The Clemson football program was solid and successful in 1981, the best in the ACC at the time and just three years earlier had rolled to a 10-1 season. The 1981 Clemson Tigers had a great dual threat quarterback in Homer Jordan, who would go on to win all-ACC honors and a linebacker named Jeff Davis who was so dominant that he was named ACC MVP.
A tough defensive front four’s most prominent name was William “The Refrigerator” Perry, but he was still just a freshman. Cornerback Terry Kinard was an All-American and a future starter on a Super Bowl champ in the NFL (NY Giants, 1986). But the ACC was considered a midmajor at the time, even more disrespected nationally then it is today and Clemson opened the season unranked.
Clemson opened the season with a pair of easy wins over Wofford and Tulane and got ready to host defending national champion Georgia, with its powerful sophomore running back Herschel Walker. By day’s end, Walker had been shut down and an aggressive Tiger defense forced nine turnovers in a 13-3 win. The victory got Clemson into the polls at #19.
Five more wins over relatively non-descript competition kept them moving up the rankings by attrition. They won at Kentucky and Duke, and took home games with Virginia, N.C. State and Wake Forest. The latter came on the final day of October and saw head coach Danny Ford’s offense hang 82 points on the board. When it all was over, Clemson was #2 in the country, trailing only a Pitt team led by Dan Marino.
The Tigers would still need help—in this day, there was not only no national championship game, but no bowl where two uncommitted teams could match up, unless they wanted to forgo a January 1 payday. Most aggravating to Clemson had to be the presence of Georgia sitting at third in the polls, likely to get a crack at Pitt in the Sugar Bowl and be in position to vault over a team they had lost to. But, as the cliché goes, there was still all of November to play and with big games against #9 North Carolina and in-state rival South Carolina, Ford’s team could ill-afford to be looking ahead.
Clemson went to Chapel Hill for their battle with North Carolina and it was every bit the war they expected. The Tigers were able to stop an early Tar Hell drive and hold them to a field goal. Clemson got a TD of their own, and even though they gave up a safety thanks to a botched point, they got a tough 10-8 win. The following week they beat Maryland, a team led by future Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and CBS commentator Boomer Esiason, 21-7.
The Tigers sealed their unbeaten season with a 29-13 win over South Carolina. Clemson fell behind early in this one, trailing 7-6, but they scored off a blocked punt and led 15-13 by the half. Jordan and his mates opened it up after halftime producing two touchdown drives. They would be Orange Bowl-bound for a date with #4 Nebraska on New Year’s Day.
One week later they got a huge break—Pitt, after jumping out to a 14-0 lead on rival Penn State, suddenly imploded and lost by an astonishing 48-14 score. Clemson would go to Miami ranked #1 in the country.
The establishment of college football figured Nebraska would handle the imposters from the ACC, the Tigers win over Georgia notwithstanding. The Bulldogs would still play Pitt in the Sugar Bowl, but now they needed help from Nebraska to win another title. Another SEC team in Alabama was #3 and lined up to play Texas in the Cotton Bowl.
On New Year’s afternoon, Alabama let a 10-0 lead get away in the fourth quarter and lost to Texas. The Sugar Bowl was going simultaneous to the Orange in prime-time and Marino gunned down Georgia with a touchdown pass in the final moments to win 24-20. That game finished ahead of the one in Miami, so it was down to Clemson-Nebraska for the national title.
The Tigers took an early 3-0 lead, but the Cornhuskers figured out a way to capitalize on Clemson’s aggressive defense and beat Kinard with a halfback option pass to make it 7-3. But Nebraska was having turnover problems and lost three fumbles. A field goal pulled Clemson to within a point and then they cashed in a turnover for a touchdown that left the game 12-7 after a failed two-point conversion.
The short-sighted decision to go for two looked like a bigger deal with another Tiger field goal stretched the lead to 15-7—still within one score, and if the game ended tied, there was no overtime and while Clemson was the only unbeaten team left, there was no telling how many voters expected to see them win this game to validate their entire conference.
Clemson’s offense stepped up in the third quarter with a clock-chewing 75-yard drive and took a 22-7 lead. Nebraska came back with a touchdown run by a future San Francisco 49er running back in Roger Craig, and converted a two-pointer to make it 22-15. The Huskers then put Clemson in 3rd-and-23 and looked poised to get the ball back. Jordan then made the play of his life, scrambling for a first down. Clemson ran out the clock and they were national champs.
The national title for an upstart from the ACC was one part of a broader-based change in college football. The traditional powers were falling. Notre Dame and USC fell off the map and would stay that way for several years. Alabama was only a year away from doing the same. SMU had stepped up and won the old Southwest Conference over Texas and Arkansas, and only probation kept them from a Cotton Bowl date with the Crimson Tide. And the Michigan-Ohio State monopoly on the Big Ten crown was broken, when not only did Iowa win the Rose Bowl bid, but it was a head-to-head game with Wisconsin that settled the trip to Pasadena.
Times were starting to change in college football and nowhere was that more visible than in Clemson’s unlikely national title.