In many ways, this game should have been an omen for the rest of the season. Tommy West had coached the Tigers to three straight winning seasons in 1995, 1996, and 1997 and was at the crossroads of his program's development.
Would the Tigers turn the corner and become a Top 25 program, or would they slip back into the mediocrity that West had inherited from the Ken Hatfield era?
Expectations in 1998 were high.
The Tigers sported some talent wide receivers in Brian Wofford and Mal Lawyer to compliment Brandon Streeter at quarterback and freshman Travis Zachery at running back. Defensively, the Tigers owned one of the best defensive backfields in the conference in Alex Ardley, DeMarco Fox, Robert Carswell, and Antwan Edwards.
On a hot and steamy September afternoon, Virginia Tech waltzed into Clemson and completely manhandled the Tigers from start to finish in a 37-0 whipping. It was so hot and such a complete domination that over half of the sold out Death Valley crowd decided to leave at halftime, leaving a very sparse crowd to watch the conclusion of the carnage.
The loss sent the Tigers into a spiral as they lost 7 out of the next 8 games before wrapping up the season with a win over South Carolina. The Tigers would eventually finish 3-8 on the year (wins only over Furman, Maryland, and USC) and Tommy West would be fired in the week prior to the South Carolina game.
#4: 2002 N.C. State 38 Clemson 6
This game was a disaster from the beginning. Clemson, due to the ACC contract with ESPN, was forced to host a Thursday night game in Death Valley for the 2nd time in school history. Thursday night games are a major hassle in Tiger Town, and the Clemson Athletic Department knew it would take a sell by them to ensure a good crowd.
So the Athletic Department put out a public plea on Monday for Clemson fans to show up and support the Tigers against the #9 ranked Wolfpack. As Thursday grew closer, ominous signals from the weather service were indicating that some serious rain and cold was moving into the Clemson area on Thursday. While the weather never materialized to the point that it was predicted, it was still wet and cold on Thursday night by game time.
The public pleas by the University were heard, and an outstanding crowd of almost 78,000 showed up in Clemson and were raucous from the get go. When State missed an early field goal attempt, you got the sense this could be a special night for the Tigers. And it was just about at that point when the wheels began to come off with turnovers, punt returns, kick returns, long running plays and bad breaks. MBR
#3: 1990 Virginia 20 Clemson 7
All streaks come to an end, and this streak would be no different. Clemson had never lost to Virginia when the Tigers headed to Charlottesville on September 8, 1990. The Cavaliers, under then head coach George Welsh, had become a solid football program in the late 80's going 25-7 from 1987-1989. UVA was also ranked #14 in the nation and had an All-American wide receiver by the name of Herman Moore.
|Donovan McNabb and Marvin Harrison had their coming out party in the 1995 Gator Bowl against Clemson.|
While it was truly inevitable that this streak would end (UVA is 7-6-1 against Clemson since the 1990 season), the fact that it happened the year after Danny Ford coached his last game at Clemson was ironic and somewhat spooky. It was downright frightful for Ken Hatfield and the thousands of Clemson fans who had never known the taste of defeat to that "white meat" Virginia Cavalier football team.
#2: 2003 Wake Forest 45 Clemson 17
This one is still fresh enough on many minds that it does not need much of an explanation. If you were one of the 10,000 Clemson fans in Winston Salem last year, your own feelings of that game are enough that this article won't do it justice.
The image that is stuck in my mind from that game that I just can't shake is walking in the concourse at halftime and seeing the faces of the Clemson fans that were mingling around. It was a look I had not seen in a long, long time. Just pure disbelief. We are standing in this high school football stadium with a bunch of Wake fans that really don't care that they are whipping our tails. They really don't. They are happy, but what's the big deal? It's just a football game, right?
Well, the look on the 10,000 Clemson fans faces showed the difference between Wake Forest and Clemson football in one second. We care…we love. They don't.
But they still whipped our butts on this day.
#1: 1996 Syracuse 41 Clemson 0
Gator Bowl-Jacksonville, Florida
The 1995 Clemson Tigers had a rough start to the season, going 3-3 after the October 8th loss to the Georgia Bulldogs in Death Valley. However, Tommy West's Tigers had turned the slow start around by winning the next 5 games in a row including a 38-17 thrashing of South Carolina in Williams-Brice Stadium.
So the Tigers headed to Jacksonville with some momentum and a ton of high hopes. It was the first major bowl game for Clemson since the 1992 Citrus Bowl, and the Clemson faithful were ready to travel in mass to Jacksonville.
Syracuse came into the game unranked at 8-3 on the season and starting a little know freshman quarterback by the name of Donovan McNabb. McNabb had a guy by the name of Marvin Harrison at wide receiver and a defense that was great at stopping the run. If Clemson fans did not know who McNabb and Harrison were before the game, they most certainly did afterwards as Syracuse ripped Clemson apart in a 41-0 victory. The Tigers were only able to rush for 90 yards on the day and throw for 69 yards in one of the worst offensive performances in Clemson bowl history.
At the time, the loss was the worst loss in Clemson bowl history. The frustration was compounded by the fact that 30,000 Clemson fans had made their way to Jacksonville and had to sit in the middle of a cold rain throughout the pre game and game. Most Clemson fans in attendance would agree that the combination of the long trip and the cold rain made the game conditions about as bad as any they had sat through in the past.
While the Tangerine Bowl loss in 2002 statistically is worse, the fact that so many people made the trip in the awful weather ranks this game as the worst bowl trip in Clemson football history. And it ranks as my most demoralizing loss as well, I'm sorry to say.
Stay tuned next week when I break down the 10 Most Controversial games in Clemson's modern history.