ATLANTA -- The talk outside the Clemson locker room focused on the absence of one dynamic Sammy Watkins, filling radio talk shows and newspapers, blogs and online reports.
The talk inside the Clemson locker room?
Well, leave it to receivers coach Jeff Scott to draw a little diagram for his players, without X's and O's.
On this diagram: every receiver on the team, with his receptions and receiving yards from 2011.
“It was amazing,” DeAndre Hopkins said. “Like we had Sammy out there. So we knew coming into the game that we were prepared and we could do work with the guys we have.”
The storyline was a convenient and simple one: How would Clemson do without Watkins in the opener against Auburn? But it inconveniently missed a major point.
The Tigers have playmakers in spades on this team. You saw it Saturday night in a 26-19 victory over Auburn in the Georgia Dome, a win that gave the ACC a temporary reprieve on the national credibility front and hopefully closes the chapter on the Meltdown in Miami.
Tajh Boyd ran for a career-high 58 yards -- 38 of them on the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter -- looking much sleeker and faster without the 20 pounds he gained last season.
Andre Ellington, healthy for the first time in two years, ran for a career-high 231 yards on what was a decent Auburn defensive front. Two of those runs sent jaws dropping, as he slithered away from would-be tacklers, busted a few spin moves and kept a balance that ought to make Olympic gymnasts blush.
Hopkins set a single-game school record with 13 receptions for 119 yards and the game-winning touchdown, a play that featured an acrobatic leap in the corner of the end zone with a defender draped on his back.
These three players, all known quantities from last season, proved to be even better in Week 1 of a new year. When the Tigers needed them most, trailing 19-16 in the fourth quarter, each responded. Combined, they accounted for 19 of the 21 plays on the final two drives of the game -- drives that resulted in 10 points and the Clemson victory.
“We knew that the guys were going to come to the upperclassmen and look for us when were down in a hole, and we were going to step up and set the tone for the whole season,” Hopkins said. “And we did that.”
Offensive coordinator Chad Morris preached all summer about playing faster, faster, faster this season. You saw the big reason in this game. Clemson, struggling early in the game with its rebuilt offensive line, started to see Auburn get tired.
Not just hands-on-your-hips tired. Players started asking to be taken out of the game in the second quarter. Center Dalton Freeman noticed, and so did the entire Clemson offensive line and offensive staff. Morris went up to Ellington and asked a simple question.
“What do you want to do?”
Ellington went up to his offensive line.
“Do y’all want to pass or do y’all want to run?” he asked.
“They said, ‘Let’s run the ball,'” Ellington recalled. “They felt those guys were getting tired and we could push them around real well, so we did that. Coach kept feeding me the ball, and we had success with it.”
Success to the tune of 320 yards rushing and 87 total plays.
“Our guys could have played all night,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “They were strong.”
They were physical, too, and grew up as the game went on. The starting offensive line played every single snap save one, when right tackle Gifford Timothy got hurt at the end of the game.
While the offensive line was blossoming, the defense started playing with more conviction. There were missed assignments, blown tackles and many open running lanes early on. But when the game was on the line, this group came up with some pretty huge stops.
Auburn made it inside the Clemson 30 three times in the second half. Two of those drives made it into the red zone. On each of the three drives, Auburn had to settle for a field goal -- crucial plays that ended up having a direct effect on the score.
Seeing 19 up there surely feels better than the big 7-0 that gnawed at this team -- and this conference -- for eight long months. Seeing this team win without Watkins, well, that was pretty special, too.
“We just have to keep building off it,” Boyd said. “People after the game asked me, ‘Did this do anything for the ACC/SEC?' It has nothing to do with that. This is all about Clemson. We’re doing everything we can for Clemson. I feel like we’ve got a special team in the making. We’ve just got to keep going, keep persevering.”