CLEMSON – There are football games at Clemson, and then there are night football games at Clemson.
They are two vastly different entities, two vastly different experiences, both for fans and for the game's participants.
“A night game in the Valley is special,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “There’s something special when the lights are on and it’s a full day of enjoyment in Clemson, South Carolina.”
Kickoff may not be until 7 p.m., but at Clemson that means only that the party hours are extended.
Swinney discovered as much last year while leaving campus following his early-morning appearance on ESPN’s College GameDay nearly 12 hours before the Louisville game.
Swinney asked the trooper who was driving him back to the team hotel to pull over so he could chat with some fans.
“The trooper pulls the car up and they’re like, ‘What’s going on?’” Swinney said. “They’re all drinking beer, and I roll the window down and say, ‘Hey boys, we ready to go?’ and they look at me like, ‘Coach Swinney?’”
Swinney got out of the car and shook the tailgaters’ hands and mugged for photos.
“Y’all are drinking beer already?” Swinney said. “It’s gonna be rockin’ in the Valley tonight!”
It was, to be sure, as Clemson held off the Cardinals and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Lamar Jackson 42-36 – a victory that loomed large in qualifying the Tigers for the College Football Playoff and eventually winning the school’s first national title in 35 years.
Clemson will play a game of similar ilk in its first night game of the 2017 season Saturday when the No. 3 Tigers host 13th-ranked Auburn. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Such games are what Brad Woods, a longtime Clemson fan from Central, savors.
“There’s nothing like it – best atmosphere in college football, period,” Woods said. “There’s just something about Death Valley (at night). It gets my blood pumping, and then they run down The Hill and I won’t leave my seat until the game is over.
“Auburn will see why it’s the toughest place to play on Saturday night.”
Night games have indeed proved challenging for visiting teams, particularly of late. The Tigers are 9-3 in home night games since Swinney became head coach midway through the 2008 season and are 5-0 in home night games over the last three seasons.
Last season the Tigers were a school-record 10-0 overall in night games, including a 2-0 mark at Memorial Stadium.
“It’s why we come here,” Clemson tight end Milan Richard said. “Everybody wants to play big-time football under the lights at night with 85,000 strong.”
Said wide receiver Hunter Renfrow: “Anytime you go in Death Valley at night time, it’s exciting. This is a big game and that’s good for us because we’ve played a lot of big games the last couple of years.”
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For fans, there’s no excuse for a late arrival.
“Everybody has a chance to get here,” Swinney said. “You’ve got traffic backed up all the way past Mac’s (Drive-In) coming in for a noon game. At night, you don’t have that. Everybody’s here and ready to go. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of it.”
Scott Keepfer, The Greenville News