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November 23, 2013

Celebration day

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CLEMSON -- On the afternoon of Sept. 3, 2011, it took all of about 15 seconds for Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins to introduce themselves to the world.

After one play from scrimmage in the opener against Troy, Boyd hit Watkins on a bubble screen and Sammy exploded for a 33-yard touchdown.

Most people already knew Boyd was a highly regarded quarterback. Most people already knew Watkins was a decorated receiver.

But this moment sent a message: It was on.

That day, it was time to celebrate the possibilities. Saturday, before and during a trouncing of The Citadel, it was time to celebrate the accomplishments of the last three seasons.

Boyd said goodbye officially. And it might as well have been an unofficial goodbye for Watkins, who'd be crazy to stay in college at this point.

They've set all kinds of records in their three years together, and Saturday's 52-6 win improved Clemson to 31-7 over that stretch.

There's still a sense of unfinished business for Boyd, for Watkins and for the entire program. For all the high-flying fun and big wins, a failure to beat South Carolina would leave a smudge on their accomplishments.

"The list is long of what these guys have accomplished," Dabo Swinney said after the game, referring to all the players honored on Senior Day.

"There's a very small list of things they haven't done, and that's obviously a big one."

They'll have an opportunity to end that futility next week in Columbia under the lights at Williams-Brice Stadium.

But put yourself back in the summer of 2011, before this impressive and illustrious run started. Rewind to the depressing 2010 season, when the offense invented new ways to fail to score touchdowns by the week. There weren't many people predicting all that's taken place the last three seasons.

"These guys have left their legacy," said Chad Morris, who joined the program as offensive coordinator in January of 2011. "We're extremely proud of the legacy they've left. They've pretty much set a standard, and that's good to see for those guys. We've still got a couple more games left with these guys, so we're going to enjoy them while we got them."

There weren't many empty seats for this game, which was announced as a sellout coming in. There haven't been many empty seats for any games since Boyd and Watkins first started doing their thing on that September afternoon in 2011.

At a lot of places, these are stressful times for athletics administrators because attendance is declining as fans choose the much cheaper option of staying home and watching games on huge HD television screens.

But fans have continued to flock to Memorial Stadium during this run. A big reason is the rock-star existence of Boyd, Watkins and Morris' pyrotechnic offense. Fans feel like they have to be there in person to see it, and that's a priceless commodity.

Not that things are going to fall apart without Boyd and Watkins. The offense seems more than capable of continuing its explosive run after their departure. As Swinney pointed out after the game, once upon a time people were wondering how they'd replace guys named Spiller and Jacoby.

"But that's the sad part about coaching college football," Swinney acknowledged. "In the NFL, you can keep those jokers until they're almost granddaddies. In college football you get a maximum of five years. Sometimes it's three and sometimes it's four. But they have to move on, per the rules."

Boyd played far longer Saturday than most anticipated, and Swinney decided to pull the trigger after he took a severe hit while scrambling with less than four minutes left in the third quarter and Clemson up 42-3. The coach had just instructed Boyd to avoid any and all hits.

"Then he tries to run over three guys," Swinney said. "But that's Tajh. I really wish he hadn't have done that."

On the next series, Boyd trotted out with the offense and Swinney called a timeout to give him the appropriate send-off. After an assortment of hugs on the sideline, Boyd walked toward midfield to savor the moment with the fans. Then he offered a bow on his way back to the sideline.

"It was spur of the moment," Boyd said. "I was coming off and thought I might as well."

Boyd broke Charlie Whitehurst's record for consecutive starts, pushing it to 38. His five touchdown passes pushed him to 102, more than doubling Whitehurst's 49. Boyd's touchdown strikes already surpassed Philip Rivers for the ACC record. And Boyd did it in three years as a starter. Boyd needs one more victory to tie Rodney Williams for most wins in school history by a quarterback.

Watkins surpassed DeAndre Hopkins on the school's career receiving yards list. With 217 career catches in three years, he's within reach of the school record of 232 set by Aaron Kelly over four seasons.

All the offense's gaudy stats have been stifled by South Carolina, which has held the Tigers to a total of 30 points the last two years. Boyd has completed 22 of 53 passes for 266 yards with one touchdown, three interceptions and 11 sacks. Add in three sacks in backup duty during a 29-7 loss in 2010, and it's been pretty much a nightmare for Boyd against the Gamecocks.

Watkins has totaled eight catches for 76 yards in the two losses. His longest catch two years ago was 24 yards, and his longest in last year's 27-17 loss was 14 yards.

These two have won an ACC title after Clemson went two decades without one. They have made 10-win seasons the norm, sealing a third straight with this victory. They have smoked Virginia Tech three times. They have beaten Florida State. They have beaten LSU. They have beaten Auburn. They have beaten Georgia.

They haven't beaten South Carolina, and it's hard to imagine the Tigers emerging from Columbia with a victory if Boyd and Watkins aren't making big plays like they've made them against just about everyone else over their careers.

They get a chance to change all that and end Clemson's era of frustration against their nemesis.

But this day was for celebrating the end of a different era.

Things will never be quite the same without the captivating Tajh and Sammy Show.

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