Gary Patterson is notoriously picky about who he plays in nonconference games, so when Clemson called from the ACC in need of one game to fill its 2009 schedule this was not a guarantee.
Clemson was offering $1 million for TCU to come to South Carolina and, much to TCU’s surprise, the head football coach took a game that would not even be televised.
He knew he had the team to beat Clemson, against a little known coach with the funny sounding name.
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The fortune of both programs changed, for the better, since that memorable day on Sept. 26, 2009 that quietly became one of the most significant in TCU’s rise to prominence.
It has been just under 10 years since TCU defeated Clemson 14-10, and this is the rare example where it all worked out for both parties.
“Favorite game, besides the Rose Bowl, I ever played in,” former TCU receiver Bart Johnson said. “That Clemson game is special to me. That began our 24-1 run to the Rose Bowl.”
TCU was the favorite at Clemson
Clemson today is known as the only team that can beat Alabama. On Monday, the Tigers will play Alabama for the third time for the national title in the last four years.
Clemson ascending to this status was laughable when it called TCU in hopes of adding the Horned Frogs to its schedule in ‘09.
The previous year, Clemson fired Tommy Bowden as coach and replaced him with Dabo Swinney as the interim.
For a variety of reasons, Clemson had maintained a reputation as a decent program that simply could not get out of its own way. “Clemson-ing” was a verb in college football; a good team that figured out a way to blow it.
The Tigers had not won a national title since 1981 under Danny Ford.
When they hired Swinney full time, another title was the goal but nothing in his first two seasons suggested the run of success they are currently on was coming.
At the time, TCU was in the Mountain West and had established itself with Boise State as the best non-Power 5 team in the nation. It had been close to going to a BCS game in previous years, and ‘09 it all lined up.
TCU had the preseason ranking necessary to make a run, and it just could not lose a game.
Clemson was unranked and TCU was No. 15 in the nation when the two played.
“We weren’t scared of anybody,” Johnson said.
Certainly not of Death Valley.
The big win no one saw
Maybe 1,000 TCU fans actually traveled to Clemson for the game, and it was only available on ESPN’s internet service.
The fans who made the trip still marvel at the hospitality and decency displayed by the Clemson fans, even in the rain and defeat.
Clemson featured future NFL first round pick C.J. Spiller, who ran for more than 100 yards, and it led 10-7 at the half.
Dalton played one of his best games, passing for 226 yards and running for 86. His 25-yard touchdown pass to Antoine Hicks early in the fourth quarter won the game.
A win over Clemson was a nice moment for TCU but the weight of it would not be known until the end of the season, and the following years.
The after shocks
TCU used its win over Clemson as a catalyst to gain an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl, which eventually led to the Rose Bowl, which eventually led to inclusion into the Big 12.
Things moved slower for Dabo. In his second season, Clemson was 6-7 and FireDabo talk began.
After that ‘10 season, however, Clemson has done nothing but climb; it has won at least 10 games ever year since ‘11, including the title in ‘16.
“When we played TCU that was our first full year together,” Scott said. “No. 1, it started with culture and a mindset that he brought in. He changed the mindset of our guys that we are not some small school in upstate South Carolina; that we had the opportunity to be the best in college football.
“He changed the mindset of our guys that instead of hoping we could win some of those games, we truly believed we could win those games.”
Clemson did not beat TCU back in ‘09, but it is the rare instance when a college football game ultimately worked out for the winner, and the loser.