CLEMSON — Members of that hallowed 1981 national title team are enjoying ample opportunities to relive cherished memories, watching the Clemson team 34 years later pursue its own championship.
The more defensive linemen Bill Smith and Dan Benish and receiver Perry Tuttle think about it, the more they see themselves as they watch the Tigers carry the No. 1 ranking into Saturday’s annual rivalry game vs. South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium.
“There’s a lot of parallels you can draw compared to our season that are very similar,” Benish said. “We started the season out with Wofford, then we had a big game early in the season against Georgia we won like the Notre Dame game. Then we had the (82-24) blowout against Wake Forest; these guys blew out Miami (58-0.)”
Another coincidence: in 1981, No. 2 Clemson beat No. 8 North Carolina, marking the first battle of top 10 teams in ACC football history. Clemson plays North Carolina a week from Saturday for the ACC crown.
“These guys have other stuff ahead of them to look forward to; we did too,” said Benish, whose nephew Mitch Hyatt is Clemson’s starting left tackle as a true freshman. “We knew if we beat South Carolina, we’d have a chance to (play in the Orange Bowl).”
For the second time in program history, Clemson (11-0) enters its showdown with USC undefeated and in contention for a national championship. The first, of course, was 1981, when No. 2 Clemson (10-0) faced the Gamecocks (6-4).
“They took the early lead and kind of punched us in the mouth a little bit,” recalled Smith, who has served Clemson’s board of trustees since 1996. “We settled in.”
After trailing 7-0, Clemson regained momentum when linebacker Johnny Rembert returned a blocked punt for a touchdown. Quarterback Homer Jordan ran for an 11-yard touchdown to give Clemson a 15-7 halftime lead, and Chuck McSwain ran for a couple of second-half scores giving the Tigers a 29-13 victory. Clemson would go on to the Orange Bowl and defeat Nebraska for its only national championship.
“It was like we were playing two seasons,” Tuttle said. “We were protecting that position of hopefully getting to the Orange Bowl. As the season went on, as my dad would say, ‘It’s getting funner and funner and funner each week.’
“But then there was the South Carolina week, which was a whole different thing for me. It wasn’t very hard for me or any of us to get up for the Gamecocks.”
For all the parallels the former Tigers draw to 1981, it was actually the 1980 South Carolina game they feel is most relevant to 2015 Clemson. The Gamecocks entered Memorial Stadium the favorite that year, ranked No. 14 and powered by eventual Heisman Trophy-winning running back George Rogers. Meanwhile, Clemson had lost four of five games, and head coach Danny Ford’s job was in jeopardy.
“The year before, they were supposed to kill us. They had a great team, they were going to the Gator Bowl, we were 5-5, and we laid one on them,” Benish said. “So you never know. You always go into that game not cautious, but with that in the back of your mind — if you don’t perform, something special can be taken away from you.”
Clemson is a 17-point favorite on Saturday, needing to stay unbeaten on its path to the College Football Playoff. South Carolina (3-8) is likely to dismiss interim head coach Shawn Elliott and his staff, and this is guaranteed to be the Gamecocks’ last football game of 2015.
“This weekend kind of scares me,” Tuttle said, “because I know what happened in 1980 when they were looking at us going, they’re 5-5 and Coach Ford is on the hot seat.
“This game is in Columbia. I suspect it’s going to be a lot closer than what people think. I do believe we will win, but I know how these games go, especially at South Carolina.”
As those 1981 Tigers reminisce at reunions and tailgates, they’ve taken on a greater rooting interest in the 2015 team, hoping lessons from more than three decades ago can guide Clemson to a second national title — but not before it avoids catastrophe against the Gamecocks.
“Absolutely, they will be highly motivated. This is their bowl game, and nothing would please them more than to spoil Clemson’s undefeated record and title hopes,” Smith said. “(1981) was very workmanlike for us. Hopefully, I think that’s the way Dabo (Swinney) has his guys playing.”