ATLANTA — According to the “Fast Fact” sheet handed out at the Georgia Dome before Saturday’s Clemson-Auburn clash, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game is billed as the “Daytona 500 of College Football.”
Not sure I buy that but what the heck — I’ll play along.
If the weekend’s second Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game (Tennessee and North Carolina State played a game by the same name on Friday) was indeed the Daytona 500, then Clemson took the checkered flag and assumed the points lead.
The blue-clad Tigers battled steering problems all day and then finally puked an engine on the last lap.
The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s first and most prestigious race each season, although it can sometimes be the least important in terms of winning a championship.
Finish a lap down on a Sunday in February and there’s always next week — and the week after that, and the week after that.
College football teams have much less room for error and far fewer chances to get back in the Football Bowl Subdivision version of the Chase for the Championship.
Better to lose early than late, certainly, but high profile defeats on the first Saturday of September can put the car behind the wall.
OK, enough with the mixed sports metaphors already.
This was not the Daytona 500.
The winner didn’t squeal his tires in front of the flag stand, there was no champagne celebration in victory lane, and the only sponsors Dabo Swinney thanked came dressed as fans.
What it was, though, was an old-fashioned turf war between a defending ACC champion trying to bury the sins of a bowl blowout and an SEC team two years removed from a national title — and trying to become title-worthy once more.
Clemson’s Chandler Catanzaro and Auburn’s Cody Parkey made sure this football game would have plenty of foot in it, with the Tigers’ “Little Cat” splitting the pipes four times and Parkey doing likewise, setting new Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game records for most sidewinders in a night.
In the end, though, it was gutsy quarterbacking from Tajh Boyd, a game-altering TD catch from DeAndre Hopkins and a tour de force running show from Andre Ellington that resulted in a staggering 231 rushing yards — and made fans salivate over what this offense can do once Sammy Watkins returns to the lineup.
The first half was more messy than riveting, although Ellington sure looked smooth running the ball for Clemson.
Auburn’s Kiehl Frazier and Emory Blake had a sweet hookup on a 54-yard pitch and catch, too, providing the airborne excitement.
But with the Tigers sweating out a 13-10 halftime lead there was much work to be done for the team that wanted to make a goof first impression before a packed dome and millions of couch-bound fans.
That team was Clemson, which bashed and banged its way to a 26-19 victory.
No, this was not the Daytona 500.
But as they say in NASCAR, “The No. 14 Solid Orange Nation machine ran good.”