This was not an easy assignment.
Clemson has played football for 126 years and has collected some of the greatest wins in the history of college football. But there is only room for 10 on this list. How do I narrow this endless list to just 10?
What I decided to do was consider the magnitude of each win, not what it meant in the moment, but what it meant for the program in the following years.
Here are what I consider to be the 10 biggest wins in Clemson history.
10. October 31, 1896: Clemson 14, Furman 6
Clemson’s first football team/Clemson Athletic Communications
I know Clemson beating Furman does not sound like a big win. But when it was the first game in the history of the program and it was also the program’s first win, it has to be on the list of best wins in school history. The Tigers defeated the Paladins, 14-6, in Greenville, S.C. that afternoon. It was the first time many of the Clemson players saw a full-sized football field. Charlie Gentry was credited with scoring the first touchdown in Clemson history.
9. January 1, 1940: Clemson 6, Boston College 3
Banks McFadden (66) / Clemson Athletic Communications
Clemson’s trip to Dallas, Texas to play in the 1940 Cotton Bowl Classic was one of the biggest days in the program’s history. The Cotton Bowl not only marked the Tigers’ first bowl game, but it was also their first bowl victory. Clemson beat a BC team that was considered one of the best programs in the country at the time. Led by All-American Banks McFadden, the 12th-ranked Tigers took down No. 11 BC, 6-3. Clemson’s Charlie Timmons scored the game’s lone touchdown from two yards away, while rushing for 115 yards. McFadden keyed the defense with four passes broken up. He also averaged 43 yards per punt. The Eagles drove to the Clemson eight yard-line with three minutes left, but Shad Bryant and McFadden knocked away third- and fourth-down passes to secure the win. The Tigers’ No. 12 ranking marked the first time the program finished a season ranked in the final Associated Press Poll.
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8. October 21, 1948: Clemson 13, South Carolina 7
Phil Prince (59) / Clemson Athletic Communications
Anytime the Tigers beat the Gamecocks it is a big win, but this was particularly big because it allowed then No. 14 Clemson to continue its undefeated season. Also, the way the Tigers won on this Big Thursday made it even more special and memorable. Clemson’s Phil Prince blocked a South Carolina punt with 4:15 left in the game. Oscar Thompson recovered the loose football and ran it in from 11 yards out for the game-winning touchdown as the Tigers beat the Gamecocks, 13-7. Clemson went on to defeat Missouri in the 1949 Gator Bowl a couple of months late to secure the program’s first undefeated and untied season since 1900. The Tigers finished the year 11-0, the first time a Clemson team reached and eclipsed 10 victories in a season. The Tigers were ranked No. 9 in the final AP poll, their highest ranking in history at the time. Eight voters ranked Clemson No. 1 in the nation.
7. November 19, 1977: Clemson 31, South Carolina 27
Jerry Butler (The Catch) / Clemson Athletic Communications
In 1977, the Clemson program was having its best season in 18 years and needed a win over the Gamecocks to secure its first bowl appearance since 1959. It appeared the Tigers were well on their way to doing that when they went up 24-0 midway through the third quarter on a 52-yard jaunt from fullback Ken Callicutt. But South Carolina stormed back with a long Spencer Clark touchdown and two Steve Dorsey scores. Then Phil Logan hauled in a fourth-down pass across the middle from quarterback Ron Bass and raced 40-yards for a 27-24 lead with 1:48 to play. With the Williams-Brice Stadium crowd going crazy and all the momentum on the South Carolina sideline, Clemson’s chances for going bowling seemed unlikely. But wide receiver Jerry Butler changed all of that with one catch. Led by All-American quarterback Steve Fuller, Clemson quickly moved the football to the USC 20-yard line, setting up what is still considered the greatest individual play in Clemson history. As Fuller tried to throw the football out of bounds, Butler jumped around the Carolina goal line and made a twisting catch while falling into the end zone with 49 seconds to play. The play gave Clemson a 31-27 victory and is simply known as “The Catch” in Clemson lore. After the game, Clemson accepted a bid to play Pittsburgh in the 1977 Gator Bowl. The Tigers finished the season ranked No. 19 in the final AP Poll. The victory over the Gamecocks set the stage for Clemson’s run to the 1978 ACC Championship.
