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Clemson 26, Auburn 19
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But we already know what Clemson can do to start a season.
The Tigers did this last year with a dominant 8-0 start and the thrilling performance to beat Auburn. Yes, Andre Ellington was phenomenal with 228 rushing yards, and DeAndre Hopkins was unstoppable with 13 catches for 119 yards and a score, but that's not a huge shock against an okay Auburn defense.
Yes, there's reason for excitement with Sammy Watkins not playing and Clemson still being able to come up with the win. The defense was good enough giving up a few big plays here and there and the special teams were fine, but none of that was a shocker.
Now, Clemson, do this all season long.
The challenge went out to the team this offseason to toughen up a bit and use the blowout to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl as the motivation needed to put it all together for a full season, but this is Clemson; it's the textbook definition of inconsistency.
A performance like this makes the four losses in the final six games last year all the more maddening. The Tigers have the talent, they have the athletes, and now they have the experience to not only win the ACC title again, but be a player in the national championship race once all the pieces are together.
Call this the game the program needed to start the season fresh, but It won't mean much if it isn't playing like this in November, too.
At long last, Clemson can bury last year's Orange Bowl disaster.
The Tigers, the ones in orange, have been thinking about their last game, a 70-33 shellacking at the hands of West Virginia, for the past eight months. They can finally relax, and begin concentrating on defending their ACC crown. There was a lot to like about Clemson on this night. DeAndre Hopkins stepped up in a huge way in the absence of Sammy Watkins. Andre Ellington showed the height of his ceiling now that he's fully healthy. And Brent Venables' D already looks nastier than the one Kevin Steele oversaw in 2011. However, no one impressed me more in the win than Tigers QB Tajh Boyd.
Boyd put up huge numbers a year ago, but he wasn't a complete player by any stretch. The coaching staff would attest to that. On Saturday night, though, he just looked different, even though his total production didn't approach that of his teammates. Boyd was poised in the pocket when it mattered most, made good decisions and was a far more effective runner than he was as a sophomore. He conducted himself like the leader of the program, an enormous development that isn't going to show up in the box score.
Out with the old and in with the new. The 2012 Orange Bowl is yesterday's news in Death Valley. Without arguably its best player, Clemson won a critical game over Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, giving it the tailwind it was desperately seeking to start the season.
By Matt Zemek
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney did not manage his timeouts well on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. He didn't make a good decision in the final two minutes of the game on fourth and goal at the Auburn 1. His receivers dropped passes the way Clemson receivers dropped passes in the frustrating almost-but-not-quite seasons of 2007. His team left a lot of points on the Georgia Dome turf.
Yet, Dabo is doing a terrific job as Clemson's head coach. Life holds tensions and contradictions, and so it is that Swinney, while making baffling decisions on immediate levels, is still turning in high-quality work on a larger scale. Let's explain.
Swinney suspended Sammy Watkins – his team's best offensive player (yes, even better than the brilliant Andre Ellington) – and trusted his team to win anyway. He had his team motivated, even though it wasn't crisp or precise. Moreover, season openers are usually sloppy to begin with, so it's not as though Swinney even bears too much responsibility for that part of Clemson's performance. Receivers were in position to make plays. Swinney can't catch passes for them. What matters is that Clemson played through mistakes and won this middleweight bout by overpowering Auburn in the final few rounds.
Swinney was smart enough to make Chad Morris his offensive coordinator, and he's been able to earn the respect and trust of his players. Like Les Miles – just on a smaller scale – Swinney has been so good at the non-gameday, off-field aspects of coaching that his in-the-moment decisions don't matter (enough). His deficiencies do not outweigh his gifts. His lack of feel for time-and-score situations has not exceeded his leadership ability. He wins over the people around him, and he wins games as a result.
The enduring and persistent effort put forth by Clemson against a gallant and resolute Auburn squad – one that has nothing to be ashamed of – reminds us that in the profession of coaching, you don't have to be brilliant with the Xs and Os to be a very successful head coach. Swinney needed Chad Morris in much the same way that current Auburn coach Gene Chizik needed Gus Malzahn, but the key realization is that those two men made those hires and created winning environments. Clemson's in the midst of a very fruitful period right now; the Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia did not have a carry-over effect on the first night of the ACC champions' return to the gridiron in 2012.
