CLEMSON, S.C. -- Auburn’s 17-game winning streak is history, and so is Clemson’s history of coming up empty in big games.
Think this one didn't mean a little something extra to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney?
Granted, Swinney’s the excitable type. But go check out his postgame interview on ESPN.com.
It was reminiscent of listening to the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair back in his glory days.
Certainly, it was a glorious day for Swinney’s Tigers, who blazed their way out of an early 14-0 hole and sent the defending national champions packing in a 38-24 victory that was a long time coming in these parts.
The Clemson players are well aware of the underachiever label that has been attached to this program for much of the past decade.
One game hardly makes a season, but there’s a genuine belief on this team that this game can help propel the Tigers to a special season.
“I think we’re respected around the nation, but in the big games, we’ve always come up short ever since I can remember. Today was just our time, and we’re going to keep it going,” said Clemson senior cornerback Coty Sensabaugh, whose fourth-quarter interception all but sealed Auburn’s fate.
Auburn had made a living of doing the improbable in the fourth quarter this season, finding one way after another to survive.
Swinney had challenged his team before the game to make its own statement.
“I told our guys that they could either be victim number 18 or the guys who broke the streak,” said Swinney, who took delight in pointing out that it was an Alabama graduate who was in charge of breaking the streak. “There’s no better place to kill a winning streak than Clemson, S.C. I’m proud of everyone. Our guys believe.”
Clemson (3-0) had been anything but impressive its first two weeks, coming back from first-half deficits to beat Troy and Wofford.
The start of this game had a similar feel, as No. 21-ranked Auburn raced out to a 14-0 lead and then a 21-7 advantage.
“We’ve got the kind of offense that we’re never going to be out of the game,” said Clemson sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd, who torched Auburn’s reeling defense for a career-high 386 yards passing and four touchdowns.
“We’re going to keep coming at you, and we have a lot of guys that can make plays.”
Boyd, making just his third career start, was brilliant. He finished 30-of-42 and didn’t throw an interception.
Even after Clemson managed just 34 total yards in its first three offensive possessions, Boyd never panicked.
“We just had to find our groove, and once we did, we really did,” Boyd said.
Nobody on Auburn’s defense would disagree. Clemson converted 10 straight third downs at one point and finished with 624 yards in total offense, the third most in school history.
“This isn’t last year’s team,” Clemson junior tight end Dwayne Allen said. “If we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose with some points on the board ... not six field goals like years past.”
Added Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris, “This is no fluke. This is what we’re supposed to do.”
Of course, it helps when you bring in a talent like Sammy Watkins, who had 199 combined receiving/rushing yards and is the early leader in the clubhouse for college football’s best true freshman receiver.
His speed is impressive. The way he delivers the blow, much like a running back, is even more impressive.
Watkins set Clemson records with 10 catches for 155 yards and had a pair of touchdowns. The only good look Auburn defensive backs got of him all day was from the backside.
“I wasn’t really thinking about records. I was just focusing on beating Auburn,” said Watkins, a highly rated prospect from Fort Myers, Fla., who could have gone anywhere in the country, but fell in love with Clemson’s small-town charm.
“I kept thinking, ‘We have to beat them.’ I wasn’t thinking about touchdowns. I wasn’t thinking about yards. I was just thinking, ‘We have to beat Auburn.’ ”
A year ago, it was Auburn coming back from a 17-0 deficit to beat Clemson in overtime.
The players on that Auburn team will tell you that it’s the game that sent them on their way to their national championship run.
Now, it’s Clemson’s turn to see what it can do with Swinney’s first real signature win outside the ACC.
The road sure doesn’t get any easier. The Tigers get Florida State at home next week and then Virginia Tech on the road on Oct. 1.
“This is the point where Auburn started to take off last year,” Boyd said. “Hopefully, we can do the same thing. We’ve got a tough road. We just have to keep working hard and keeping improving.”