6. December 31, 2012: Clemson 25, LSU 24
DeAndre Hopkins (6) / Joshua S. Kelly (USA TODAY Sports)
Though the Tigers had some early success under Dabo Swinney and won the ACC Championship in 2011, they had yet to make a splash on the national stage. Clemson concluded the 2011 season with an embarrassing loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl and unfortunately for the Tigers that is what everyone still remembered. However, one play in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU changed all of that. Trailing by two points and facing fourth down, the Tigers needed 16 yards from their own 14 to keep its final drive alive. Despite taking a beating all night from the LSU defense, quarterback Tajh Boyd stood tall in the pocket and delivered a pass down the seam to DeAndre Hopkins, who made a sliding catch for a 26-yard gain to the 40-yard line. The play is simply known at Clemson as “Fourth-and-16.” Though Hopkins’ catch did not win the game for the Tigers, it did get the offense going, as Boyd moved his team into field goal range, setting up Chandler Catanzaro’s 37-yard field goal as time expired. Clemson had rallied from an 11-point deficit, 24-13, as it entered the final quarter. The come-from-behind win over No. 9 LSU proved to the Tigers they can play and win on the biggest of stages, as it was the first of four straight bowl victories over traditional national powers. The win was Clemson’s 11th of the season, its highest total since its national championship season of 1981 (12-0). The Tigers finished ranked No. 11 in the final AP Poll. The 25-24 victory set the stage for the program’s run to four national championship game appearances and two national championships from 2015-’19.
5. November 22, 1980: Clemson 27, South Carolina 6
Willie Underwood (20) / USA TODAY Sports
The 21-point win over then No. 14 South Carolina is remembered for a lot of reasons. It marked the first time Clemson wore its famous Orange Pants. It saved Danny Ford’s job and it jump started the Tigers to the greatest run in school history. So, you can see why Clemson’s 27-6 victory over the Gamecocks is considered one of the greatest wins in the program’s history. Coming into the game, no one gave the Tigers a shot to beat USC. The Gamecocks had eventual Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers in the backfield and had one of their best teams in school history coming to Death Valley. In the week leading up to the game, everyone wondered if this was going to be Ford’s last game as Clemson’s head coach, considering the Tigers struggled to a 5-5 record and were handedly beat by Maryland, 34-7, the week before. But Ford was known as a master motivator. Prior to the game, during the team’s pregame meal at breakfast, he stood up in front of the team, held up a pair of orange pants, and told them this is what they were going to wear against the Gamecocks. The room went nuts, as if the pants brought new life to the team. The orange pants were secretly kept away from the fans to enhance the surprise when the Tigers got to the top of the hill. Clemson even warmed up in its traditional orange jerseys and white pants during pregame to keep the element of surprise in play. When the Tigers got to the top of the hill wearing all orange, the 64,000 packed into Memorial Stadium erupted. Clemson’s All-American linebacker Jeff Davis later said the Tigers already owned a seven-point lead before the ball was even kicked off. The game was tied at six late in the third quarter with the Gamecocks driving to take their first lead of the game. However, with 32 seconds to play in the quarter, safety Willie Underwood stepped in front of a Garry Harper pass at the Clemson 12 and raced 64 yards down the sideline before stepping out of bounds at the USC 24. Six plays later, Clemson quarterback Homer Jordan snuck in from the 1-yard line to give the Tigers a 13-6 lead. On USC’s next possession, Underwood again cut off a Harper pass and this time made sure he did not step out of bounds as he raced 37 yards down the sideline to give Clemson a 20-6 lead. The two interceptions were the first of Underwood’s’ 41-game career. Clemson later added a Jeff McCall touchdown to cap its 27-6 victory. Underwood finished the afternoon with 101 return yards, which is still a Clemson record. He also recorded 17 tackles and was named the National Player of the Week by Sports Illustrated. The Tigers carried their win over South Carolina into the next year, as they ran the table on the way to the program’s first national championship.
