THE CLEMSON-FSU FOOTBALL RIVALRY HAS SEEN THE TIGERS AND SEMINOLES REVERSE ROLES AS THE PRINCES AND PAUPERS OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL
- 2021-10-29 13:12:56
Back in the 1980’s, when you heard “Clemson and Florida State,” the first thing that came to mind was consistency; two football teams that knew how to win. Danny Ford and Bobby Bowden were two of the most revered college football coaches in the nation, and they had the resumes to back it up. As much as the two programs were alike in the win-loss column, the programs took different routes to get there. Florida State was a wide-open offense and wasn’t afraid to pull some trickery in the process. Clemson, on the other hand, was a physical team that was very secure in playing great defense, running the football and wearing down the opposing defense. Every now and then, the meat-and-potatoes offense that was Clemson would turn to a little witchcraft just to keep defenses honest, but it was rare.
The Clemson-FSU rivalry reached its zenith in the 1980’s with the famous “puntrooskie game” in 1988. A week after preseason No.1 FSU lost its opener to Miami, with the score tied and time winding down in Death Valley, Bobby Bowden called a fake punt for the ages from his own 21-yard line, and it set up the game-winning field goal for the Seminoles. The Tigers would get revenge the following year in Tallahassee, but it would be their last win against Florida State until 2003 and last win in Tallahassee until 2006.
At the end of the 1989 season, Clemson parted ways with Danny Ford, and as the Clemson program gradually diminished over the next decade, it was Florida State that became a perennial powerhouse. Florida State joined the ACC in 1992 and ran off 9 straight conference titles. winning 2 National Titles under Bobby Bowden in the process. If we are being honest, Florida State was 3 wide-left kicks versus Miami from winning 5 National Titles in that span. Bobby Bowden and the Seminoles would win 10 or more games and finish in the AP top 4 for an astonishing 14 consecutive seasons—a record that no one thought would ever be touched, and now that Clemson has fallen out of the top 4 for the first time in 7 years, perhaps no one will. While FSU was off and running, cementing itself as a dynasty for all time, Clemson went in the opposite direction.
The dissention at Clemson amongst the fans, administration and the football team were becoming more obvious. Ken Hatfield was brought in to take over after Ford’s departure, and even though he won 70% of his games, it was with Danny’s recruits. Key losses along the way didn't help his cause. For example, under Hatfield, Clemson suffered its first-ever loss to Virginia 20-7. The wheels for Hatfield’s demise were set in motion after a 5-6 campaign in 1992. Losing 4 out of his last 5 games in 1992, including Wake, Maryland and his only loss to rival South Carolina, Hatfield delivered the Tigers’ first losing season since 1976. Despite an 8-3 record the following year, with a win over No.18 UVA and a third win over the Gamecocks to finish the regular season, it was not enough when compared to the accomplishments of his predecessor, Danny Ford. The Tigers won an ACC title in Hatfield’s second season in 1991, but little did Clemson fans know that it would be their last for 20 years. After Hatfield was let go, Clemson brought in Tommy West, and the decline continued. He went 5-6 in his first season in 1994 and 3-8 in his last in 1998, but he did finish with a win over South Carolina. Needless to say, however, the Clemson program was in shambles less than 10 years removed from the Danny Ford glory years.
On the other hand, Florida State was steam rolling everything in its path. The Seminoles finished in the top 4 ranking each year, finishing with a 108-16-1 record during that span, including 2 National Championships under Bowden. This also put FSU in some dynastic company with programs like Nebraska's Tom Osborne teams as well as the Miami Hurricanes. Bobby Bowden and Florida State were on top of the college football world and the dynasty that was Florida State was the place to be.
So how did Florida State and Clemson more or less trade places as the princes and paupers of college football? At the end of the Tommy West era, Clemson ushered in a new era with a connection to Florida State in the most unique way. In 1999, Clemson decided to hire Tommy Bowden, none other than Bobby Bowden’s son. Even though Tommy had an up-and-down time at Clemson, you could see things changing for the better. Right out of the gate, Tommy nearly beat his father in the historic 1999 “Bowden Bowl,” the first-ever FBS meeting of father and son head coaches. FSU was No.1 and undefeated at the time, and would later win the national title to become the first team ever to go wire-to-wire as the AP No.1 team. A few years later, Tommy got that elusive win over his father with a 26-10 thumping of No.3 FSU in 2003, one of the biggest wins in Clemson history. It was the same year that Tommy hired an unknown Real Estate salesman named Dabo Swinney to be his Wide Receivers Coach. That win completely turned around a dismal season, and the Tigers went on to crush the rest of their opponents, including a 63-17 win at South Carolina and a dominant 27-14 win over No.6 Tennessee in the Peach Bowl. The late-season run most likely saved Tommy Bowden’s job at Clemson, which in turn kept the young Dabo Swinney in the fold. Despite the 2003 loss in Death Valley, Florida State continued its ACC dominance while Clemson was starting to make a turn for better. As the elder Bowden started to fade away at Florida State, Clemson started to make its presence felt. The first step was the administration, the next was making facility and stadium upgrades and the last piece was recruiting.
