It was 40 years ago when Clemson Football made history.
In 1981, the Tigers did the unimaginable, completing a perfect 12-0 season while garnering the top spot in the final Associated Press College Football Poll.
Clemson was the 1981 National Champions, setting a standard every Clemson team has tried to live up to since. Just two teams have matched this lofty expectation in the last 40 years. The 2016 team, led by Deshaun Watson, and the 2018 Tigers, led by the greatest assembled defensive line in the history of the game.
As expected, the expectations are high for the 2021 Tigers as the new season begins to rise just over the horizon. Like their elders’ 40 years ago, this year’s Clemson team can make history as well.
In the history of the Associated Press College Football Poll, which began awarding the national champion of college football in 1936, only eight schools have won at least four national championships. Of course, Alabama leads all schools with 12, followed by Notre Dame with 8, Oklahoma 7, Ohio State, Miami and Southern Cal with five each and Minnesota and Nebraska with four.
Can Clemson join this exclusive club?
It has a good chance.
The Tigers return 10 starters on defense with at least three games of starting experience, including a defensive line that is as deep and talented as the 2018 unit. The linebackers are solid with six-year man James Skalski leading the way, along with graduate Baylon Spector.
There are questions about the secondary, but the unit has experience and finished last year tied for first in the ACC with 14 interceptions, second in passing yards allowed, completion percentage defense and passing defense efficiency.
On offense, Clemson has to replace the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft in Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, while also replacing two-time ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne at running back.
But after last year’s performances against Boston College and Notre Dame, D.J. Uiagalelei seems to be more than capable of replacing Lawrence without any drop off, while the Tigers’ depth seems to give them plenty of talented options at running back.
Speaking of talent, Clemson is load with it at wide receiver. Granted, outside of Justyn Ross, most of it is unproven. But the potential is there as Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson and E.J. Williams are all highly touted players.
Then there is the offensive line, which must replace two starters, including All-ACC left tackle Jackson Carman who was picked in the second round of the NFL Draft. Last season, the Tigers were inconsistent up front, especially in the running game where they struggled to run the ball in short yardage situations.
The schedule is very favorable for Clemson to make it back to the College Football Playoff. It will open the year against a likely top 5 opponent in Georgia, but the Tigers will likely not play another ranked opponent until the ACC Championship Game in December.
On the 40th anniversary of its first national championship, can Clemson once again make history? We will begin to learn that answer in 54 days.
Most AP College Football National Championships
- Alabama 12
- Notre Dame 8
- Oklahoma 7
- Ohio State 5
- Miami 5
- Southern Cal 5
- Minnesota 4
- Nebraska 4
- Texas 3
- Florida 3
- Florida State 3
- Clemson 3
- LSU 3