Clemson running back Travis Etienne breaks tackles en route to the end zone Thursday night against Georgia Tech. Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier

CLEMSON — This was not Dabo's Swinney's first time atop The Hill.

But things have changed for the Clemson coach since the last time he stood from that peak, peering down on Death Valley.

He's architect of two of the last three national champions.

He's a national celebrity.

He's atop the college football world.

Thursday night, Swinney rubbed Howard's Rock and made off, sprinting full speed down the slope and onto the field. The Tigers followed his lead and took care of the rest, racing past Georgia Tech to a 52-14 victory.

Running back Travis Etienne rushed for 205 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence accounted for two scores (one rushing, one throwing). And the Clemson defense forced four turnovers, shutting down Georgia Tech's freewheeling offense drive after drive.

The Tigers celebrated their 2018 national championship before the game. A banner was raised. Hype music thumped through the PA system. The stadium shook. 

The crowd grew sleepy as the blowout wore on, though. The roars that earlier accompanied passes caught and tackles made melted into scattered applause. 

And yet the orange-clad Clemson fans remained in their seats. It was a weeknight, sure. But responsibilities could wait. The view from the top is splendid.  

What went right

Etienne wasn't the lone Tigers running back to have a big night. Sophomore Lyn-J Dixon rushed for 64 yards and a touchdown on eight carries, and Lawrence carried the ball three times for 24 yards and a first-quarter score. Running backs Darius Rencher, Michael Dukes and Chez Mellusi rushed for 21, 29 and 36 yards, respectively

Clemson might have some new faces on the defensive line, but it has four seniors on the offensive front. The group worked in sync Thursday, opening holes to the left, to the right and through the middle, and Clemson finished with 411 yards on the ground. Georgia Tech, meanwhile, recorded 157 rushing yards. 

What went wrong

Lawrence looked brilliant at times, but he did make a couple of questionable decisions. He was intercepted twice in the first half, including one just before halftime.

The sophomore did plenty of good things, and it's probably too soon to sound any alarm bells. But after a sensational freshman season, Lawrence is being counted on to lead the Tigers to another deep postseason run. He'll need to clean up the mistakes going forward as the level of competition improves. 

Lawrence finished 13-for-23 for 168 yards, with his one touchdown pass a 62-yard strike to Tee Higgins in the second quarter. He then ceded the spotlight to backup Chase Brice, who threw for 53 yards and a touchdown on 5-for-7 passing. Freshman Taisun Phommachanh entered late and rushed five times for 21 yards. 

Turning point

Before things got out of hand, Georgia Tech had Clemson on its heels. About midway through the first quarter, the Tigers were called for a 10-yard holding penalty, setting up a first and 20. 

Then Lawrence handed off to Etienne, who bounced out to the left side, following offensive tackle Jackson Carman's lead. Carman leveled the lone Georgia Tech defender with a shot at Etienne, allowing the running back to scamper 90 yards for a score, giving Clemson a 14-0 lead.

It was only the first quarter, but Etienne's run ignited the Clemson faithful. Georgia Tech couldn't find its footing from there. 

Looking ahead

Clemson hosts No. 12 Texas A&M next week in what should be one of the Tigers' most difficult challenges of the regular season. The Aggies return junior quarterback Kellen Mond, who will look to outshine Lawrence and make his case as one of the best signal callers in the nation. 

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland graduate.

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