Top 10 Clemson Tigers Football Teams of All-Time

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Athlon Sports ranks the best Tigers teams since the AP Poll debuted in 1934.

<p> Top 10 Clemson Tigers Football Teams of All-Time</p>

The Clemson Tigers are a proud program that has had some excellent decades — see the 1980s — as well as some times of struggle (1992-2010). But this is a program with loads of potential, committed fans, a great gameday atmosphere and has tasted the top of the mountain once upon a time. Unlike many programs the Tigers have one team that stands above the rest. However, Clemson has recruited elite athletes of late. So does the evolution of the modern athlete level the playing field? Or would the old guard still reign supreme?

Could Jeff Davis stop C.J. Spiller? Could Terry Kinard cover Sammy Watkins or DeAndre Hopkins? How would Danny Ford gameplan against Chad Morris and Tajh Boyd? Clemson has won 16 conference titles since the AP era began in 1934 but only one of those also produced a national championship. Trying to rank the best teams in Clemson history is virtually impossible, but the historic 1981 squad seems like the right place to begin.

1. 1981 (12-0, 6-0)
Head Coach: Danny Ford

There is little doubt which team is the greatest, most heralded group in Clemson history. The undefeated Tigers romped through the regular season, including three wins over top 10 opponents Georgia (4), at North Carolina (8) and Nebraska (4) in the Orange Bowl, for the school’s lone national championship. First-team All-ACC quarterback Homer Jordan and record-setting first-team All-American wideout Perry Tuttle led an offense that averaged nearly 30 points per game. ACC MVP and two-time All-American linebacker Jeff Davis and all-everything corner Terry Kinard spearheaded a defense that led the nation in scoring (8.8 ppg). Ford won National Coach of the Year honors and became the youngest coach (33) to ever win the national title. No other team in Tigers lore can compare to the ’81 champs.

2. 1978 (11-1, 6-0)
Head Coach: Charley Pell

Charley Pell didn’t coach very long at Clemson and his “influence” was felt for years following his departure, but his teams won a lot of games (18-4-1). His 1978 ACC championship team was the highest-scoring team in Clemson history until the 2001 squad came along. Dual-threat quarterback Steve Fuller and the running back tandem of Lester Brown and Marvin Sims spearheaded a dynamic rushing attack that helped the Tigers win the ACC. The only loss came in Week 2 against SEC power Georgia, and, after a Gator Bowl win over No. 20 Ohio State, Clemson posted its second-best final AP poll finish in school history with a No. 6 ranking. Pell left before the bowl game to take the Florida job and Clemson was eventually hit with NCAA sanctions stemming from his coaching tenure, but the ’78 squad was one of the program’s best.

3. 2012 (11-2, 7-1)
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney

From a talent perspective, few teams in program history can compare to the 2012 squad led by Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington, DeAndre Hopkins, Sammy Watkins and Dalton Freeman on offense. This is the only team in school history to top 500 points (533) and its No. 11 final AP ranking was the best since 1990 (No. 9). This team lost just one game on the road against No. 4 Florida State, who won the ACC crown. The Tigers were one of the few ACC teams to hold its own against the vaunted SEC, by defeating LSU in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl and Auburn in the Kickoff Classic. This team wasn’t decorated like other championship-winning teams, but this might be the most talented roster ever assembled in Death Valley and is why the Tigers are the 2013 frontrunner in the ACC.

4. 1950 (9-0-1, 3-0-1)
Head Coach: Frank Howard

One of just three Clemson teams of the AP era to go unbeaten, the Tigers played only four conference games and therefore didn’t win the Southern Conference title despite not losing a game and finishing as the highest rated SoCon team in the polls. This team outscored its opponents 344-76 and was the first team in history to top 300 points. The ’50 unbeaten team is one of just six Clemson groups to finish in the top 10 of the AP poll (No. 10).

