COLUMBIA — Travis Etienne looked up at the clouds Saturday and saw a football screaming in his direction. Around him, Williams-Brice Stadium buzzed.
The annual rivalry game between Clemson and South Carolina was underway, and Etienne, tasked with returning the opening kickoff, was in the thick of it.
The running back gained 32 yards before getting tackled. He later returned a second kickoff 18 yards in what turned into a 38-3 Clemson victory.
Etienne hadn't brought back a kick since the 2017 season, but there he was Saturday, tasked with one of the most heart-pounding jobs in the sport. It was a function of what co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott referred to as the urgency of the Tigers' "championship phase."
"All hands on deck. It's time to roll," Elliott said. "We can't leave anything to chance. He's a guy that, anytime he touches the ball, something special could happen."
Etienne, indeed, is one of the most explosive players in the nation. Though he only rushed for 51 yards on 15 carries — snapping a streak of six consecutive games of at least 100 rushing yards — Etienne scored a pair of rushing touchdowns Saturday, with the second pushing him past former Pitt running back James Conner for the most career rushing touchdowns (53) and overall touchdowns (56) in ACC history.
Despite his spectacular season — Etienne entered the contest averaging 8.7 yards per carry — he was not named a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which is given annually to the nation's best running back.
Swinney earlier in the week labeled Etienne's snub as a "joke," and he echoed that sentiment Saturday.
"He's not quite good enough to be the finalist for some running back award," Swinney said in a sarcastic tone. "It's unbelievable to me. That's just kind of the way it is. People have missed out on a beautiful career and missed out on a beautiful season for No. 9. He has had one of the most dominant seasons I've ever seen from a player."
Etienne could be entering the final stretch of his college career. He'll be eligible for the 2020 NFL Draft and projects as an early-round selection. In the meantime, the Tigers plan on deploying him wherever they can.
"I believe he's the best back in the country," Elliott said.