4. November 7, 1981: Clemson 10, North Carolina 8
William Perry (66) / Clemson Athletic Communications
This 1981 contest marked the first time in ACC Football history that two of its schools clashed in a battle of top 10 teams. With an ACC Championship and a major bowl bid at stake, it was dubbed the biggest game to ever be played in the state of North Carolina. Clemson was 8-0 and ranked No. 2 in the AP Poll, while North Carolina was 7-1 and ranked No. 8. The game lived up to the hype. In a defensive struggle, the Tigers held a 10-8 lead late in the game thanks to a Jeff McCall second-quarter touchdown and a Donald Igwebuike field goal. With one minute approaching in the game, the Tar Heels moved the football to their own 40-yard line. That is when Scott Stankavage threw the football behind the line of scrimmage to Alex Burrus. As the fullback went to make the catch, Clemson’s Bill Smith hit him, knocking the lateral pass to the ground. The ball rolled 15 yards backwards towards the Clemson sideline, and that is where an alert Jeff Bryant jumped on the football for Clemson at the UNC 25-yard. The Tigers ran out the clock from there and held on for a 10-8 victory. Clemson beat Maryland the following week to clinch the ACC Championship and then beat rival South Carolina to close out its first perfect regular season since 1948. The Tigers eventually moved to No. 1 in the polls and later accepted a bid to play No. 4 Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl with a national championship on the line.
3. January 7, 2019: Clemson 44, Alabama 16
Dabo Swinney / Matthew Emmons (USA TODAY Sports)
Trevor Lawrence became the first freshman quarterback since 1985 to lead his team to a national championship thanks to Clemson’s 44-16 win over then No. 1 Alabama. Lawrence played a big role in why the second-ranked Tigers dominated the Crimson Tide like they did. He completed 20-of-32 passes for 347 yards and three touchdowns to earn MVP honors. The win was historic because of the nature in which the Tigers beat ‘Bama and because it clinched a 15-0 perfect season, the first in major college football since 1897. It marked Clemson’s second national championship in three years at the time, as the Tigers are still the only program, besides Alabama, to win multiple national championships in the College Football Playoff era. The 15-0 record also marked the first time since the 1981 National Championship season a Clemson team finished the year with an unblemished record.
2. January 9, 2017: Clemson 35, Alabama 31
Hunter Renfrow / USA TODAY Sports
Clemson won its second national title in history and first in 35 years with a 35-31 victory over then No. 1 Alabama, who had entered the game with a 26-game winning streak. Hunter Renfrow scored the winning touchdown with just one second remaining on a two-yard pass from Deshaun Watson. It was Clemson’s first win over the nation’s No. 1 ranked team. The Tigers rallied from 14-0 and 24-14 deficits to knock off the Crimson Tide. It marked the first time Alabama head coach Nick Saban lost in a national championship game.
1. January 1, 1982: Clemson 22, Nebraska 15
Perry Tuttle (22) / George Gardner (USA TODAY Sports)
Some people will argue this game should not be No. 1. However, understand these are the greatest wins in Clemson history because of the magnitude each win brought to the program. Clemson’s 1982 Orange Bowl win over then No. 4 Nebraska is No. 1 because it clinched the program’s first national championship, as the Tigers ended the season with a perfect 12-0 record. Without this victory and the 1981 National Championship, the Clemson Football program might not be where it is today. No one knows for sure, but what we do know is that the 1981 National Championship put Clemson at level few programs in major college football have been on. It also told everyone who has ever coached or been involved in the program that “Little ole Clemson” can win a national championship. Clemson came into the 1981 season unranked, yet still won the national championship after it completed its first perfect season since 1948. Only the 2010 Auburn Tigers can make such a claim during this era of college football. Quarterback Homer Jordan was the game’s Most Valuable Offensive Player after he completed 11-of-22 passes and had 180 yards of total offense in leading the Tigers. All-American linebacker Jeff Davis, the Defensive MVP, had 14 tackles. Bill Smith had a career high 10 tackles in the Tigers’ 22-15 victory. Clemson got three field goals from Donald Igwebuike and touchdowns from Cliff Austin and Perry Tuttle. Sports Illustrated forever immortalized Tuttle when they put him on the cover of their magazine the following week celebrating his 13-yard touchdown catch from Jordan. Tuttle was the first player in Clemson history to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated.