by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Can it really by 30 years since Clemson claimed the national title under Danny Ford in 1981? To many Tiger fans, the thrill of that campaign endures. Although it is not lost upon most of them that those memories are probably clear only to those who are in their 40s now.

Still, many ACC observers wonder if the enduring legacy of 1981 has perhaps harmed Clemson football in the three decades since. Expectations thus became unrealistically high for a program that had long been a regional force but had rarely emerged as a contender for national honors. Scandal was also uncovered after the ‘81 campaign, involving infractions from both the Charley Pell and Ford regimes, leading to bowl bans in ‘82 and ‘83, although the Tigers kept winning in those years, too, remaining unbeaten in the ACC along the way.

The combination of events that produced the 1981 miracle would be hard to replicate, as Clemson became only the second team at the time (1962 Southern Cal being the first) to ever go from unranked in the preseason poll to a mythical national title. The Tigers entered the campaign under the national radar, but had an experienced team led by live-wire QB Homer Jordan and explosive WR Perry Tuttle, plus a robust defense with plenty of quicks along the DL and featuring All-American DE Jeff Bryant, who eventually went on to a long and distinguished career with the Seattle Seahawks. Linebacker Jeff Davis and DB Terry Kinard were other featured members of that gnarly platoon who also went on to have productive pro football careers, although the most-publicized of the lot was mammoth frosh DT William “The Refrigerator” Perry, who was making a large (no pun intended) impact in his first year of college football. And it was the defense, which allowed only 88 ypg rushing that season, that was mostly responsible for Clemson’s rise through the rankings; the Tigers allowed only 3 TDs and 38 points through their first seven games, and legitimized their status as a team to watch with a 13-3 upset over Herschel Walker and defending national champ Georgia on September 19 at Death Valley, where the decibel level was so high it was said to distract the Bulldog offense, which suffered a whopping nine turnovers on the afternoon. The home fans were sent into an extra gear of delirium at the kickoff that afternoon when the Tigers touched Frank Howard’s Rock and charged onto the field wearing orange pants to go with their orange uniforms and helmets, an ensemble Clemson would reprise in the Orange Bowl game against Nebraska.

The win over Georgia would be an important one, for in those years it was difficult for an ACC team to be considered a national title contender. Regional biases held stronger in those days, and the perception of the ACC as a basketball league was never stronger than it was in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Clemson, however, was the one conference rep that never quite fit that mold, more resembling an SEC school with its football emphasis. And besides Clemson and a solid North Carolina team coached by Dick Crum, 1981 was not a vintage year on the gridiron for the loop. Beyond the Tigers and Tar Heels, only Red Wilson’s Duke finished above .500 in that year’s ACC, at a modest 6-5. Usual contender Maryland had sunken beneath .500 in Jerry Claiborne’s last year as coach before he moved to Kentucky in ‘82; NC State was in the middle of a mediocre 3-run under Monte Kiffin, who would later make his mark in the pro ranks as a defensive coordinator (and also become almost as well known as Lane’s papa); Virginia was a disaster at 1-10 in Dick Bestwick’s last season, before George Welsh arrived from Navy to begin righting the ship in ‘82; Wake Forest was sub -.500 under first -year HC Al Groh, and absorbed an 82-24 beating at the hands of the Tigers in the middle of that ‘81 campaign. Georgia Tech had yet to become a full-fledged football member of the loop, and it was 11 years before Florida State would join the conference, 23 years before Miami and Virginia Tech were added to the fold.

The climb up the polls for Ford’s 1981 team was arduous, but once beyond midseason, visible light suddenly appeared at the end of the tunnel. After clearing an early November hurdle against the Tar Heels in a tense 10-8 defensive war, Clemson was poised to leapfrog into the top spot in the polls after a succession of number-one ranked teams (including Michigan, Notre Dame, Southern Cal, Texas, and Penn State) had all tasted defeat along the way. It was left to Jackie Sherrill’s Pitt, and jr. QB Dan Marino, to fold for the Tigers to have a shot at the top spot in the polls. And when the Panthers were steamrollered by Penn State, 48-14, on Thanksgiving weekend, the path was clear to the number one ranking for the Tigers, who sewed up the national crown with a typically efficient 22-15 win over the aforementioned Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl.

In the years since, however, the ACC has become a more demanding football loop than it was in the early ‘80s, although many Clemson supporters believe a return to the glory days should be expected. Thus, not having won an ACC title since 1991 (the year before Florida State joined the loop) illustrates how frustrating things have become on the football side in Death Valley. Which brings us to 2011, and why fourth-year (or make that three-and-a-half year) HC Dabo Swinney is feeling some heat.

Swinney was a default choice almost from the outset, elevated to the top spot when Timmy Bowden resigned under pressure halfway through the 2008 campaign. Then only 38, Swinney at least plugged the leaks in the dike the remainder of that season and steered the Tigers to the Gator Bowl, but many regional insiders believed his appointment was still a temporary one. Swinney, however, was willing to work cheaper than some of the other names (such as Tommy Tuberville) who were reportedly interested in the position, a consideration not lost upon the school and its famed “IPTAY” ("I Pay Ten A Year") booster organization, both of which were reportedly low on funds to facilitate a big-name hire. So Dabo stayed.

