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Abe Hardesty | Anderson Independent Mail | December 26, 2015

Clemson football: Tigers were overlooked at No. 1 in 1981 too

  The 2015 edition of the Tigers has a few things in common with the 1981 team, which won a national title.

In college football history, no top-ranked team ever seemed a less likely national champ than the one rated No. 1 on Dec. 27, 1981.

As Clemson practiced football that Sunday at Tropical Park, on Miami's west side, it was expected to lose five nights later to the nation's fourth-ranked team, Nebraska.

As the only unbeaten team, Clemson was solidly the leader in the voting that determined the champion at the time, and the lead was commanding: 63 of the 67 Associated Press electors rated the Tigers at No. 1.

But even the most ardent Clemson backers lacked confidence that Danny Ford's team could beat Big Eight champion Nebraska.

At 33, Ford wasn't much older than the players who would decide the '81 title. Even more relevant, his team could not match Nebraska in reputation, big-game experience or size.

Even by 1981 standards, Clemson's linemen were small. Only two offensive line starters were heavier than 230 pounds; none weighed as much as 250. When part-time nose guard William Perry wasn't on the field, none of its defensive linemen were heavier than 257.

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The team had earned the No. 1 ranking fairly, but without sizzle, and they did it in what most considered a basketball conference. Narrow wins over top-10 teams from Georgia and North Carolina had lifted Clemson to No. 2 by the time it stood 11-0 on Nov. 21. It was Clemson's first unbeaten season since 1948, the year Ford was born.

Clemson reached the No. 1 status on a day most of its players were watching TV. Pittsburgh, quarterbacked by future NFL star Dan Marino, fell from No. 1 after its 48-14 Thanksgiving weekend loss to Penn State.

In contrast, Nebraska had manhandled every foe to win what was widely considered the best football conference in the land.

The Big Eight won four national championships in the 1970s, two each by Nebraska and Oklahoma. In 1971, three of its teams -- Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado -- finished 1-2-3 in the final poll. And in nine of 10 years of that decade, both Oklahoma and Nebraska finished in the top 10.

This Nebraska team seemed better than most. It featured 22 future NFL players, including a future Heisman Trophy winner (Mike Rozier) and a 283-pound center (Dave Rimington) so impressive that the award for the nation's best player at that position now wears his name.

Rimington was part of a hefty Nebraska line that had led the team past seven ranked teams during its 9-2 season. Before its 7-0 league run, Tom Osborne's disciplined team beat Florida State and Auburn. It lost to seventh-ranked Iowa and 15th-ranked Penn State in September before starting an eight-game winning streak that ended with a 37-14 rout of fifth-ranked Oklahoma.

It was a team with intimidating swagger.

"Nebraska had been there before," remembers Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret, "and we had not."

That was on many minds in the Clemson camp, and Upstate living rooms, that last Sunday in '81.

While undefeated, the Tigers -- who also had 22 future NFL players on the roster -- were rarely dominant. And unlike Nebraska, some of its nonleague foes were not among football's elite.

"I think Clemson's players were confident going into the game," Bourret remembers, "but I think the national perception was that Nebraska was a better team."

It was a confidence shared by few fans -- among them coach Jim Frazier of T.L. Hanna High School in Anderson, S.C .

"Nebraska was the benchmark for college football, the gold standard" Frazier said. "When you've been to championship games as many times as they had, with success, you develop an air of success. They had it.

"I knew it would have been good for the state and for coach Ford, but I didn't give Clemson much of a chance that day. And I don't think most fans gave them much of a chance."

Even as the game unfolded, Frazier expected the dream to end soon.

"I remember thinking that Clemson was playing very well. But I thought Nebraska was going to win it sooner or later," Frazier said.

He wasn't alone.

Linebacker Jeff Davis, who earned much of the credit for keeping Georgia All-American Herschel Walker out of the end zone in September, expressed frustration at the low level of confidence around him.

"Nobody thought we were really gonna do it -- we even surprised ourselves," Davis told "Their Blood Runneth Orange" book author Donald Barton in 1982. "Through that whole week in Miami, that's all we heard, is how Nebraska was going to kill us."

Besides its momentum and tradition, Nebraska's title hopes were very much alive. A win over Clemson, combined with other Jan. 1 conquests by Pitt (over No. 2 Georgia) and Texas (over No. 3 Alabama), would likely give Nebraska another championship.

Even Clemson fans were not accustomed to discussions of national championships. Just 36 months earlier Clemson coach Charley Pell resigned to take a job at Florida -- in part, he said, because it was a school that could offer the hope of a national championship.

On his departure, Pell recommended the 30-year-old Ford as his successor. Former coach and athletic director Frank Howard made the same recommendation.

Although Ford had made his debut as a head coach in the 1978 Gator Bowl, a bowl game with national championship at stake was a new scenario. When practice began, just after Thanksgiving weekend, Ford moved the entire operation from Jervey Center to Littlejohn Coliseum "to get away from the phones."

Rather than going home for Christmas, the team practiced football. It spent Dec. 19 through Christmas Eve at the Islander Motel in New Smyrna Beach, in North Florida, where it practiced twice a day on a high school field. Christmas Day was spent riding in a bus to Miami and checking into the DuPont Plaza Hotel.

Clemson players understood Nebraska's aura, and many relished the underdog role.

RELATED: Clemson looks to the past in ACC Championship hype video

In Miami, junior wide receiver Perry Tuttle, who caught a school-record eight of the team's 10 touchdown passes that season, told writers that his team "wanted to be No. 1 for a long time, and now we want to prove to everyone we belong there."

A stoic confidence prevailed in the Nebraska camp, where two Cornhuskers semi-joked during the week that they weren't sure where the Clemson campus was.

Meanwhile, Howard entertained from the motel lobby that week with homespun humor that also held truth.

"When I came to Clemson," Howard told a group of writers, referring to a coaching career that started in 1940 and ended in 1969, "all they were saying was that they hoped to win the state championship."

A day before the 1981 game, Ford said his month of film study had convinced him that Nebraska "will be the toughest opponent a Clemson football team has ever played, bar none."

Clemson's ticket office, which received 40,000 requests, could fill only half that. But more than 15,000 fans apparently found tickets elsewhere, as about half of the 72,748 in attendance wore something orange.

Most Clemson fans were among the millions who watched on TV, and by late in the game all realized that the magic seemed to be on Nebraska's side: No. 3 Alabama fell in the Cotton Bowl, and No. 2 Georgia fell in the Sugar Bowl.

Just as it had against South Carolina in the 1980 finale and in '81 games against Georgia and Maryland, Clemson wore orange jerseys with eye-catching, seemingly magical orange pants.

They were magical again on Jan. 1, 1982, in the biggest game in Clemson history. The 22-15 conquest gave Clemson its first perfect record in 33 years.

It was a campaign worthy, by all measurements, of the No. 1 label.

This article was written by Abe Hardesty from Anderson Independent Mail, S.C. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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