Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was hot.
It was late November, one day after the finalists for the Doak Walker Award had been announced, and Swinney felt one of his players had been snubbed.
"If there's a running back award and Travis Etienne isn't in the finals of it, I mean, what a joke," Swinney said.
Etienne was caught in a crowded field.
Along with Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, the eventual winner for the second straight season, the other finalists included Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, the nation’s leading rusher.
But Etienne had a convincing case. The junior is averaging 8.24 yards per carry, best in FBS. None of the other three finalists averages more than 7 yards. Etienne has six runs of 40 or more yards, sixth most in FBS.
The explosiveness puts him in the class of the nation’s top runners.
"That's what takes a good running back to the next level," Etienne said, "just being able to make plays when there's nothing there, taking a single and turning it into a double."
It was an approach he held ahead of the Fiesta Bowl against the Buckeyes.
"Coaches have been saying that all week," he said. "We have to be able to take a single and turn it into a double, stretching it and getting the most out of it that you can."
Ohio State’s defense has fared much better this season as far as bottling up running backs and preventing explosive runs. They’ve allowed only three runs longer than 40 yards after surrendering four times as many last fall.
But some cracks emerged in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin. When the Buckeyes faced Taylor, he took off for gains of 44 and 45 yards in the first half and finished with 148 rushing yards and a touchdown.