Clemson didn’t need a superstar performance from its star QB to get a walkover win on Thursday.
A big part of picking No.1 Clemson to make it back to the College Football Playoff, if you were among the many experts or fans to do so, had to with a strong sophomore season from seemingly NFL-ready quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Thursday night’s opener against Georgia Tech did little to influence anyone from the belief that Lawrence is among the best quarterbacks in the country, but it did remind us that the most impactful star in the felony might be elsewhere in the Tigers’ backfield.
Travis Etienne, the 2018 ACC Offensive Player of the Year, got right back to his productive ways in a 52-14 win against the Yellow Jackets. The junior running back totaled 205 rushing yards and three landings on just 12 carries, following the lead of a stellar offensive line and showcasing the breakaway speed that makes him just as unsafe as any of the highly hyped wide receivers on Clemson’s roster.
Etienne’s performance served as a great reminder of where Dabo Swinney values excellence on the football field. Clemson’s wide receiver room is as talented as anyone in the country, with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross leading a group that creates matchup problems against most self-protective backfields, but the Tigers offense starts with winning battles at the line of scrimmage and opening running lanes for Etienne and the rest of Clemson’s running backs to keep opponents on their heels.
That said, Higgins did put up one of the best plays of the night on a 62-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Lawrence.
There’s a long list of passing game stars that have shined under Swinney, a former wide receivers coach himself. But last season’s 15-0 title run was powered by Etienne and leading play at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Georgia Tech is a program in Year Zero with low expectations, but it’s still an ACC opponent that faces the Tigers every year. Clemson’s domination on Thursday night should not be served with asterisk, but as a warning sign to the rest of the league that even on a night when Lawrence puts up a pedestrian stat line — 13-for-23 passing for 168 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions — the Tigers are going to be good enough to win the league.