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Sapakoff: It’s up to new ACC favorite Clemson to beat the SEC

September 5, 2017 GMT

CLEMSON – What have you done for the ACC lately?

Not much, Florida State. Or N.C. State or Georgia Tech.

That 10-4 ACC record against the big, bad SEC was so 2016.

The Seminoles’ offense even before quarterback Deondre Francois suffered a season-ending knee injury was inept against Alabama. The Wolfpack arrived in Charlotte so bubbly, departed very dazed after a loss to South Carolina. The Yellow Jackets couldn’t hold a two-touchdown lead against wobbly Tennessee.

Uh-oh, 0-3.

Fortunately for the ACC, Clemson gets a shot at Auburn on Saturday at Death Valley. Not only is this the ACC’s safest September bet against a good SEC team, it’s an “extremely confident” bunch – wide receiver Hunter Renfrow’s words Tuesday. With Francois out, the defending national champs have gone from second-fiddle to ACC favorite again, which only sharpens the edge.

Clemson didn’t have to show much last week in a 56-3 season-opening rout of lowly Kent State. The Tigers, however, officially revealed unusual skill-position depth, including four capable running backs and eight or nine dangerous receivers. That’s a lot of options when the going gets rugged, multiple reasons why Clemson’s playoff chances haven’t changed much from this time last year when Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Wayne Gallman, Artavis Scott and Jordan Leggett were around.

“Everybody was just eager to come out and prove that we have great guys that left,” running back C.J. Fuller said, “but we also have great guys that are still here.”

Toy boxes full of toys

Fuller and fellow junior Adam Choice will share carries with sophomore Tavien Feaster and freshman Travis Etienne, both of whom rocketed out of the backfield against Kent State. Feaster had a 47-yard touchdown run, Etienne a 54-yard scamper.

Linebacker Dorian O’Daniel saw the same precocious things in preseason camp when the Clemson defense gave the running backs a much tougher test than Kent State would provide with backup help from every other team the Mid-American Conference.

“It’s just a testimony to how hard our offense works, iron sharpening iron every day in practice, competing against each other, making each other better,” O’Daniel said. “It’s just really good to see. Very encouraging to see even the young guys coming in and making an impact early.”

If one of the running backs doesn’t rise to the top, that’s fine.

“We’re glad to have as many good players as we can have, and hopefully they all compete and play well,” head coach Dabo Swinney said.

Auburn is apparently good, better than the team that was throwing into the end zone at the end of a 19-13 loss to Clemson last year on The Plains. The main difference is at quarterback, Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham.

“They have every toy in the toy box,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said of the balanced Auburn offense as run by first-year coordinator Chip Lindsey.

Sort of like the other Tigers’ toy box.

‘Great match-up’

Clemson will be properly motivated by the close call last year.

“We didn’t play very well in this game, offensively,” Swinney said. “We hit some plays; we were good enough to win. But we missed a lot of opportunities and give them credit for that. But we had several dropped balls.”

So it’s as possible as wafers in banana pudding that Clemson was peeking ahead to Auburn this summer. The Tigers were not fully focused on the Kent State team that amassed one (1) yard passing in its check-cashing stop at Death Valley.

“Obviously, Auburn is going to be a great match-up all over the board,” Fuller said. “We just have to take the confidence and run with it.”

Swinney shrugged at the ACC’s early 0-3 record against the SEC.

“It’s a competitive game,” he said. “When you play games like that, you can lose them. What does that mean? I don’t know. You better not turn the ball over against good people. You do that, you probably lose. First weekend.”

Second weekend?

What does that mean?

I don’t know. But in the worst-case scenario, Clemson seems tough-minded and deep enough to bounce back from a loss or other adversity in a competitive game, unlike more fragile, non-playoff contending ACC programs likely to crumble at the first sign of trouble.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff