It probably all started with ''The Punch,'' the famous one delivered by Ohio State Coach Woody Hayes in the 1978 Gator Bowl. Until then, Clemson University seldom made football headlines.
Hayes actually was the newsmaker in '78, Clemson a very important accessory to the fact. If the Tigers hadn't been on the way to upsetting Ohio State, Woody might never have hit Clemson linebacker Charlie Bauman and been fired.
This season, the Tigers haven't taken a back seat to anyone and now are the No. 1-ranked team in both major wire service polls. Still, they've been given respect and attention begrudgingly. Clemson achieved its present position only after six other schools fell from the pinnacle. Now, as the country's lone undefeated, untied team, the Tigers are within a single victory of earning the national championship.
Standing in their way is Nebraska, which just lost the services of quarterback Turner Gill for the Orange Bowl. Clemson would sooner play an opponent at full strength. As it is, doubts may hang over the game's outcome.
Incensed Clemson fans feel ABC-TV earlier attempted to dilute the Orange Bowl's audience appeal with an unflattering report on the school's recruiting activities. The network has denied any foul play was involved, though some suspect it was trying to discredit the Tigers, who will appear on NBC's Orange Bowl telecast opposite ABC's coverage of the Sugar Bowl.
Such quarrels aside, the important thing to remember is that Clemson is playing on New Year's Day. That in itself qualifies as a major feat for any member of college football's Rodney Dangerfield conference, the Atlantic Coast.
There once was a time when teams along the Atlantic seaboard appeared regularly in the Top 10. Duke and North Carolina were powerhouses in the 1940s (playing in the old Southern Conference) and Maryland was the nation's consensus No. 1 team in 1953. After the '50s, however, other leagues spurted ahead of the ACC, which became known as a basketball conference. Of late, ACC members have been inching back into the national limelight, this season's North Carolina-Clemson clash marking the first meeting of two conference members while both were in the top 10.
With an 11-0 record, including a 13-3 victory over defending national champion Georgia, Clemson has become only the second ACC team in the last two decades to head for a major bowl. Maryland similarly entered the 1977 Cotton Bowl with a perfect record, yet lost to Houston.
Clemson's remarkable climb to the top has put the school of 11,000 students on the map, finally establishing for some that this state school is in South Carolina. Both the college and town of Clemson were named for Thomas G. Clemson , a noted mining engineer and agronomist.
A 15,000-member booster club, known by its acronymn IPTAY (''I Pay Thirty (dollars) A Year), has been instrumental in placing the football program in high gear. So, too, has Danny Ford, who, at 33, is the youngest major college coach in the business.
Ford stepped into the breach before the '78 Gator Bowl when Charley Pell up and left for Florida. The following year Clemson went 8-3 and made the Peach Bowl before slumping to 6-5 last season. The Tigers got back on track in a hurry, though, with one of the best defenses in the country, an outfit led by All-America linebacker Jeff Davis and 285-pound nose guard William Perry, nicknamed ''The Refrigerator,'' ''Fridge,'' and ''GE'' because of his girth.
South Carolina dumps coach It came as a surprise recently when South Carolina decided to fire head coach Jim Carlen. Here, after all, was the man who lifted the Gamecocks off the scrap heap and made them a winning team.
During his seven years at the helm, South Carolina had only one losing campaign, produced a Heisman Trophy winner (George Rogers in 1980), and twice won eight games, something never achieved before Carlen's arrival. The real grabber is that the university's board of trustees dismissed Carlen as both head coach and athletic director not after an awful season, which he seemed entitled to, but after compiling a 6-6 record. And this on the heels of consecutive 8-4 seasons in which the Gamecocks earned bowl bids.
To say there's an air of mystery surrounding Carlen's firing is to put it mildly. No official reasons were given for the school's action. Among the factors which may have contributed to the decision were Carlen's 2-5 record against in-state rival Clemson, a tendency for his squads to go into tailspins during the latter half of the season, and personal problems.
Sugar Bowl in prime time In case you hadn't noticed, the Sugar Bowl has switched from an afternoon to an evening kickoff this season. In doing so, it takes on the Orange Bowl head-to-head for TV viewers.
''I think a tremendous number of people will be watching two TV sets,'' says Mickey Holmes, executive director of the Sugar Bowl. He doesn't sound worried, though, about a loss of viewership to the Orange Bowl.
The Sugar was on the downswing not too long ago, but is bursting with confidence these days. The turning point, Holmes feels, occurred when the game's organizers signed a contract in 1976 with the Southeastern Conference, which sends its league champion to be the host school. ''We knew we'd have a good team every year after that,'' he explains. In fact, the Sugar Bowl has produced four No. 1 teams in the last five games - Pittsburgh, Alabama twice, and Georgia.
The bowl has a new contract with ABC-TV and the Southeastern Conference that runs through Jan. 1, 1987, an insurance policy for future prosperity. The Sugar Bowl makes considerably more money from TV by moving into prime time (8 p.m. EST), and the SEC enjoys a bigger take as well (about $1.3 million).