CLEMSON, S.C. – As soon as the bus started to move, it started to shake.
The ride from the Clemson Tigers locker room to the top of the famous hill entering the stadium here is only a few minutes, but it felt like an entire summer. Players couldn't wait, and they started standing up. Then they started pounding the windows. The rig began to rattle.
Junior defensive back Martin Jenkins started to freestyle rap. He yelled loud enough to hear over the din: how he wanted this game so badly, how the fans were all ready, how the team could not let them down.
Then came the screams, so loud that the bus driver, Mason Bridges, reached over to his console and cut off his radio.
Then he started screaming too.
"They all started screaming," Bridges said. "So I started screaming."
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What was he screaming?
"I was just screaming," he laughed.
He stopped the bus at the top of the hill. And all the Tigers tumbled out into the roar of the night. Dabo Swinney, the emotional and garrulous coach, shook his fist at the waiting crowd and paced like he was a caged cat himself. Then he bolted down onto the field so fast that players behind him couldn't quite believe it.
"He had that 4.3 speed!" said cornerback Garry Peters, laughing. "That's the fastest he's run in a minute. Since his Alabama days."
What happened next felt like decades in the making.
If Clemson's 38-35 upset of fifth-ranked Georgia wasn't the biggest regular-season win since the Tigers beat the 'Dawgs on the way to the national championship in 1981, it was close enough. If the home crowd, standing and sweating and swaying the whole night on metal benches, wasn't the rowdiest, loudest, loopiest crowd since the early '80s, it was close enough. And if a comeback win over a loaded national title contender wasn't a statement that this Clemson group can be the one that finally topples the SEC dynasty, well, it was close enough.
"We've been preparing for Georgia all summer long," Peters said. "We wanted it, we were pumped, we were ready."
Swinney told his team early this week that it had a chance to be the first-ever non-SEC team to beat two top-10 SEC teams in a row. The Tigers' bowl win over LSU last December wasn't much of a ripple in the sport, but Swinney knew a victory over Georgia on the first Saturday of the 2013 season would be. He told the Tigers to "go out there and shock college football."
They did that, and they did it with vicious counterpunches in what was a brawl from the get-go. Georgia sophomore Todd Gurley worried the sweltering home crowd with a blistering 75-yard dash to tie the game at seven early, then Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd fired a pass to Sammy Watkins for a 77-yard strike to take a seven-point lead. Then the Bulldogs came right back with a score of their own.
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That's how it would go for most of the long, hot night: Georgia hitting and Clemson hitting back.
In the end, Boyd's poise was the difference. Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was terrific, but a fumble deep in his own territory late in the first half led to a Boyd draw play that tied the score at 21. Clemson never looked back after that point. Murray was sacked four times and had two turnovers; Boyd was sacked once and had no turnovers.
"I can't say enough about Tajh Boyd," said Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris. "He played like a veteran quarterback is supposed to play. He never shook, he never rattled."
It was Boyd who found Stanton Seckinger for the crucial score in the fourth, with the tight end from a 92-student high school class in Isle of Palms tiptoeing beautifully along the sideline and reaching for the pylon to make it 38-28. The referee ruled him out, but Seckinger thought, "No way!" And he was right. It's appropriate that Seckinger pushed across the game-winner: he has two brothers who went to school here and his mom was a volleyball player back in the late-'70s, right at the dawn of the football program's greatest era.
Seckinger saw how the defense lined up on that play and thought his route would get him open. "I had a hint," he said. The only question was whether Boyd would get the same hint. He did.
"Tajh is unbelievable," Seckinger said. "He's the kind of quarterback I want to lead me. His confidence spreads to other players. It's an honor to be able to play with him."
It is Boyd who gives Clemson a real shot to go all the way to the BCS Championship game. There are plenty of tough games to go, including Florida State and South Carolina, but Boyd and favorite target Sammy Watkins will allow the Tigers to play from behind and run away from ahead. Boyd's demeanor after the game, standing outside his locker room, was tellingly more muted than his energy before the game.
"It's just the first game," he said. "It's a great victory for the university."
Asked if it was a statement on behalf of the conference, Boyd said, "Yes and no. That's not really what we do. But we do have the [ACC] logo on our jerseys."
The paw logo on their jerseys is starting to mean something different now. Clemson has been linked to failure for a while. "Clemson-ing" is listed in Urban Dictionary as "When you are widely favored to succeed and instead crash & burn." There have been too many iconic moments of disappointment, from Georgia kicker Kevin Butler's 60-yard field goal in 1980 to the Seminoles' "puntrooskie" in 1988 to the highly-touted 2008 team that never delivered on its promise.
This team might be the start of something new by following a path that's 33 years old.
It's way too soon to know. But this team realizes, just as the '81 team did, that special seasons go through Georgia. On Saturday, a rollicking and rolling Tiger team took care of business against the 'Dawgs.
Bridges sat in the bus outside the Tigers locker room well past midnight on Sunday morning, waiting for the players to come out. He'll go back to his regular job for the next few days, leading tour groups to places like New Orleans and Washington, D.C. But for a season-ticket holder for 17 years who has never felt quite so much electricity on his bus, "this is huge for me."
How does it rank all-time? Anywhere near the top of the list of Clemson memories?
"Top five," he said.
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