College Football is celebrating 150 years this season, and Clemson has played a major role at different times in its history, in particular last year’s 15-0 team that claimed the national championship.
As we all know, the Tigers have had some great teams through the years and in most cases we all expected them to do well. However, there have been a few years, when Clemson came out of nowhere and surprised us all.
Here is a list of years when expectations were not high at Clemson and the Tigers’ stunned us with some of the best “out of nowhere” seasons in school history.
1938 (7-1-1, 3-0-1 in SoCon): After Josh Cody left following the 1930 season, the Clemson football program had some of its worst years. Funding played a big role in the dip and why Cody left Clemson in the first place after three straight 8-wins seasons. In 1931, the Tigers went 1-6-1 in Jess Neely’s first season. Neeley knew if Clemson did not do something, the program would continue to slide, and it might not ever get out of it. In a Florence, South Carolina parking lot following a loss to The Citadel on October 16, 1931, the idea of IPTAY was conceived. Three years later, it was born and its no coincidence the fortunes of Clemson football began to change. However, no one saw the 1938 season coming. The Tigers were a young team. They had promise, but they were still relatively wet behind the ears. Clemson had gone just 9-9-1 the previous two years and had just two winnings seasons since 1931. So, expectations heading into the 1938 season were not high. However, starting with a 34-12 win over South Carolina and led by a guy named Banks McFadden, Clemson closed out the season with five straight wins. They also beat then SEC Power Tulane in New Orleans, who finished the season ranked No. 19 nationally. The 1938 season began a four-year stretch in which the Tigers went 29-6-2, including the 1939 team’s 9-1 season, which ended with a Cotton Bowl win over No. 11 Boston College, the program’s first bowl game and national ranking. Clemson finished the year ranked No. 12 in the final Associated Press Poll.
1948 (11-0, 5-0 in SoCon): Neeley left Clemson following the 1939 season and Frank Howard took over the program. Due to most of the football players being drafted or volunteering for the war starting in 1942, the Clemson program could barely field a football team from 1942-’46. But when the Great World War finally ended in 1947, the Clemson program began to show life again. The 1947 team went 4-5 and was starting to show progress. However, no one saw what happened in 1948 coming. Led by a freshman running back named Fred Cone, Clemson stunned everyone in college football by going undefeated and winning its first Southern Conference Championship. Before 1948, Clemson had five losing seasons in six years. The 1948 team was the first Clemson team since John Heisman’s 1900 team to finish a year undefeated. They concluded the season with a win over Missouri in the Gator Bowl and a final No. 11 ranking in the AP Poll.
1977 (8-3-1, 4-1-1 ACC): After Howard retired, Clemson football had fallen on hard times. From 1968-’76, the Tigers had just one winning season. Prior to the 1977 season, Clemson went a combined 5-15-2 the previous two years. With a new head coach in place in Charlie Pell, expectations were tempered in that first year. However, inside the program, they knew they were close to starting something special. The talent was in place, the players just had to believe in themselves. After getting a 7-6 win at Georgia, the Tigers started to believe. Clemson rattled off seven straight wins and led by ACC Player of the Year, Steve Fuller, it went on to clinch the program’s first bowl bid in 18 years. Clemson finished the 1977 season ranked 19th in the final AP Poll, the program’s first since the 1959 season. The 1977 season set the stage for Clemson’s great run in 1978.
1981 (12-0, 6-0 ACC): No one saw the 1981 season coming. I mean no one. Clemson was the first team in college football history to begin a year outside the top 20 polls and still go one to win the national championship. Granted, Clemson ended the 1970s with some good teams, but after the team fell to 6-5 in 1980, expectations in 1981 were not exactly high amongst Clemson fans and they definitely weren’t with the media. But Danny Ford, who was on the hot seat going into the season, knew he had a talented team coming back and he knew if they could just win that one game no one expected them to win, they could have a special season. That game in 1981 was against Georgia in Week 3. The Tigers beat the defending national champions, 13-3, to end the Bulldogs’ 15-game winning streak. The win lifted Clemson into the polls, and like Ford thought, it gave his team the confidence it needed. Led by quarterback Homer Jordan and All-American wide receiver Perry Tuttle on offense and All-American linebacker Jeff Davis on one of college football’s best defenses, the Tigers went on to beat three teams ranked in the top four that season, including No. 4 Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl to clinch the program’s first undefeated season since 1948 and its first national championship.
2011 (10-4, 6-2 ACC): Let’s be honest. Most fans were calling for Dabo Swinney’s head following a 6-7 year in 2010. However, Swinney told the fans and the media they were close to turning things around and that the 2011 season had a chance to be a pretty good year for the Tigers. However, no one outside the program would have predicted Clemson would win its first ACC Championship in 20 years and record its first 10-win season in 21 years and do it with one of the youngest teams in college football. But that is what happened. Led by quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receivers Deandre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, Clemson won its first eight games and peaked at No. 6 in the AP Poll. The Tigers went on to beat No. 3 Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game and played in the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1982. The 2011 season started the current run the Tigers are on, an eight-year stretch in which they have won at least 10 games every year.
2015 (14-1, 8-0 ACC): The 2016 season was the year everyone circled as the season in which Clemson could possibly challenge for a national championship. The thought heading into 2015 was the Tigers could contend with Florida State for an ACC Championship, but they were a fringe College Football Playoff contender at best. The Tigers would have to have a magical season to play in the CFP. That’s exactly what they had. Clemson beat No. 6 Notre Dame at home and then went on to record the program’s first undefeated regular season since 1981. The Tigers won their first 14 games, including a rout of Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl Classic. Led by ACC Player of the Year, and Heisman Finalist, Deshaun Watson, Clemson ran through the ACC and then came so close to knocking off Alabama in the CFP National Championship Game. The Tigers finished the year 14-1, setting up a four-year run which is considered the best in the history of college football. Clemson posted a 55-4 record the last four years, including two national championships and four straight ACC titles.