|Dabo Swinney made sure Andre Ellington stayed in school, and it works out Saturday night. (US Presswire)|
ATLANTA -- The campuses of Auburn and Clemson are four hours apart on Interstate 85 with Atlanta resting comfortably in the middle. The schools are so similar in style and temperament that Clemson, which snuggles up to the shores of Lake Hartwell, is affectionately known as "Auburn with a lake."
The first three football coaches in Clemson history all were Auburn graduates. The legendary John Heisman was the head coach at Auburn from 1895-99. Then he went to Clemson where he was head coach for four seasons.
So it was only fitting that Auburn and Clemson each made the two-hour drive to meet at the Georgia Dome on Saturday with the hopes of putting the end of the 2011 season in their respective rear view mirrors.
Auburn was 8-5 a year ago and ended the season in this very building with a 43-24 win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. But before that the Tigers lost three meaningful games down the stretch to No. 1 LSU (45-10), SEC East champ Georgia (45-7), and No. 2 Alabama (42-14). Then, to add insult to Auburn's injury, Alabama went on to win its second national championship in three seasons.
Clemson had a great deal to celebrate in 2011, winning its first ACC championship since Danny Ford was head coach 20 years ago. But most of the joy that went with the conference championship was sucked out of the season with an embarrassing 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
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With this much drama as a backdrop, these two teams did not disappoint Saturday night. Trailing 19-16 with 12:50 left, Clemson put together drives of 75 and 79 yards to win the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game 26-19 before a record crowd of 75,211.
It was a huge win for the ACC, which has come up short in so many of these huge intersectional matchups and watched N.C. State lose to Tennessee 35-21 in the Georgia Dome on Friday night. The conference entered the season with a dubious record of 2-13 in BCS appearances, causing critics to point to what they said was a growing gap between the ACC and the four other major conferences (SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12).
Clemson arrived here with a high-octane offense, but missing its most potent weapon. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the most explosive player in the ACC as a freshman last season (1,219 yards on 82 catches), has been suspended for the first two games. But Clemson still had more weapons:
• Senior running back Andre Ellington, who told coaches last December that he was going to pass on his final year of college to turn pro. But offensive coordinator Chad Morris and head coach Dabo Swinney put on the full-court press to get Ellington to stay -- and he did.
"It was one of the best recruiting jobs I've ever done," Swinney said. Ellington ran through the Auburn defense for a career-high 231 yards rushing on 26 carries. As a team Clemson ran for 320 yards.
"He was relentless tonight," Swinney said of Ellington. "It was great to see him get off to that kind of start."
• Tajh Boyd, the redshirt junior quarterback. With Clemson trailing 19-16 in the fourth, Boyd directed a 75-yard touchdown drive on 10 plays -- capped with a 4-yard pass to DeAndre Hopkins. When Clemson got the ball back with 5:59 left, Boyd put together a 79-yard drive for an 18-yard field goal that locked up the game with 1:24 left.
Clemson had 528 yards of total offense. Boyd completed 24 of 34 passes for 208 yards and ran for 58 more.
"He is an exceptional football player," said Auburn coach Gene Chizik. "Time after time we were in position to make the play and he escaped. As the game went on he got stronger. My hat's off to the young man. He is a fantastic football player."
Several times on those fourth-quarter drives Boyd would keep drives alive with his feet.
"One of the things I've been working with him on in the offseason is telling him you've got to know what to do when the receiver isn't open," Morris said. "You've got to manage the game with your feet and ability and he did a good job with that tonight."
• Clemson also had Hopkins, who filled the void left by Watkins with a career-high 13 catches for 119 yards.
"Guys stepped up and filled the void for Sammy," Swinney said. "When he's on the field, obviously he can impact the game. But we're proud [of] how the team picked up the slack."
Auburn must regroup to begin SEC play next Saturday at Mississippi State.
"What it came down to is that they made the plays with the game on the line and we couldn't get them off the field," Chizik said. "One of the benefits about playing a game like this is you know exactly where you and where you need to go. And we have a long way to go. We have a lot of building blocks that we can take away from this game."
Clemson gets two walkovers at home against Ball State and Furman before the big trip to Florida State on Sept. 22.
"This is a good start but all it means is that we accomplished our first goal which was to win the first game," Swinney said. "All we know is that we were better than Auburn tonight."
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