CLEMSON — Dabo Swinney heard the questions. Over and over and over again. And over and over again.
For eight months, the memory of Clemson’s embarrassing 70-33 Orange Bowl demolition at West Virginia’s hands lingered.
In about 100 different ways, local and ACC reporters asked Swinney and his players: how will you respond?
“I laugh when people bring up the Orange Bowl,” Swinney said late Saturday night. “We lost four games last year, and we’re not happy about any of them. It was a tough night, but that was last year. We have great coaches and great young men. They choose to listen to the right things, and go back to work. Great teams learn and grow from failure and success in the previous season.”
Clemson is only one game into 2012, but Swinney and Co. appear to have learned from that south Florida slog.
Saturday night, they showed major poise on their return to the national stage, overcoming a fourth-quarter deficit for a 26-19 win over Auburn before 75,000-plus at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic inside Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.
There were ugly plays, coverage busts, moments of doubt – all the typical accoutrements of a college football opener, especially one played against a fringe top-25 opponent.
But the Tigers also displayed mental and defensive toughness – two things that were often in short supply in 2011’s late-season meltdown – and flashed physical might behind a rebuilt offensive line.
And they did so without star sophomore receiver Sammy Watkins, who stayed behind in Clemson while serving the first of a two-game suspension as punishment for a May drug arrest.
Swinney said his team took a lesson from former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield, who spoke to the group Friday night.
“We had one game that got away from us, and it was disappointing,” he said. “But we had one of the best seasons in Clemson history. That’s what champions do – they learn how to respond. (Holyfield) is the only five-time champion ever, and he got beat 11 times. But he’d come back strong each time. The lesson is, you don’t worry about what others say or think. You have a great attitude, learn to be honest with yourself and go get better.”
They did that in plenty of ways Saturday night. An rebuilt offensive line that returned only two starters from 2011 overcame a shaky first half and paved the way for 320 rushing yards, 231 from senior tailback Andre Ellington, who had a career night.
Afterward, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said it was the first time Ellington has played healthy in two years.
Junior quarterback Tajh Boyd – 15 pounds lighter than he was at the end of last season – threw for 208 yards and ran for another 58, including a crucial 27-yard scramble that kickstarted the go-ahead touchdown drive.
Underappreciated junior wideout DeAndre Hopkins picked up all of Watkins’ slack and then some, catching a Clemson single-game record 13 passes for 119 yards and the game-winning score with an Auburn cornerback draped all over him.
Brent Venables’ defense had its share of busts, but made the plays it needed to, holding Auburn to three second-half field goals. A young defensive line harassed first-time Auburn starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier and kept the offense afloat until it could wear down a salty AU defense.
Playing Auburn in a high-profile had its share of risk: implode, and the unrest fueled by the Orange Bowl would only grow entering Sept. 22’s crucial road test at ACC favorite Florida State.
As is, those same fans now have reason to anticipate a top-10 showdown of unbeaten teams under the lights in Tallahassee.
Following the program’s first win in Georgia in eight years, the mood around the WestZone should be positively peachy this week.
Swinney should be more than happy to answer those kinds of questions.