For the ACC, the first leg of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic brought another cosmic flop. Tennessee, which finished below .500 last season, beat North Carolina State, which went 8-5 in 2011 and is expected to do better this year, by two touchdowns.That marked the fourth appearance by a team from the basketball league in this football event, and going 0-for-4 is how you get to be known as a basketball league.
At least the ACC’s first three Chick-fil-A losses came against SEC heavyweights — Alabama twice, LSU once. Tennessee had been slotted to finish fifth in the seven-team SEC East. (Behind Missouri, which hasn’t yet played a game in its new conference.) But the Vols beat State, and near the end a few Tennessee fans raised the chant, “SEC! SEC!”, but there was no oomph in it. Who crows over a point that has been proved a hundred times?
The SEC plays the nation’s finest football. That’s a cold fact. The ACC is the fifth-best of the Big Six conferences, and thank goodness for the defoliated Big East. But the weekend offered one last chance for the basketball league to hurl blows against the empire.
On Saturday, Clemson stood in against Auburn. This shouldn’t have been a matchup of peers — Clemson is the reigning ACC champ, Auburn comes off a fourth-place finish in the SEC West, and Clemson had beaten Auburn last season — but such is the disparity in the conferences that the ACC’’s orange Tigers were only a field-goal favorite over the SEC’s version of same.
Here we pause to note more similarities between the programs: Each campus sits roughly two hours from the Georgia Dome on I-85; each has won a national championship since last the Georgia Bulldogs claimed one, and each, in its orange Tiger-y way, is rather strange.
Auburn is coached by Gene Chizik, who was 14-0 with Cam Newton as his quarterback and is 21-30 without. Clemson is coached by Dabo Swinney, who is 1-4 against Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech. (Although one of those Tech victories has been vacated by NCAA sanctions.) Auburn is working with new offensive and defensive coordinators; Clemson, having yielded 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, is also under new defensive management.
Through three quarters Saturday night, there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between these Tigers. The game was tied at 16. Auburn’s defense, as prepared by the former Georgia/Falcons coordinator Brian VanGorder, was bending against the excellence of Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd but not quite buckling; the Clemson D under Brent Venables, formerly of Oklahoma, was yielding rushing yards but bowing up on third down.
Boyd’s issue was that he couldn’t catch his own passes. Without the gifted receiver Sammy Watkins, who is suspended for the season’s first two games, Clemson kept dropping passes. Two flubs late in the third quarter forced Clemson to settle for yet another field goal, and on the first snap of the fourth quarter tight end Sam Cooper had both hands on a Boyd pass but couldn’t hold it. (To be fair, Boyd threw it a tad behind his man.) The resulting interception led to an Auburn field goal and a three-point lead.
Falling behind galvanized Clemson. Far from dropping the ball, DeAndre Hopkins rose above his defender and, despite being interfered with, snatched a touchdown pass on a fade route. Inside the final 10 minutes now, and the basketball league had a four-point lead.
Technically, it was the first day of September, but the game had taken on a midseason feel. The Dome was packed and loud, both sets of fans roaring, both teams playing as if this was more than a non-conference affair two nights before Labor Day. There was orange Tiger pride on the line both ways, and there was surely conference chest-thumping at work, too. Not that the basketball league has had much cause for that lately.
On this night, however, the basketball league broke through. Clemson and Boyd did the deed. (And let’s not forget running back Andre Ellington, who rushed for 231 yards.) “A big-time gutsy win,” Swinney called it, not exactly underselling the moment.
But why should he? On its fifth try, an ACC team beat an SEC opponent in the Kickoff Classic. Just this once, the almighty SEC wasn’t quite so mighty.
By Mark Bradley