College football: Which Clemson championship team was better?

Clemson’s national football champions of 1981 and 2016 … so different, yet so much alike.

The style of play, the size of the athletes, the championship formats and expectations at the start of the season. Check the scores. Consider the opponents.

Apples and oranges. Golden Delicious and Valencia. Both flavorful … in its own way. One not better than the other. Just different.

Look closer. Strip away the veneer and search for what elementary school math instructors in teaching fractions call the lowest common denominator. All those variables in debating the irresistible force of 2016 vs. the immovable object of 1981 vanish, and orchestras strike up songs of excellence.

A picture of “team” in the best sense of the word emerges.

Comparing any team, any company or any enterprise from different eras quickly dissolves into an exercise in futility. Yesterday’s model becomes outdated, yet “the old way” flourished in its day and who can say modern is always better?

And so it is with the Clemson Tigers, 1981 and 2016.

Dan Benish examined those teams separated by 35 years and linked by the Paw from a unique perspective. He earned All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors at defensive tackle in ’81 and could look at the ’16 team with an inside view, thanks to his nephew’s (Mitch Hyatt) starting role at offensive tackle.

“Very different in terms of how we played,” he said. “We stressed defense. We shut almost everyone down. This (2016) team won on offense. They just outscored everybody.”

Only three teams scored at least two touchdowns on the ’81 Tigers, who surrendered a Scrooge-like 8.8 points a game in going 12-0. Conversely, Clemson ’16 scored in wholesale lots in their 14-1 campaign. Consider: The Tigers gave up 12 touchdowns all season in 1981 and the Tigers twice scored eight TDs in one game (South Carolina and S.C. State) and six in two others (Louisville and Syracuse).

The numbers don’t lie, Benish said, but neither do they tell the whole story. The title game, a 35-31 win over Alabama, epitomizes the “team” concept.

“Look at it this way,” he said. “Alabama had seven straight three-and-outs in the second half against the Clemson defense, and that kept the Alabama defense on the field. Clemson ran 99 plays and Alabama had no gas in the tank at the end.

“All the plays took their toll. Alabama would be a step behind late in the game, and Clemson’s offense goes up and down the field against a defense a step behind. Even if Clemson had some chaotic games on defense, think about the last half in the last game.”

Don’t forget, too, that the Tigers’ defense limited Alabama to three points after two turnovers.

The units complemented each other this year, “just like we did in 1981,” Perry Tuttle, the All-ACC wide receiver, said. “I hate to give (All-American linebacker) Jeff Davis and the defense more hype than they have received in 35 years. They led the way, but don’t sell guys like (quarterback) Homer Jordan and (running back) Cliff Austin and their contributions short. And our offensive line … simply amazing.

“Teams, not individuals, win. That’s what we did. That’s what they did.”

Size differences

Like any sport or enterprise, football has evolved through the years. The leather helmet and flying wedge gave away to the single-wing and emphasis on defense. The T-formation and its variations came into vogue, the veer and wishbone offenses emerged, and wide open attacks eventually became the rule.

Clemson’s championship teams illustrate those changes perfectly.

Players on the 1981 championship team would be dwarfed by today’s athletes. On the defensive front, the starting Tigers weighed 220, 250, 257, 250 and 230. The heavyweight in the secondary, All-American Terry Kinard, checked in at 183. Right tackle Lee Nanny at 246 topped the offensive lineman, and only fullback Jeff McCall weighed more than 200 among the backs. William Perry, an anomaly at 300, didn’t start.

Compare those with 2016 wide receiver Mike Williams (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) or offensive tackle Hyatt (6-5, 295) or defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence (6-5, 340). Deshaun Watson (6-2 and 210) had a couple of inches and more than 30 pounds on Homer Jordan.

“Mike Williams and those other receivers can run because they’re great athletes,” Tuttle said and laughed. “I came to Clemson at 161 and I ran because I was scared.”

In style, today’s Tigers resemble the NFL Rams’ “Greatest Show on Turf” with its wide-open offense. Their 1981 counterparts used coach Danny Ford’s hard-nosed philosophy learned at the knee of Bear Bryant, and took to the air only in desperation.

“If coach called a pass, all the receivers in the huddle would say, ‘Hey, Homer, please throw it to me,’ ” Tuttle said.

Preseason expectations differed, too. History would have painted the 2016 Tigers a disappointment with anything less than reaching the national title game after their 14-1 record the year before. The ’81 Tigers, coming off a 6-5 season, didn’t receive a vote in the preseason polls.

“We believed we would be better than people thought,” Benish said. “In the second game in 1980, Scott Woerner ran a punt and an interception back, and Georgia had a 14-0 lead in about two minutes. We beat them up and down the field the rest of the game, but we lost 20-16 and that broke our backs. That was a hard loss to overcome and we lost some other games we should have won.”

The route to the title 35 years ago hardly resembles today’s playoff structure. Teams still had to win, of course, but bowls and polls crowned the 1981 champion. And those ’81 Tigers had a long climb, starting with no votes and finally ascending to No. 1 a week after their regular season ended — thanks to Penn State’s victory over previous No. 1 Pitt.

“We had to work our way up, and in a way that’s better,” Benish said, “This year’s team had an enormous amount of pressure to perform after 2015. Winning wasn’t enough — they had to dominate. They got every team’s best shot, and that’s tough week after week.”

In the end, though, the teams ended in the same place, celebrating a national championship.

Leadership from coaches, players

Forget those differences. Focus instead on the lowest common denominator — the shared attributes that separate the wheat from the chaff.

Start with the head coaches. Ford and Dabo Swinney bring the “it” factor to the profession.

“I don’t know if you can love a man more than I love Coach Ford,” Tuttle said. “And Dabo … there’s no denying his ability to coach, manage and inspire at the same time.”

And there is the leadership, the fiery style of Ben Boulware and Jeff Davis and the confidence exhibited by Watson and Jordan.

“People on the outside might not appreciate what leadership means,” Benish said, “but Homer, Jeff and Tuttle … when they talked, you listened.”

The players? Of course. There are the stars, the highly regarded recruits that deliver to expectations and beyond. Everyone knows their names. But that’s not all. The unheralded contribute.

“We pay so much attention to the five-stars and four-stars (recruits),” Tuttle said. “But what about Hunter (Renfrow)? Here’s a kid who walked on and turned himself to a vital part of the offense. We had guys like that, too. (Cornerback) Anthony Rose walked on and played great.”

Both teams answered the challenge in their biggest games, the ’81 Tigers setting the tone with a 13-3 triumph over defending national champion and No. 4 Georgia, in which they forced nine turnovers. Later, they stopped No. 8 North Carolina and finally No. 4 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. In 2016, Clemson whipped a string of “names” — Auburn, Louisville, Florida State, Ohio State and Alabama.

Finally, to take an unchallenged place at the head table of college football, the Tigers needed to beat the best. Both teams did, the ’81 squad taking out Nebraska and the ’16 club knocking off Alabama.

In reminiscing on his title team’s 25th anniversary, Ford said, “We won without highly-recruited players at every position. Anthony Rose, a walk-on, played one corner. Tim Childers, Hollis Hall … we had a lot of guys without big names who played very well. It’s not like we out-recruited Texas and Oklahoma or Alabama and Auburn for all those players, but they came together so beautifully.”

His explanation defined “team” all those years ago and still does. The Clemson championship teams share that distinction today.

“What we did and what they did is special,” Tuttle said. “The game has changed and times are different, but the important things are the same. We had them and they had them. Teams, not individuals, win.”

This article is written by Bob Spear from The State and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.

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