Still, at just 19-15 since taking over for Bowden, and sub-.500 at a disappointing 6–7 last season, Swinney can hear the war drums beating. The manner of last year’s 6-7 record still gnaws at many Tiger backers who were not thrilled at Dabo’s game management skills, which might have been exposed when Clemson lost five games by five points or fewer last season, including the Meineke Car Care Bowl vs. South Florida. Sensing he needed to make staff changes, and in a hurry, Swinney moved out o.c. Billy Napier in favor of Chad Morris, who reignited Tulsa’s offense into one of the nation’s best last season. Morris, a longtime Texas high school coach who credits Gus Malzahn for influencing his career (and utilizes a Malzahn-like, hurry-up, no-huddle attack), made a seamless transition to the major college ranks a year ago with the Golden Hurricane, and was considered a top contender for the Tulsa HC job that opened when Todd Graham moved to Pitt in January. When assistant Bill Blankenship got that job instead, Morris was receptive when receiving Swinney’s distress call and made the move to the ACC.

Morris has already made an impact on the recruiting trail, nabbing what is likely to be the Clemson QB of the future in prep star Chad Kelly, a Buffalo-area product and nephew of famed Bills QB Jim Kelly. Young Kelly, however, still has a year of high school football to go, and won’t enroll at Clemson until 2012. So, if Morris is to make the 2011 offense work, and give Swinney a fighting chance to save his job, he’ll have to untap the potential in 230-lb. soph Tajh Boyd, who takes over now that former starter Kyle Parker (who disappointed big-time in 2010 when finishing 8th in ACC passing stats) has traded football cleats for baseball cleats. How quickly Boyd, who engineered a couple of late TD drives in the bowl loss to USF, masters the nuances of the Morris offense, played at a much quicker tempo than the previous Billy Napier Tiger attack, will be crucial, as will be keeping explosive RB Andre Ellington (686 YR LY) healthy after missing four games a year ago with turf toe. Despite the loss of All-ACC LT Chris Hairston (Bills draftee), the OL has plenty of size and experience, and Morris is hoping that soph WR DeAndre Hopkins (52 catches LY) can better stretch the field than a year ago, when the Tigers lacked a consistent downfield passing element. Some ACC observers are also alerting to watch out for jr. TE Dwayne Allen, who could be ready for a breakout campaign in the Morris offense after flashing plenty of upside with 33 catches as a soph a year ago.

Although gleaning too much from spring work is not always recommended, regional sources indicate things seemed to go as well as could be expected with the installation of a new offense in March and April. Players seem to believe the Morris offense is easier to grasp than the Napier offense, with less language and fewer formations, although more plays to be run from those formations. The verbiage, and how plays are signaled in from the sidelines (look for Morris to utilize Oregon-style coded flash-cards from the sidelines), is also considered an easier learn for the players, whom Morris wants to be able to run at least 80 plays pg in his hurry-up style.

Unlike his offense, which is being restructured out of necessity, Dabo had no desire to make wholesale changes defensively, and awaited anxiously the decision last January of respected d.c. Kevin Steele (a former Baylor HC) to accept or decline Derek Dooley’s invitation to accept a similar spot at Tennessee. Fortunately for Swinney, Steele decided to stay in Clemson’s shade of orange, but will be looking to mix and match a defense that lost six starters. Those departed include impact DE Da’Quan Bowers, who, after recording a nation’s-best 15 ½ sacks in 2010, decided to leave a year early for the NFL, where he was 2nd-round pick of the Tampa Bay Bucs in April, and DT Jarvis Jenkins, a 2nd-round pick by the Redskins. Spring work indicated that sr. DE Andre Branch could be ready to step into a featured role on the line, although the real excitement on the stop unit is in the form of a touted group of frosh LBs led Tony Steward & Stephone Anthony, both of whom could break into the starting lineup and become forces in the fall. Three new starters are also being penciled into a rebuilt 2ndary, although plenty of quicks are still prevalent among a DB crew filled with upperclassmen who have seen considerable playing time in the past. Junior FS Rashard Hall, the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield, could be one of the ACC's best.

Summary...The cupboard is hardly bare at Clemson, so Dabo has a fighting chance at saving his job. A highly-touted recruiting haul could also give Swinney a bit more insulation, but the time has come for better results on the field, which is why all eyes are on new QB Tajh Boyd and new o.c. Chad Morris. How quickly those two can change the offensive equation from a year ago in Death Valley will go a long way to determining Dabo’s fate. Already, there is talk in ACC circles that the Tigers would gladly give Rich Rodriguez a chance to resurrect his career in Death Valley should the Swinney regime flounder; remember, Rodriguez coordinated some particularly potent Clemson offenses in the early years of the Tommy Bowden era, and is regarded fondly by the IPTAY crowd. Expect that potential storyline to gain a lot of momentum this fall, especially if the Tigers cannot deliver in a brutal 3-week stretch when hosting Clemson, Florida State, and traveling to Virginia Tech between September 17-October 1.

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