CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the shark bit, it felt different. A lot different.

Clemson offensive lineman John Simpson was fishing with his uncle off the South Carolina coast earlier this summer, using shrimp as bait. They caught some sting rays. They reeled in some whiting, which had been their intended targets.

And then along came a predatory fish that measured more than five feet in length.

“When the shark took it, my line went all the way down,” Simpson said Wednesday, recalling the story at the ACC Football Kickoff. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can pull this up.’”

He laughed.

“The rods that we had were real bootleg,” he said.

Congrats, John. Now you know how the rest of the ACC feels.

Clemson has snatched all the winning, the titles, the glory from the rest of this league, and even the most optimistic rival has to wonder if they’ll ever be reeled in.

Like that shark, the Tigers came suddenly, going from six wins in 2010 to 10 in ’12. They’ve won at least 10 games every season since, qualified for the College Football Playoff all four years it’s been in existence, and capped last year’s undefeated campaign with a 44-16 trouncing of mighty Alabama.

Of course, everyone in Charlotte this week would like to catch them. But forgive them for feeling like they’re using a bootleg rod.

“When you’re in the ACC and you’re in the ACC Atlantic, your big brother is as big as anybody on the street, OK?” said metaphor-sabotaging Syracuse coach Dino Babers, whose team handed Clemson one of its two ACC losses in the past four years. “If you can handle him, you’re going to have an opportunity to handle anybody else.”

The odds say nobody will. Not this year. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Clemson an 88.2 percent chance to win the ACC championship again. Miami is next at 3.7 percent. Then comes Virginia Tech (2.8 percent), Florida State (2.4) and Virginia (1.1).

No other league is this unbalanced. Oklahoma is a 69.7-percent choice to win the Big 12. Michigan (48.2) the favorite in the Big Ten, Alabama (46.0) in the SEC and Oregon (35.2) in the Pac-12.

“No one likes us,” Simpson said. “That’s just how it is. No one really likes us.

“Of course we’ve got a lot of fans, a lot of people want to see Alabama lose. But anybody that we play, they hate us. … We kind of brought it on ourselves, and it’s great.”

Complacency should not be a problem. Coach Dabo Swinney has proven he knows how to motivate his teams after successful seasons, whether they’ve been punctuated by titles or not. His offense should be ferocious. His defense will reload.

“Greatness never goes on sale,” Swinney said. “You’ve got to pay full price every year, and you’ve got to prove it.

“They don’t put championship rings on smooth hands,” he added. “You’ve got to put in the work. The quality of the construction is based on the commitment of the crew.”

This crew is committed. The Tigers know they’re chasing history. Simpson borrowed his own Daboism to describe seizing opportunity (you might have to read this a few times, but it makes sense): “I will do what I can while I can so that when I cannot I will not wish that I would have when I could have.”

The Tigers can do a lot again in 2019, and they know it. They’ve got the shrimp in their mouths and they’re thrashing away, threatening to snap all the bootleg rods.

By the way, how did that fishing story end, anyway?

“I was fighting it for a long time,” Simpson said. “Fighting it, fighting it, and I finally got it to surface on the top of the water. My uncle had this big ol’ net — he’s caught a few sharks before — and we got his head in there, and that thing was going everywhere. … Once we got it on the boat, he was flopping around.”

Simpson paused his story Wednesday, pulled out his phone and scrolled through his photos. There, next to a 6-foot-4, 330-pound offensive lineman, was a 5-foot shark. Caught. Later eaten. It tasted like a cross between fish and chicken, he said.

“That was the most fun,” Simpson said, “that I’ve ever had fishing.”

Aaron McFarling joined The Roanoke Times in 2000 and has been writing sports columns since 2004.

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