For 29 years, in fact, the game offered as close to a guaranteed win as a team can have.
But since the Tigers’ 29-0 start in this series, it has been as close to a toss up as two teams can have.
The Tigers and Cavaliers have gone 8-8-1 in the past 17 meetings with the Tigers leading all-time 37-8-1. Clemson has won the past two meetings, although the two teams haven’t played since 2009.
Much has changed with the programs since then, mainly Clemson’s return to the top of the ACC to once again become one of the conference’s most consistent programs.
That’s the way things were for the Tigers for most of this series’ first 29 games. The Tigers dominated the conference at times, and they dominated the Cavaliers from 1955 through 1989, and there was no reason to really think that would ever change.
But it did change on Sept. 8, 1990 in Charlottesville when the Cavaliers pulled out a 20-7 win and turned this series on its ear. A tie the next year was followed by one of the most memorable comebacks in Clemson history in 1992.
Clemson entered the game at 2-2 and was looking to avoid its first-ever 0-3 start in ACC play. Things didn’t look good at halftime. Virginia stormed to a 28-0 lead in the second quarter and led 28-7 at halftime.
It was then that I left the press box and walked down to the stands at Scott Stadium to talk to some of my friends about the game, saying the Tigers were done. They were done for the day, and they were done for the season.
But the Tigers came flying back to pull off a 29-28 win as Nelson Welch finally put them ahead with a 32-yard field goal with 55 seconds remaining.
The celebration outside of the Clemson locker room was one of the most raucous I’ve come across in my career, and with good reason. It was a stunning turnaround, and it went from one of the lowest points in the Ken Hatfield era (and that’s saying something) to one of the real highlights of his time as Clemson’s head coach.
Still, the Cavaliers controlled the decade of the 1990s in the series, leading 5-4-1 in those 10 games and have gone 3-4 since then. It has become a competitive series, something it wasn’t for so, so long.
Still, this year’s Cavaliers aren’t on the same level as the Tigers, and Saturday’s game should showcase that.
Yes, Clemson has stumbled a bit the past three weeks, struggling to beat Boston College and Maryland sandwiched around an embarrassing loss to Florida State. The Tigers have looked out of sync on offense, and the defense has given up some big plays that it hadn’t allowed earlier in the season.
The Tigers appear much more vulnerable than they did just three weeks ago. Coming out of the win over Syracuse, everything looked to be hitting on all cylinders, but since then, the Tigers’ engine is sputtering just a bit. They need to get their rhythm back for the stretch run of the season, especially against tough teams like Georgia Tech and South Carolina.
Virginia could be the perfect opponent to rediscover all those strong feelings that surrounded the team through the first five games. The Cavaliers are 2-6, and they have lost their past five games.
They blew leads against Maryland and Duke and couldn’t take advantage of a mistake-prone Georgia Tech team last week.
Since starting the 2012 season 2-0, the Cavaliers have gone 4-14, and head coach Mike London is likely coaching the rest of this season for his job … if it’s even possible to save at this time.
It’s the perfect kind of game for the Tigers to get back on track. They just have to eliminate the mistakes they have made the past three weeks.
If they can do that, they should be able to dominate this game Saturday the way they used to dominate the Cavaliers.
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.