Clemson's 10 Most Surprising Wins

This article is one in a series of articles in Scott Rhymer's "10 Most" series. Stay tuned to CUTigers.com for other "10 Most" articles including "10 Most Demoralizing Losses" and "10 Most Controversial Games," among others.

To read the #10 through #6, "Most Surprising Wins in the modern era of Clemson football," click here.

#5: 2001 Clemson 47 Georgia Tech 44
2001 was an unusual year in that the September 11th tragedies cancelled the Duke game, and the Tigers were upset during the following week in a controversial home game against Virginia. Consequently, the Tigers fell from the top 25 before heading to Atlanta to face the 9th ranked Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

In a game marked by incredible momentum swings, J.J. McKelvey answered the prayers of the Tiger faithful by catching a 63-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-13 give the Tigers a late 4th quarter lead.

Nick Eason & Kyle Young celebrate the 2001 overtime win over 9th ranked Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech would answer with a quick field goal to send the game to overtime. The Yellow Jackets got the ball first in overtime and kicked a field goal to lead 44-41, but the dramatics were about to turn up again in Atlanta.

Woodrow Dantzler took a quarterback draw and scampered to the endzone untouched to give the Tigers an improbable 47-44 victory.

Dantzler rushed for 164 yards and passed for another 254 yards in arguable his finest moment as a Tiger. Later the next week, Woody would receive the National Player of the Week honor by USAToday.com. Georgia Tech was also the highest ranked team Clemson had ever beaten on the road in the history of the program.

It also marked the sixth straight year the Georgia Tech-Clemson game was decided by exactly three points.

#4: 1986 Clemson 31 Georgia 28
After finishing a disappointing 6-6 in 1985, expectations were high for the 1986 Tigers to return to national prominence. But a Week 1 loss to Virginia Tech in Death Valley had quickly soured the optimism of the Tiger faithful as Clemson headed to Athens to face the 14th ranked Bulldogs.

In a game that went back and forth for 56 minutes, it still stood knotted at 28 when Clemson took over possession deep in its own territory. With less than four minutes to play, Rodney Williams marched the Tigers down the field through the air and on the ground. Several key runs by Terrance Flagler (who would finish with nearly 200 all purpose yards) positioned the Tigers at the Georgia 29 yard line when Coach Danny Ford marched David Treadwell onto the field with 3 seconds on the clock.

Treadwell, who had missed from 42 yards earlier in the game, drilled the 46 yard game winner as time expired off the clock.

The ensuing celebration overflowed on the field and in the stands as Clemson fans celebrated a heart stopping victory. To this day, the 1986 win was the last time Clemson has won in Athens.

#3: 1981 Clemson 13 Georgia 3
Clemson opened the 1981 season with two rather average wins against Wofford and Tulane. Meanwhile, the defending National Champion Georgia Bulldogs entered Death Valley with a #4 national ranking and Heisman Trophy winner Hershel Walker at running back.

Clemson broke out the orange pants for the 2nd time in history and then proceeded to force a mind boggling 9 Georgia turnovers en route to the 13-3 win. Hershel Walker was held out of the endzone by the Tiger defense and the loss was Walker's only regular season defeat as a Bulldog. It was also the highest ranked win for the Tigers in Death Valley to that point; a stat that would stand for 23 years before Clemson's 2003 win over #3 ranked Florida State removed it from the record books.

In addition, this game also served as the spring board for national recognition for the Tigers, who entered the polls the week after the win. Three months later, Clemson would defeat Nebraska 22-15 to complete a perfect 12-0 season to win the National Championship.

#2: 1980 Clemson 27 South Carolina 6
Up until November 22nd, the 1980 football season had been unremarkable at best. Clemson entered the annual showdown with the Gamecocks at 5-5 on the year and the Tigers had only beaten one team that year that would end up with a winning record (Virginia Tech). Clemson also entered the game with its young coach, Danny Ford, squarely on the hot seat from fans that were disappointed in the season to that point.

South Carolina came to Clemson that day with the eventual Heisman Trophy winner (George Rogers), a #14 national ranking, and a Gator Bowl bid already in hand. In a precursor to the problems another Heisman Trophy winner (Hershel Walker) would have in Death Valley, Rogers was completely shutdown and never reached the endzone.

Willie Underwood, who had played his entire career at Clemson without an interception, picked off two on this day and returned one of them for a touchdown as the Tigers cruised to a 27-6 win. Underwood would receive the Sports Illustrated National Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Gamecocks.

The story of the day, however, was Coach Ford's decision to break out the orange pants that electrified the Clemson crowd when the Tigers came down the hill. Clemson, who warmed up in white pants, made the switch in the locker room before boarding the buses to the hill. Many regard the 1980 win over South Carolina the springboard to the National Championship run the Tigers would put together the next fall.

The 2003 win over Florida State goes down as the most surprising victory in the history of Clemson football.
#1: 2003 Clemson 26 Florida State 10
Granted, this game is still very fresh on all of our minds and therefore it has a little bias when talking about being the most surprising win in the modern Clemson history. However, If the lore of this game still rings true 20 years from now like the 1980 South Carolina game and the 1981 Georgia game, then we will then be able to truly encapsulate this win.

That being said, you would have to really dig deep in the Clemson football history books to find a more surprising win than this one.

Clemson had sputtered at home against Georgia in the season opener and had dropped tough road games to Maryland and N.C. State. On the first Saturday in November, Clemson strolled up to Winston-Salem and returned home with tail tucked as Wake Forest embarrassed the Tigers.

Almost from the moment after the final ticks wound off the clock in Winston-Salem, you got the feeling that this would not be a normal week. Clemson fans, rightfully so, were fed up. The embarrassing losses from 2002 had continued into 2003. The 10,000 Clemson fans that traveled to the Wake Forest game smelled blood with head coach Tommy Bowden.

To make matters worse, there was simply no light at the end of the rainbow because it was almost inconceivable that Clemson could win out and still go to a major bowl. As the week unfolded, a flood of fan rumors sparked by Athletic Director Terry Don Phillip's non-comments fueled the fire that had festered inside of Tiger fans for the past year.

However, ever so quietly, Coach Bowden had a trick up his sleeve. Maybe seeking to find some niche with his players that he had yet been able to tap into, Bowden strolled into the locker room in Winston-Salem and told his team that he expected them to beat Florida State the next week.

As the week progressed, the entire focus of the game was on Tommy Bowden, not Florida State. The Seminoles were ranked 3rd in the country, and had just finished whipping Notre Dame in South Bend the week before. Looking back, it was almost a forgone conclusion that the Seminoles would win the game. Forgone, that is, with everybody except the Clemson football team.

The Tigers played inspired football and completely dominated the Seminoles from the first play from scrimmage through the last ticks of the clock. It was the highest ranked team Clemson had ever beaten in the history of the football program, not to mention the first time son had beaten father.

While many diehard Clemson faithful kept the faith and thought the Tigers could win, this one caught the entire nation off guard. And it gave Clemson their most surprising win during its modern era of football.

Next Week
The next in this series of "10 Most" will be "The 10 Most Controversial Games" in Clemson's modern history. From 1984's Georgia game in Athens to 1999's N.C. State game and many in between, find out what I think are the 10 most controversial games in Clemson's modern history, next week!

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