5. 1948 (11-0, 5-0)
Head Coach: Frank Howard

Playing in the much weaker Southern Conference at the time, legendary coach Frank Howard posted one of just three perfect records during the AP era (1934). The defense allowed an astonishing 6.9 points per game, leading to a 274-76 scoring margin for the year. It topped just one ranked opponent (Wake Forest) as the schedule was dotted by Presbyterian, Duquesne, Alabama Polytechnic and conference foes Furman and The Citadel. This lack of competition is what led the unbeaten Tigers to just an 11th place finish in the polls. The Tigers did not play No. 3-ranked and unbeaten conference rival North Carolina that year.

6. 1982 (9-1-1, 6-0)
Head Coach: Danny Ford

Following Clemson’s first and only national championship, Clemson was not eligible to play in the postseason due to probation stemming from former head coach Charley Pell’s tenure. That didn’t keep the Tigers from defending their ACC championship with a perfect record in the league. The season began with a loss to No. 7 Georgia and a tie with Boston College but ended with nine straight wins and No. 8 postseason ranking — good for third-best in school history. Quarterback and national title winner Homer Jordan was flanked by Cliff Austin, Chuck McSwain and Jeff McCall in a loaded Tigers backfield.

7. 1988 (10-2, 6-1)
Head Coach: Danny Ford

No team in Clemson history started higher in the AP poll than the 1988 team beginning the year as the No. 4-ranked team in the nation. With a No. 9 final ranking following a Citrus Bowl win over Oklahoma, it is one of just six teams to finish in the top 10 as well. Rodney Williams paced the passing attack while Terry Allen rushed for 1,192 yards and 10 touchdowns for the ACC champions. This team played one of the school’s toughest schedules, beating three ranked opponents and losing to two others. In an age of offense, this team was fourth in the nation in scoring defense and is one of the best Clemson teams ever assembled. This was the second of four straight 10-2 Tigers teams.

8. 1959 (9-2, 6-1)
Head Coach: Frank Howard

In his 19th season, famed head coach Frank Howard won his fifth conference title and third in the ACC. He lost to a ranked SEC team in Georgia Tech as well as Maryland to give this team a final AP ranking of 11th. This team allowed just 9.4 points per game on defense while pitching five shutouts through the season. Wins over a ranked No. 12 North Carolina and No. 7 TCU in the Bluebonnet Bowl capped the ACC championship season. Six different players rushed at least 40 times while Harvey White led both the passing and rushing attack from under center.

9. 1987 (10-2, 6-1)
Head Coach: Danny Ford

Ford began a magical run of ACC championships in 1986 but started a four-year streak of 10-2 records in 1987. This team was ranked in the AP top 10 for all but three weeks of the season, as it capped the ACC championship season with a win over a ranked Joe Paterno Penn State team in the Citrus Bowl. Losses to NC State by two points and at No. 12 South Carolina kept the Tigers from competing for a second national title. The backfield tandem of Rodney Williams and Terry Allen gave fans a glimpse of what was to come the following year.

10. 2011 (10-4, 6-2)
Head Coach: Dabo Swinney

If the 2012 team is the most talented ever assembled in school history, the 2011 ACC championship team can’t be too far behind. Tajh Boyd and company were are all in the starting lineup except Sammy Watkins was the National Freshman of the Year instead of a No. 2 WR and Dwayne Allen starred at tight end. The defense wasn’t up to snuff, allowing nearly 30 points per game, but wins over four ranked opponents (Auburn, Florida State, Virginia Tech twice) and the school’s first ACC title in two decades make it one of the greatest Clemson Tigers teams.

Related: Top 10 Notre Dame Fighting Football Teams of All-Time
Related: Top 15 Alabama Crimson Tide Football Teams of All-Time

The best of the rest:

11. 1990 (10-2, 5-2) Ken Hatfield
12. 1989 (10-2, 5-2) Danny Ford
13. 1991 (9-2-1, 6-0-1) Ken Hatfield
14. 2009 (9-5, 6-2) Dabo Swinney
15. 1986 (8-2-2, 5-1-1) Danny Ford 

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