs Trophy as the ACC’s top lineman that season—and all-purpose phenom Devin Hester.
8. 1998 Virginia Tech
One of the first games I vividly recall is the 37-0 beatdown Tommy West’s final team received at the hands of the Hokies, then members of the Big East. This squad was built on defensive prowess led by linemen John Engelberger and Corey Moore. Perhaps the player that most epitomized this era of Virginia Tech football was Ike Charlton, a ferocious DB who played like an animal. Shyrone Stith and Lamont Pegues looked like All-Americans on this day.
7. 1997 North Carolina
The Tigers played well in a 17-10 loss at the hands of a fine Mack Brown-coached squad. Cornerback Dre’ Bly was the headliner for a Tar Heel team that was tough as nails on defense. Vonnie Holliday, Greg Ellis, and Ebenezer Ekuban were the strength of the defensive line, and a veteran offensive line was anchored by center Jeff Saturday. The UNC offense was not great, outside of tight end Alge Crumpler, but the defense was so impressive, it really didn’t faze a young observer like myself.
6. 1995 Florida State
Warrick Dunn was the first football player I remember seeing that made my eyes pop out of my face. His ability was staggering, both as a runner and as a pass-catcher. Andre Cooper and E.G. Green were 1000-yard receivers, catching throws from Danny Kanell all night long in a 45-26 Seminoles victory. Future NFL stars like Andre Wadsworth, Dexter Jackson, Samari Rolle, Sam Cowart, Henri Crockett, and a youngster named Peter Boulware populated a fearsome defense as well.
5. 2009 TCU
Andy Dalton’s quarterbacking was the story for this team. Gary Patterson’s squad may not have had the pizzazz of some of Clemson’s usual visitors, but it certainly wasn’t lacking in ability. Linebacker Daryl Washington and defensive end Jerry Hughes led the way to a 14-10 victory for the Horned Frogs in a torrential downpour.
4. 2003 Florida State
Chris Rix got a lot of flak from FSU fans during his time in Tallahassee, but he presided over a very good team in 2003. The Seminoles exited Death Valley with a 26-10 loss that dropped the squad from the #3 spot in the national rankings, but a lack of talent certainly wasn’t to blame. Greg Jones and Leon Washington led the backfield, and Craphonso Thorpe and P.K. Sam were instrumental in the passing game. The Tigers’ victory seems to mark the beginning of FSU’s slide back to the rest of the country.
3. 1997 Florida State
The Seminoles squeaked out a 35-28 victory in this one, led by quarterback Thad Busby. E.G. Green and Peter Warrick were a fearsome duo on the perimeter, and Travis Minor was tough to handle in the backfield. Many of the same characters from the ’95 FSU defense were back (Wadsworth, Jackson, Rolle, etc.) along with future stars like Corey Simon and Tay Cody.
2. 2003 Georgia
The Bulldogs opened the 2003 campaign with a 30-0 win over the Tigers in a game that was memorable for all the wrong reasons. Justin Miller led Clemson’s team walking down the hill toward the taunting Bulldogs, who proceeded to back up their pregame sentiments. David Greene was as good as ever at quarterback, and a defense headlined by David Pollack stole the show. Tight end Ben Watson, linebacker Odell Thurman, and defensive backs Tim Jennings, Thomas Davis, and Sean Jones overwhelmed the Tigers in a noon game to forget.
1. 1999 Florida State
Bowden Bowl I was one of my favorite games as a kid. I loved the Dillard’s bags at every tailgate spot advertising the 85% off sales at the Tallahassee store. I loved the father-son matchup. And I loved this Seminole team, even though they did not play their best against the Tigers in a 17-14 heart-stopper. Chris Weinke, Peter Warrick, Corey Simon, Jamal Reynolds, Tommy Polley, Tay Cody, Sebastian Janikowski…and the list goes on and on. This was a national championship team, no question about it.
I’m anxious to see the responses to this list, and some of the teams I may have missed over the years.
Join the conversation on today’s edition of Qualk Talk in The Rock.