In this decade, there isn’t too much the Clemson fan base can complain about. After all, the Tigers have won two of the last three national championships, played for it another time and are the second winningest program in the country in the last nine years.
So, there are not too many “what if” scenarios, lately. However, Clemson has had some during its colorful history. Some of which might have cost the Tigers another national championship or two and could have made Clemson and even more elite program than it already is.
Here is a list of Clemson’s biggest “what if” moments.
Nick’s Onside Kick. I know we said not many “what if” moments happened in the last nine years, but definitely the biggest one happened in this decade.
What if Clemson smelled out Nick Saban’s onside kick attempt in the 2016 CFP National Championship Game? What if Trevion Thompson read the play and caught the ball on the Alabama side of the field?
Alabama had just tied the game at 24 on an Adam Griffith field goal with 10:34 to play in the game. Saban knew his defense was gassed and he knew they would not be able to stop Deshaun Watson and the Clemson offense. So, he called for an onside kick, which Alabama recovered at midfield. Two plays later, Jake Coker found tight end O.J. Howard streaking wide open down the sideline for a 51-yard touchdown, giving the Tide a 31-24 lead with 9:45 to play in the game.
Saban took a chance and guessed right, and it led Alabama to its fourth national championship at the time under his direction. The Tide still could not stop Clemson’s offense, but the one score advantage, plus a 95-yard kickoff return following a Clemson field goal, allowed Bama to have control of the game and hang on for a 45-40 victory.
Tigers fumble the game away at Georgia. Clemson had one of its best teams in 1978. Led by All-American quarterback Steve Fuller, the Tigers were loaded with NFL talent on both the offensive and defensive sides. Clemson was coming off an 8-3-1 season the year before, a season in which it discovered its full potential.
However, like in most cases in those days, the Tigers’ success hinged on how they did against long-time rival Georgia. Clemson played at Sanford Stadium in Week 2 of 1978, and outside of the Bulldogs there would be few teams that could stand in Clemson’s way.
But despite traveling deep into Georgia territory on four different occasions, the Tigers’ failed to capitalize on the opportunities. Three times they fumbled the ball away and once Georgia forced a punt. In all, Clemson turned the ball over six times in a 12-0 loss in Athens.
If the Tigers could have cashed in on at least one of those scoring opportunities early in the game. It could have changed the direction of the game and how Georgia played.
Clemson went on to win its last 10 games and finished the season 11-1 with a No. 6 national ranking in the final Associated Press Poll. You wonder if the Tigers would have won its first national championship that year if they had not fumbled a possible win away at Georgia.
Could 1990 had been different if Ford was not forced out? It was not a game that caused the “what if” talk in 1990. Instead, it was Clemson’s decision to force longtime head coach Danny Ford out following the 1989 season after NCAA allegations again hit the program.
After going 10-2 and beating West Virginia in the Gator Bowl with a young and very talented team in 1989, many felt the Tigers were one of the favorites to win the national championship heading into 1990. Clemson was led by a dominant defense that returned just about everyone, while the offense was settled at quarterback with junior DeChane Cameron coming back after sharing the quarterback role with Chris Morocco in 1989.
However, Ford and his entire coaching staff was forced out in January of 1990 and Ken Hatfield replaced him. The Tigers went 10-2 again in 1990, which ended with a 30-0 victory over Illinois in the Hall of Fame Bowl in Tampa.
Clemson led the nation in total defense in 1990 and finished the season with a No. 9 ranking in the final AP Poll. However, fans still wonder to this day if that 1990 team would have won the national championship had Danny Ford and his staff continued to coach the program.
The Tigers again go down in Athens. Like in 1978, the 1982 Clemson team had just one loss and it to came at Georgia. Except this time, it came in the season opener on Labor Day Night. In a game that marked for the first-time in the history of college football the previous two national champions opened a season—Clemson 1981 and Georgia 1980—the Bulldogs again used Clemson turnovers to outlast the Tigers, 13-7.
They also got a blocked punt for a touchdown, that turned out to be the difference in the game. In all, Clemson turned the ball over four times, all coming on interceptions. Three of the interceptions were in Georgia territory and two ended potential touchdown drives.
After tying Boston College in the second game, Clemson closed out the year with nine straight wins to win the ACC and go 9-1-1 overall. The Tigers ultimately turned down an opportunity to play in the 1983 Cotton Bowl Classic to get out in front of pending NCAA sanctions. However, you wonder if Clemson would have done that had it beat Georgia and was playing for a second straight national championship?
The 1982 Tigers finished the year ranked No. 8 in the final Associated Press Poll.
Puntrooskie. For those that lived through it, this is the play that is still painful for Clemson fans to watch to this day.
The Tigers had everything going for them when Florida State rolled into Death Valley for a top 10 match in 1988. Clemson was No. 3 in the country and was considered one of the favorites to play for a national championship at year’s end, while the Seminoles were No. 10.
This game lived up to the hype as both teams traded big plays which resulted in a 21-21 tie heading into the final minutes.
Clemson tied the game late in the fourth quarter on a 19-yard Tracy Johnson touchdown and had all the momentum, especially after forcing the Seminoles into a three-and-out on the ensuing possession. Facing a fourth-and-four at his own 21-yard line with 1:20 to play in the game, Bobby Bowden called for a fake punt. The play was called “Puntrooskie.”
The ball was snapped to FSU up-man Dayne Williams, the father of Clemson tight end Garrett Williams. Punter Tim Corlew acted as if the ball was snapped over his head, fooling the Clemson punt team with some miss direction.
That gave Williams enough time to take the ball and place it between Leroy Butler’s legs. Butler was supposed to wait three seconds, but after he noticed a Clemson player saw he had the ball, he took off after one second and raced 78 yards down the near sideline to the Clemson 1-yard line. That set up a game-winning 19-yard field goal to give Florida State a 24-21 victory.
Long-time college football writer and historian, Beno Cook, wrote after the game, “Puntrooskie” was the greatest play since “My Fair Lady.”
The Tigers were still hungover from what happened against Florida State a few weeks later when they were upset, 10-3, by NC State on a rain-soaked afternoon at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.
Clemson finished the year 10-2, won the ACC for a third straight season and were ranked No. 8 in the final AP Poll. However, there are still a lot of Tiger fans that like to say “what if” Puntrooskie backfired on FSU that afternoon and Clemson got the ball and won the game. Maybe Clemson would have gone on to win a national championship that year, too.