CLEMSON – Thanks to its 8-0 start and a victory over then-No. 5 ranked Notre Dame on Oct. 3, the Clemson football team finds itself enviably positioned for a strong finish.
The Tigers debuted at No. 1 Tuesday evening in the first College Football Playoff rankings of the season and can clinch the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Atlantic Division and earn a berth in the ACC Championship Game with a win against No. 15 Florida State on Saturday.
The Tigers have started 8-0 before on four occasions, most recently in 2011 and 2000, before title hopes were derailed – in both instances by losses against Georgia Tech.
Clemson doesn’t have to worry about a similar fate this time around, as the Tigers dismantled Georgia Tech 43-24 on Oct. 10, but the Seminoles certainly loom as a potential stumbling block.
“Clemson and Florida State is always a big game,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. “Some games always have a little extra juice to ’em. This is a game that has been huge to both teams for many years.”
Clemson won its ninth games – and beyond – in 1948 and 1981, with the 1948 team edging Missouri in the Gator Bowl and finishing 11-0. The 1981 campaign brought Clemson its first and only national championship as the Tigers went 12-0 and beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl in the third full season of the Danny Ford era.
Clemson also started 8-0 in 2000, rising to No. 5 in the polls in Coach Tommy Bowden’s second year, but saw the season take a severe downturn after losing to Georgia Tech 31-28 at Memorial Stadium. George Godsey’s winning touchdown pass to Kerry Watkins with seven seconds remaining appeared to doom the Tigers, who were blitzed 54-7 at Florida State the following week.
Clemson edged South Carolina 16-14, then fell to a Michael Vick-led Virginia Tech team 41-20 in the Gator Bowl to cap a 9-3 season.
Most recently, the Tigers bolted to an 8-0 start in 2011 in Swinney’s fourth season, climbing to as high as No. 6 in the polls before Georgia Tech dashed the Tigers’ hopes 31-17. Clemson did recover to defeat Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, but wound up losing three more games to finish 10-4.
In both instances, the Tigers weren’t ready to handle success.
“In 2011, we were just kind of getting going,” Swinney said.
That team possessed plenty of talent, albeit youthful. Quarterback Tajh Boyd was a sophomore, in his first season as a starter. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins was a freshman and running back Andre Ellington was a junior, but in his first season as the Tigers’ go-to back.
Clemson’s defense was suspect, allowing nearly 400 yards per game.
“We jumped out to an 8-0 start and had 42 freshmen on the team and veterans who hadn’t been there before,” Swinney said. “In 2011 we just weren’t quite there yet. It was our first 10-win season in 20-plus years around here. We were in uncharted territory.
“We didn’t handle success or the adversity very well that year. It has been my goal since then to be a Top 15-type of team. If you can hang in that area, you’re winning a bunch of games and a lot of stuff develops from that.”
In the seasons since, Clemson has “stayed the course,” in the words of Swinney.
Recruiting has been impressive and the Tigers have become a Top 25 fixture on the verge of a fifth consecutive 10-win season for the first time in school history.
“We have a completely different DNA now,” Swinney said. “We’re a young team this year, but we’re built differently. And we’ve had enough success on the field to where things are taking root.”
CLEMSON’S 8-0 STARTS
Year Start First Loss Score Final Record
2015 8-0 — — —
2011 8-0 at Ga. Tech 31-17 10-4
2000 8-0 Ga. Tech 31-28 9-3
1981 12-0 None — 12-0
1948 11-0 None — 11-0