CLEMSON, S.C. — Palmetto Moonshine provided the first clue. Just in front of the inflated mason jar that adorns its parking lot, a "Welcome College GameDay" banner flapped in the breeze as cars cruised west on Hwy. 76 toward Death Valley.
Indeed, ESPN's traveling football carnival has landed in Clemson for the second time this season, and by Friday afternoon the network's sets on Bowman Field already had drawn a crowd of Frisbee-throwing, class-cutting students, many of whom will be inside sold-out Memorial Stadium when the third-ranked Tigers host No. 5 Florida State on Saturday night.
But a more accurate barometer of a game's importance in these parts is the Esso Club, a filling-station-turned-sports-bar that remains true to its 1930s, no-frills, the-more-gravy-the-better roots. And Friday afternoon, the joint was jammed.
Pick-ups, BMWs and darn near every vehicle in between littered the shoulder of Old Greenville Hwy., just a pooch punt away from the stadium, a.k.a., Death Valley. Fans of both schools endured waits of an hour-plus, my waitress wore a No. 1 Clemson jersey, and the stereo played Los Lonely Boys' "Heaven."
For Clemson, the ACC's original southern-fried football school, Saturday is darn close to heaven. As it is for Florida State, which owned the conference while winning two national titles during the 1990s, and the league itself, reveling in the largest game of its 61-year history.
"It means everything," said Tajh Boyd, Clemson's fifth-year senior quarterback and a graduate of Phoebus High, "just to see (how) much we've grown as a team and as a program. … It's a big deal. You see the tents out there. You see everybody getting ready for the game and getting geared up for it. As much as we're ready to go out there and show, the fans are the same way. You just love the whole group of things that comes together when a game like this comes around."
Games like this don't come around often for the ACC. This marks the fourth all-time clash of conference teams ranked among the top five, the first since No. 5 Miami upset undefeated and No. 3 Virginia Tech in 2005.
But Saturday has elements that elevate it above the past. First, you have Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterbacks in Boyd and Florida State freshman Jameis Winston. Second, there's the ACC attempting to enhance a football image tarnished by more than a decade without a serious national contender — the Seminoles in 2000 are the most recent league team to finish in the top five.
This season, the ACC is the nation's only conference with three unbeatens: Clemson, Florida State and 10th-ranked Miami.
"We've got some very, very good teams and some starpower in the league right now, in terms of individual players as well, and that's a good combination," ACC commissioner John Swofford said.
"Well, this is what they've been wanting, isn't it?" Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "They can't talk bad about us now. We've got three undefeated teams in the top 10. This is what we have not done as a conference, bottom line. We have not produced an undefeated team, a 12-1 team. We certainly haven't had multiple teams be very consistent in that. …
"We've always had good football here, very competitive football, a lot of parity in this league, but we haven't produced that dominant team or teams to go and get in that national scene. And it's good to see our league, like I said, we've got three teams in the top 10 right now and Virginia Tech is really coming on strong. That's what it takes. You don't all have to be great, but you need three or four teams that can compete nationally."
A perennial topic among fans and media, the conference angle isn't lost on the players.
"We've been waiting for this for five years, man," Boyd said.
Boyd is no stranger to high stakes at Clemson, most recently this season's opener, when GameDay was here and he outdueled Georgia's Aaron Murray in a 38-35 Tigers victory. Conversely, Florida State has won each of Winston's five starts by at least 14 points.
The reigning ACC player of the year, Boyd has thrown 15 touchdown passes and only two interceptions, Winston 17 and two, and the effectiveness of each team's pass rush may well prove decisive.
"I love being in those situations where the ball is in your court, it's in your hand," Boyd said. "You have to go out there and make a play when the game is on the line. It's kind of always been me. That's kind of why I love to play the position.
"Growing up I wanted to be a quarterback because I wanted the ball in my hands. When it comes down to making a play late in the game when you need it, when you have to have it, that's always been my thing, regardless of the outcome."
Saturday's outcome likely will determine the Atlantic Division's representative in the ACC championship game, and for anyone in town without tickets, there's always the Esso Club.
Trust me, the sweet potato casserole is worth the wait.