Former Clemson football defensive tackle Dan Benish wanted to make this part clear. He and his teammates from 1981, the program’s only national champion, will not be doing an impression of the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
That squad maintained a long tradition of celebrating when the last undefeated NFL team takes a loss, keeping them as the lone members of the undefeated season club.
“We’re not like the Miami Dolphins, hoping that they lose so we can be the only ones,” Dan Benish said. “We’re actually pulling for them and behind them. Can’t believe it’s been this long since they’ve been this close.”
Well, the Tigers were this close a year ago, even closer with an early-fourth quarter lead against Alabama in Phoenix. Clemson won on that same field last Saturday night to earn a second trip to the title game, and will play for it all again, against the Crimson Tide again, Monday night in Tampa, Fla.
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Members of the 1981 team have watched this squad closely, and some have tighter connections. Benish, a former all-conference defensive tackle, is the uncle of current Clemson left tackle Mitch Hyatt. Bill Smith, a defensive end on the title team and current Clemson trustee, has a son, Cannon, on the current roster.
The Tigers will try to unseat an Alabama team with a 26-game winning streak looking for its fourth title in six seasons. But the older players like their alma mater’s chances.
“I think you put 11 guys out on each side of the ball, I like our 11 guys on both sides of the ball,” Smith said. “I like our chances. I think this team, based on what I’ve seen, they have an ability to overcome. They have a very confident approach to them. I’m hoping this will be our year.”
Benish said he tries to get down from his Lake Wylie home for at least one practice a week. He pointed out Clemson’s offensive line came into last season’s title game with many projecting the Tide’s defensive front would dominate.
Instead, Clemson went toe-to-toe with a cast of future NFL players and held their own.
“This year, they know that,” Benish said. “They know they can do that.”
Both men shied away from directly comparing their own team, one with colorful faces such as Danny Ford and William “Refrigerator” Perry, with the current edition. They pointed out how different the game was. Everything was running the ball and keeping scores low. The likes of undersized option quarterback Homer Jordan, a fleet of runners and top receiver Perry Tuttle led the way for the offense, and the defense posted numbers unseen in the modern era.
Benish joked he and his defensive teammates often told the offense if they could score 10 points, everything would be fine. That squad won three games scoring fewer than 14 points.
And, as those older Tigers hope for some company in the Clemson National Champions club, they reminisced about the bonds that season built. There’s something that brings people together in putting in work for a common cause, according to Smith.
Benish said he can still pick up the phone and call 1981 teammates, and it feels like they haven’t missed a beat.
“This is something that is going to be a part of their lives for the rest of their lives,” Benish said. “The teammates that they have on this team are going to be friends of theirs for the rest of their lives.”
A look at the 1981 final AP poll:
Who: Clemson (13-1) vs. Alabama (14-0)
When: 8 p.m. Monday, Jan. 9
Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.
Line: Alabama by 6 1/2