Originally posted on Fox Sports South  |  Last updated 9/1/12
ATLANTA -- On the eve of a date with the heavyweight conference of the college football universe, Evander Holyfield had a few stories for Clemson. He talked about a tough childhood growing up in Atlanta. He talked about confidence, lost and gained. He talked of being knocked down 11 times in his career, of resiliency, of being a five-time world heavyweight boxing champion. "I was kinda starstruck, to be honest you," defensive tackle Josh Watson said of Holyfield, whose connection to the program is through childhood friend Keith Adams, a former All-American at Clemson. But that was the last time that emotion would overcome any Clemson player on college football's opening weekend. Auburn surely did not leave them in awe, as the ACC brand of Tigers much-maligned following their 70-33 blowout loss to West Virginia in last season's BCS Orange Bowl methodically put away its SEC counterpart. Champions bounce back. Evander Holyfield taught them that. And although Clemson has not come close to reaching any goals of national significance, this victory was necessary, if anything, to prove they would not become victims of adversity. Even without star wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who was suspended two games for an offseason drug arrest, the offense proved its mettle. Tajh Boyd was not the Week One Heisman of yesteryear, but he did show his will, fighting for extra yardage when plays broke down and totaling 266 yards and one passing touchdown. He was sacked four times. He kept bouncing back up. With his favorite target watching from home, Boyd turned to DeAndre Hopkins. The 6-foot-1 wideout delivered a single-game school record 13 receptions for 119 yards. His highlight reel touchdown reception in the corner of an Auburn-painted end zone proved to be the game winner. "When Watkins is down, we're gonna pick up the slack for him," said running back Andre Ellington, who did his part in rushing for a career-high 231 yards to pace Clemson's attack. Ellington, the senior from Moncks Corner, S.C., who came into the season as the third leg of Clemson's offensive trifecta with Boyd and Watkins, said the team was tired of hearing questions about the Orange Bowl or if they could ever put together a consistent season. His comments were accented by Aretha Franklin's "Respect" booming out of his team's locker room "What you want, baby I got it," his hidden teammates sang and the rest of the orange-clad bodies streaming by. Perhaps the ACC deserves more respect than just consideration as the SEC's perennial punching bag, or perhaps, as Swinney said in his postgame press conference, the only thing discovered was that Clemson was better than Auburn on this particular evening. "That's one thing we want is for people to respect us. We put a lot of work in and sometimes we didn't win on the big stage. And tonight we did that," Ellington said. "People are still gonna have doubts. They're gonna say win two big games back to back." Clemson can't control that. Not yet. But there was also no controlling the amount of pride that enveloped each and every player, coach and special guest walking the field late Saturday evening. As players piled onto a makeshift stage to try on the Old Leather Helmet, Holyfield, the man who had experienced so many personal victories in his time, stood there grinning from ear to ear. In that moment, he belonged. The only problem: With his white shirt hanging down untucked over his jeans, there was no orange to be seen on his person. A Clemson assistant fixed that. He ran over and plopped his own hat down on Holyfield's shaved head. He didn't take it off, not even as the players jumped off the stage and ran to the back right corner of the Clemson-painted end zone, basking in chants of "ACC! ACC! ACC!" He didn't take it off as Clemson jogged to the locker room to listen to Aretha Franklin. Clemson's coaches each made a point to tell thank him, to make him feel welcome and part of the family. The Tigers' family could always use a heavyweight in its corner. "I'm proud of these boys," Holyfield said. Of course, the question marks that Ellington alluded to do exist. Auburn is, at best, a third- or fourth-rate team in the SEC, yet they were still able to move the ball well on the ground and still only lost by seven points. The addition of Watkins back into the lineup will help tremendously, but he does not play offensive line the same unit that allowed Boyd to be sacked four times and hurried, at least, another five. If Clemson is the class of the ACC in 2012, it has yet to create an illusion of greatness. There is work left to do. No matter. That's for Monday; this is Saturday evening and the ACC leaves Atlanta with a 1-1 record against the high and mighty league of the land. Finding the happiest person in the Georgia Dome was a tough task following the contest. There was too much orange whizzing by, happy faces lost in brilliant blurs. But one could guess Holyfield, Swinney or ACC Commissioner John Swofford, all with equal certainty. Swofford, wearing a Clemson-flavored tie and pocket square, must have felt equally vindicated and exuberant as coaches and fellow executives filed past, shaking hands and screaming, "How 'bout that ACC?" As he stood with Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips Swoffoed sipping a Diet Coke, Phillips a Dasani water he talked in excited tones about the team's upcoming schedule and what it meant for the conference collectively. This was not the usual scene after an ACC-SEC clash. Normally, there are been-there-done-that quotes and a victor's nonchalance. Not in Atlanta. On Saturday night, one of the ACC's best bounced back from a brutal defeat to knockout a team from college football's heavyweight league. With a five-time world champion looking on, Clemson proved it could take a punch and bounce right back up.
What a time to be Tom Herman!
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