The Tigers aren't doing so well right now, but you still can see the orange paw marks on the highway, the ones they copyrighted after they won the national championship in 1981.
Clemson is 5-4, 4-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and pretty well out of the race after its second league loss, to North Carolina, last week. But Maryland (6-3 overall, 4-0 in the conference) is coming to Clemson for a rematch in their ongoing series Saturday, and they still will draw more than 80,000 at this double-decker stadium where syllables get lost in the South Carolina hollers. "We'll even sell the tree limbs," said sports information director Bob Bradley.
That's one thing about the fans here -- no matter what the record they always will come out from Greenville and Spartanburg and Easley to park their trailers in the old Seneca riverbed and back the fenders close together for a chat. Then they leave the kids to skip rocks, pick up their flash cards and follow the paw marks to the stadium.
Maybe Clemson can't win the ACC title, but there is nothing these fans like better than to see their Tigers revive a little 1981 glory by knocking someone else out of it, too.
Although it has been three years since the Tigers beat Nebraska in the Orange Bowl to win the national title, Clemson fever still is scattered all over this town. The mystique has not abated despite a two-year NCAA probation that finally ended last January, a 7-4 record last year and this year's inconsistent and youthful team.
You can see it in the orange Tiger paw logos splashed all over everywhere, patented in 1981 along with an official national championship logo. You mark it in the one general store of Clemson, Knickerbockers, where even the coffee cups and underwear are stamped with the paw mark, and outside of Coach Danny Ford's office, where the array of trophies is so polished you have to shade your eyes.
"We may still be paying for that," said Ford. "It's hard to live up to. Pretty soon people want paybacks. You better be good for all time."
The Terrapins will see it better than anybody on Saturday, when they go intrepidly into Death Valley after beating the Tigers, 41-23, last season in Baltimore. The last time Maryland played here, however, was an equally one-sided game, the Tigers winning, 52-27, in 1983 during a 9-1-1 season.
The one place that has few traces of that national championship year, however, is the team. Clemson is one of the youngest teams in the conference this season, and through a combination of injuries did not start a senior on defense in last week's loss to North Carolina. The Tigers will not start any seniors on defense against Maryland, either; only three start on offense.
The glory of Clemson's national championship year extends only as far as the five fifth-year seniors on this team, the few remaining players from that squad that went 12-0, and all of them were freshmen at the time. The Tigers are a team of youth, seeking to build a little tradition of their own out of a season of disappointment.
"We talk about it sometimes to them," said linebacker Eldridge Milton, a senior from Folkston, Ga. "They ask us, 'What was it like? How did it feel.' But I don't know if they know what we're talking about because they didn't experience it."
Clemson's youth explains its mercurial season. The Tigers were picked to finish near the bottom of the conference in preseason with 14 starters lost from last year, including most of its offensive line. They began true to the predictions, with a 1-3 record.
The Tigers recovered to win four straight, including an upset of Virginia. One of the improvements was the switch to freshman quarterback Rodney Williams and a more run-oriented offense after committing 14 turnovers in the first four games.
"Early in the year nobody thought we would be in it," Ford said. " . . . It's been a little bit of a tease all year. First we were out, then we were back in and had a shot, now we're out. It doesn't affect you so much the second time around."
The Tigers actually appeared to be a legitimate challenger for the conference title with Maryland until last week's 21-20 loss at North Carolina. It was a game they probably should have won, with a 17-7 lead in the fourth quarter, and a victory might have given all this youthful talent a new look.
"This team is pretty young, but the good part is that next year we have a lot of people back," said junior fullback Kenny Flowers. " . . . There is some pressure here. Everybody expects you to be just about the best thing in football. This year we just made a lot of mistakes, came up a little short."
While an upset victory over the Terrapins would make up for some of the more unfortunate losses, it is doubtful it would knock Maryland out of the picture. The Terrapins need just one victory to clinch the title, and a loss would merely leave them tied for the conference lead with Georgia Tech.
For Clemson to climb back into the conference race, a strange sequence would have to occur. The Tigers would have to beat Maryland, who also would have to lose to Virginia. In addition, Georgia Tech would have to lose to Wake Forest. That would give everyone in the conference two losses, and Clemson would tie with North Carolina, assuming the Tar Heels won their two remaining games.
"I would say Maryland is in pretty good shape, unless they fall off the boat," Ford said.