19 years of misfortune. 19 years of heartache. 19 years of Clemson, well, “pulling a Clemson” as some uninformed ESPN “analyst”/bachelor would say.
The Clemson football program went through an ACC championship drought that tested the mental strength of their fans and morphed them into the most passionate and loyal fan base in America. In 1991 Clemson won the ACC championship, their seventh title in 14 years, and everything was business as usual for the Tigers and their sophisticated fans. Then a dark cloud began to hover over the Tigers in the form of Florida State.
After the Seminoles joined the ACC in 1992, it became Florida State and everybody else. Bobby Bowden played puppet master with every other team in the ACC, accumulating a 70-2 record in conference play from 1992-2000 to go along with nine ACC titles. Florida State’s blessing was Clemson’s downfall.
The situation is much-improved for Clemson now as they have won at least 10 games in three straight seasons, including the 2011 ACC championship, but it did not come easy. Not by any means. Players, coaches and fans saw the program go from the preeminent team in the ACC to a cursed team that tripped over its own feet whenever the stakes were the highest.
2011 is a special season, and in my opinion, the most satisfying season since the 1981 national championship run.
After the 1991 season, Clemson rarely was in contention for a conference title until the 1999 season — Tommy Bowden‘s first on the Clemson sidelines. The Tigers held a 14-3 halftime lead over No. 1 Florida State, the eventual national champions, but lost, 17-14, when freshman Tony Lazzarra missed a potential game-tying field goal with less than two minutes remaining in the game. The win would have given Clemson first place in the ACC. Instead of seizing control of the conference the Tigers let one slip away. No one knew at the time, but this would be the first in a long list of unbearable losses.
The next season saw the Tigers race out to an 8-0 record and a top-5 ranking before Georgia Tech stunned the Tigers in the closing seconds. Kerry (bleepin) Watkins hauled in a touchdown pass with seven seconds left to shock Clemson, 31-28. Another wasted opportunity to maintain sole possession of first place.
Four years later Clemson came unraveled at the seams again when they let a 10-point fourth quarter lead slip away to the Yellow Jackets, again. This time Calvin (bleepin) Johnson snatched an 11-yard touchdown pass with 11 seconds left to defeat the Tigers, 28-24, once again in Death Valley. Typical.
Clemson fans have to believe, even against all reason. In 2006 Clemson fans made their fans believe when they started 7-1 and reached a No. 10 ranking before the season went off the rails and they stumbled to an 8-5 record. Perhaps the biggest Tiger killer of them all was Matt Ryan and Boston College. In a 2007 late November showdown between the Eagles and the Tigers, stronger forces beyond our understanding were at work when Clemson lost in excruciating fashion to lose the ACC Atlantic division title. Matt Ryan threw a touchdown pass with 1:46 remaining to give his team a 20-17 lead, but that was not the biggest debacle of the game. Cullen Harper threw a perfect pass to Aaron Kelly that would have put the Tigers at the one-yard line, but Kelly inexplicably dropped the pass. As the ball fell to the ground, so did Clemson’s division hopes.
And how could we forget the 2009 ACC championship game, a defensive meltdown against Georgia Tech. A Heisman-worthy performance by CJ Spiller was wasted due to Clemson’s inability to stop Tech’s triple-option. The next year Clemson had hit rock-bottom after going 6-7 in the first post-Spiller season, and no one expected the Tigers to accomplish anything in 2011. However, Clemson took its fans on a wild ride in that fateful fall of 2011.
Clemson was the talk of college football after an 8-0 start before stubbing its toe by losing three of their final four games. A matchup in the ACC title game against No. 5 Virginia Tech was expected to be the final nail in the coffin of another classic Clemson meltdown. Then, in their darkest hour, Clemson came out and torched the Hokies, 38-10, and won the ACC title for the first time since 1991.
Despite a late season collapse and an Orange Bowl catastrophe, the 2011 season was the biggest thing to happen to Clemson since the 1981 season. Every form of emotion was experienced during the fall of 2011, all culminating in the school’s 14th ACC championship. Championships are what people remember, and 2011 will be remembered.
Travis Patterson, ACC Writer Rantsports.com. Football Writers Association of America. Follow on Twitter @tpat20. https://twitter.com/tpat20