Tommy Bowden had recruited well and had Clemson competing for ACC titles again. However, year after year, he seemed to be snake-bit. One unlucky play here or bad Ron Cherry call there seemed to cost the Tigers a division or conference title every year, coming up just one win short. After a mid-season Thursday night loss at Wake Forest in 2008, Clemson decided enough was enough and replaced Tommy with the man he brought back into coaching in 2003, Wide Receivers Coach Dabo Swinney. A former walk-on player at Alabama on Gene Stallings’s national championship team, with no head coaching experience or even coordinator experience, was Terry Don Phillips’s choice for Interim Head Coach. Dabo nearly won his head coaching debut over Georgia Tech and got his first win in his second game at Boston College. He dominated Steve Spurrier and South Carolina a few weeks later to secure a contract as Head Coach, and the rest, as we know now, is history.
Meanwhile, Bobby Bowden was forced out at Florida State at the end of the 2009 season—in which Dabo beat FSU in his first full season as Clemson Head Coach—and Jimbo Fisher took over after winning a national title as LSU Offensive Coordinator under Nick Saban. Jimbo beat Dabo in Tallahassee in 2010 thanks to a last-second 55-yard field goal, depriving Dabo of a second-straight division title in his second full season as head coach, and Fisher went on to win FSU its third national title in 2013 with Heisman winner Jameis Winston. But shortly after that, it was clear that something at FSU wasn't right. Dissention among the administration, a fight for better facilities and a coach who flirted with big-pocket boosters and a tight budget were just the beginning. The product on the field was the next piece of the puzzle that started to crumble, as inside the locker room a sense of entitlement took over on and off the field, poor academic performances in the classroom and off field trouble left the once-proud program with a huge black eye.
It began the year after the national title, in 2014, when Florida State was dealing with the Jameis WInston sexual allegations. That was a massive blow to the program and the way it was handled. Initially, it led to Winston being suspended for just the first half of the Clemson game before an incident later in the week forced Jimbo to suspend him for the whole game. Most people felt like that wasn't enough, and that Jimbo Fisher and FSU were more interested in wins than doing what was right. Jimbo and Winston would take the Seminoles into the inaugural College Football Playoff undefeated, but they got hammered by Oregon in the semifinal. Fisher and the FSU administration continued to butt heads over facility upgrades while he could see Dabo and Clemson building a state-of-the-art football facility and recruiting magnet. By the end of the 2017 season with a 7-6 record, while Clemson was on the verge of winning its third-straight ACC title and third-straight playoff appearance, Jimbo Fisher left Florida State for a huge deal with Texas A&M. A year later, Florida State’s historic 36-year bowl streak came to an end, and the following year, the Seminoles were on their third head coach in four years. The Clemson program was in shambles less than 10 years after Danny Ford, and now the FSU program was in shambles in less than 10 years following Bobby Bowden.
Clemson, on the other hand, was recruiting at a level unheard of in its history. Even Danny Ford had some great classes, but nothing compared to the last 13 years for the Tigers. The facilities were in place, administration was on board, fans were on board now that was left to do was for the results to show up on the field. Did those results ever show themselves, not once but twice, as the Tigers brought home the National Championship in 2016 and 2018. Dabo and the Tigers went on an unprecedented run in the history of college football, winning 6 straight ACC Championships with 6 straight trips to the College Football Playoff and 4 National Championship Game appearances. Recruiting took off to an even higher level, bolstered by the brand-new $70-million football facility that had the entire nation talking, and Dabo signed Clemson’s first-ever No.1 recruiting class in 2020. Dabo’s 144-35 record trails him behind only Frank Howard for the most wins, but it’s the best win percentage in Clemson history. On Saturday, the Tigers will go for their 6th straight win over the Seminoles. Well, 7th straight if you count last year’s forfeit by FSU. The Tigers handed the Seminoles their worst loss in program history with a 59-10 win in Tallahassee in 2018. Bobby Bowden, who passed away over the summer, and Tommy Bowden will both be honored in Death Valley on Saturday for what they meant to college football and Clemson University.
We all know that all good things come to an end. Miami, Nebraska, and now Florida State are prime examples of historic dynasties eventually coming to an end. It all comes and goes in circles. Dabo and the Tigers are currently experiencing their toughest season since 2014 with a historic number of injuries and close game after close game. They have fallen out of the top 10 for the first time in 6 years and are in danger of winning less than 10 games for the first time in 10 years. So, Clemson fans, enjoy the ride that you are on right now. As we have seen with Florida State it can all come to an end really quickly, and the fallout can take years to overcome. I believe this season is just a bump in the road for the Dabo Swinney and Clemson dynasty. He plans to stay at Clemson another 20 years, and the Tigers will likely be right back in the playoff next season. However, it will end some day just like all the other historic dynasties, so embrace and enjoy this time on top!
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