By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb
This was a good win for Clemson, but a better win for the ACC. Clemson's drive to take the lead midway through the fourth quarter harkened back to days of yore, when Danny Ford's 1981 team was running over teams with Homer Jordan handing off to Cliff Austin and Chuck McSwain.
Tajh Boyd showed some moxie getting beaten up by a good Auburn defense and coming back for more. Down 19-16 on its second to last drive in the fourth quarter, Clemson ran the ball eight of ten downs – many by the future first round draft choice Andre Ellington, who had 26 carries for 231 yards (most of those downhill). That drive culminated in a Boyd fade pass with beautiful touch to DeAndre Hopkins for the touchdown, as Clemson went up for good, 23-19. They would tack on a field goal to make the final score 26-19.
This was an even better win for the ACC, which had yet to beat the SEC in a Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic, and more importantly, has been teetering on the edge of major college football relevance for several years now.
But don't kid yourselves, outscoring this 2012 Auburn offense won't prove to be that big of an accomplishment. With multiple underclassmen on the line and an inexperienced quarterback in sophomore Kiehl Frazier trying to adapt to a new offensive coordinator's schemes, Auburn with be forced to rely on its defense to win games.
Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder may have been the best hire by any team this offseason, and the defense does return a lot of starters…but Auburn's offense is going to have to help out. Frazier & Co. can't lose the time of possession and turnover battles like they did Saturday night against Clemson and expect to have a fighter's chance against the better teams on their schedule.
As for Clemson, Fiu beat me to the punch. The season is 13 games, Clemson, not eight. No November face plant this year.
By Phil Harrison
Follow me @PhilHarrisonCFN
Finally--mercifully, the ACC showed up in a meaningful game on a raised stage. Clemson still had to have a bad taste in its mouth after being absolutely shellacked by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl last year. To wash that away, it needed to taste victory against an opponent with a pulse so that the doors could begin to close on the skeletons from that night in Southern Florida.
Mission accomplished, and doubt for the meantime at least--in the rear-view mirror.
And while Auburn's not going to be on the same playground with Alabama or LSU, this was a start. With the black-eye that the ACC and Clemson have been carrying around, this was at least a memo to the college football world that the Tigers in orange weren't going to simply roll over against a name brand foe out of conference--the Tigers from the SEC in blue.
And just how did they do it? With their best players showing up in earnest. From Tajh Boyd, to Andre Ellington, to DeAndre Hopkins aptly moonlighting as Sammy Watkins, they had it all going when it mattered. The big plays, and the timely plays, were a result of the horses groomed to run the race, doing exactly that.
But let's not forget that this is a marathon. One needs only to look at the fast pace that Clemson rushed out to last year as evidence. In the end, that fast start resulted in a faltering and tired leg kick to the finish line in early 2012.
Normally it would be chalked up to an exception to the rule. Sadly though, there are many other seasons that can be pointed to in the ghosts of Howard's Rock past that should serve as a reminder that celebrating should be brief after this one.
So far so good for Clemson. It's a big win for the Tigers, and a big win for the ACC, but there is more work to do.
By Terry Johnson
Follow me @TPJCollFootball
The Tigers proved that they are no one-year wonder; they will compete for championships every season as long as Dabo Swinney roams the sidelines.
Did tonight's win over Auburn vault Clemson to the top of the national championship race? No, it didn't. But the victory does suggest that the Tigers will belong in that conversation at the end of the season because the team overcame several obstacles in dramatic fashion.
The offense faced a gigantic hurdle today, having to play without all-everything WR Sammy Watkins. A loss like this would cripple most teams, yet Clemson's offense ran like a well-oiled machine. Andre Ellington and DeAndre "Nuk" Hopkins stepped forward and posted career numbers against one of the better defenses in the SEC.
On the other side of the ball, the Tigers faced even more question marks. How would they adjust to Brent Venables new scheme? How would the inexperienced defensive line play against a very physical Auburn offensive line?
The answer to both questions was: "with the poise of a championship team". The defense hung tough with its back to the wall, holding Auburn to field goals when they should have had touchdowns. More impressively, the young defensive line put plenty of pressure of Kiehl Frazier all night long, producing a crucial sack on the final drive with a three-man rush.
Are there any more questions?