Thanks to its victory over 14th-ranked South Carolina, Clemson finished the 1980 season with a 6-5 record. It was not anything to brag about, but for the players coming back for the 1981 season, they felt as if they won the national championship.
“What Willie [Underwood] did, and that game, motivated us the entire off-season,” former Clemson running back Cliff Austin said. “We were changing. That spring, we were changing from being a loser to a winner. We were fueled by our upset win over South Carolina to end the season and it just kept going.
“We came out of that spring a better football team. Our confidence level was high. That was the roughest spring, but the best spring that I went through during my time at Clemson.”
When the Tigers got back to Clemson that summer, the tough times continued in camp as they prepped for the upcoming season. The offense was led by a potent rushing attack that featured Austin, Jeff McCall, Kevin Mack and Chuck McSwain. Then there was All-ACC quarterback Homer Jordan and All-American wide receiver Perry Tuttle that gave the Tigers just enough of a passing threat to keep defenses honest.
The defense was led by All-American linebacker Jeff Davis, defensive tackle Jeff Bryant, defensive tackle William Devane, defensive tackle Dan Benish and All-American safety Terry Kinard. Clemson also had a freshman phenom at nose guard named William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who dominated opposing centers with his raw and dynamic athletic ability.
Overall, the Tigers finished the 1981 season second nationally in scoring defense, seventh in rushing defense, seventh in turnover margin and eighth in total defense. Clemson led the ACC in total defense, rushing defense, scoring defense and interceptions.
“I can remember when we played that if the offense lost the ball we go tell them that we are going to get the ball back,” said Davis, who led the Tigers in tackles in 1981. “I can remember that most of the time, that is exactly what happened.”
Clemson forced a school record nine turnovers, including five interceptions on its way to a 13-3 victory over defending National Champion Georgia on September 19, 1981. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 4 in the country at the time.
An interception by strong safety Tim Childress set up the game’s only touchdown, an eight-yard pass from Jordan to Tuttle in the second quarter. Donald Igwebuike booted two field goals of 39 and 29 yards to counter Georgia kicker Kevin Butler’s 40-yard kick in the third quarter to cap the win.
“This was probably the biggest game we are going to play this year,” Davis said afterwards. “When we lost to Georgia last year, we kind of lost our morale. It hurt us the rest of the season.
“We know the rest of the games are important, but we had to win this one.”
The win propelled the Tigers into the national rankings the next week at No. 19 in the Associated Press Poll and No. 18 in the Coaches’ Poll. From there, Clemson went on to run the table and win its first national championship.
—File Photo courtesy of Clemson Athletic Communications
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