Deshaun Watson (above) is a major threat as a passer and runner for Clemson.
No. 2 Clemson at Auburn
Series Record: Auburn leads 34-13-2
Last Meeting: (2012) Clemson won 26-19
The Coaches: Dabo Swinney is 75-27 entering his eighth season as head coach at Clemson. His program has won at least 10 games for five consecutive seasons and played in the national championship game last season. Gus Malzahn is 36-16 all-time and 27-13 at Auburn. After compiling a 21-5 record his first two years as a head coach, Malzahn and the Auburn Tigers are 15-11 during the past two seasons.
Last Time Out: Auburn defeated Memphis 31-10 in the Birmingham Bowl while Clemson lost to Alabama, 45-40, in the national championship game.
The Teams: Clemson returns 12 starters from 2015 with eight on offense and only four on defense. Auburn returns 11 starters with six on offense and five on defense.
During the last four recruiting classes Auburn has signed 57.4 percent 4-star and 5-star talent while 46.5 percent of Clemson’s signees have been ranked four stars or better. This includes 13 players ranked in the nation’s Top 100 for Auburn and 11 for Clemson.
Clemson has a slight edge in experience with 20 players with at least 20 games of experience, including ten with 30 games or more. Auburn also possesses 20 players with at least 20 games of experience, including seven with 30 games or more.
Clemson has been very competitive away from home, compiling an 18-6 record the past four seasons in those games.
Malzahn’s Tigers are 9-9 vs. ranked opponents, but 4-7 the past two seasons.
Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is one of the early favorites to win the Heisman Trophy, passing for 4,104 yards and 35 touchdown passes last season. The quarterback added 1,105 yards rushing and 12 rushing TDs.
Clemson’s ground game will be led by junior Wayne Gallman, who rushed for 1,527 yards during 2015, scoring 13 touchdowns.
Wayne Gallman is a junior running back for Clemson.
Auburn must reload on offense in 2016 with no established star players. Sean White returns as the starting quarterback with 1,167 yards passing. Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s top returning rusher with 208 yards and Marcus Davis is Auburn’s top returning receiver with 30 receptions for 182 yards from his junior season. Auburn has talent at the offensive skill positions, but lacks experience.
Since 1990 Auburn is 11-20-1 against top five ranked teams, including a 4-9 record from 2010-2015.
How they match up...
•This game features strength vs. strength and weakness vs. weakness. Clemson’s offense should again be one of the best in the country and is matched against Auburn’s apparent strength on defense. Auburn’s questionable offense will face a rebuilding Clemson defense.
•Last season Clemson was No. 6 nationally in tackles for loss allowed (ratio) and Auburn’s defense was the worst in forcing tackles for loss.
•Last season Clemson was No. 32 in offensive touchdown ratio and Auburn was No. 35 in defensive touchdown ratio.
•Last season Clemson’s offense was No. 23 in generating plays of 30 yards or more. Auburn’s defense was No. 5 nationally in defending big plays.
•Taking Clemson’s first two Power-5 opponents from the last four seasons, Clemson has averaged only 26.1 points per game. Playing them early on might be an edge for Auburn.
Keys to Victory...
*Auburn’s offense will need a quick start. Under Malzahn the Tigers are is 15-1 in games they score at least 10 points during the first period and 12-12 when they don’t.
*White needs to be efficient throwing the football. Last season five teams produced a passer rating of 130 or better against Clemson and those five teams averaged 32 points per game.
Sean White is a redshirt sophomore for the Tigers.
*Malzahn’s offense at the collegiate level is 70-8 in games it generates at least 140 yards rushing and a pass rating of 130 or better.
*Holding Clemson under 30 points will be a major challenge for the defense. If the Auburn offense struggles special teams will be needed to produce points straight up or create a short field to operate for the AU offense.
*Auburn has been out-rushed during eight of its last 17 games, compiling a record of 1-7 in those contests. Clemson has averaged 248 yards rushing during its last three meetings against Auburn. Auburn’s run defense will be a major factor Saturday night.
What to Watch...
Look for Clemson to sell out to defend the run, forcing Auburn into obvious passing situations.
Games matching similar talent are often won up front. Though Clemson is the heavy favorite, Auburn might have the edge on the line of scrimmage regarding talent. If this comes to fruition, look for this game to be a four quarter battle.
Last season Auburn held its top seven scoring opponents to nearly one-third below their scoring averages. Those opponents averaged 36.9 points per game during the season, but were held to an average of 25.1 points per game in regulation time.
Watson’s passing will garner plenty of attention, but Auburn's ability to play run defense will be a major key in this game. During the last four seasons Clemson has averaged 47 points per game with 50 or more rush attempts. With 40-49 carries Clemson has averaged 37.3 points. When held to 39 carries or less, the defending ACC champion has averaged 30.1 points per contest.
Special teams were an issue for Clemson during 2015, especially when it came to kick return defense. This could be an area for Auburn to exploit Saturday night.
The No. 2 ranked Clemson Tigers are expected once again to compete for a national championship and the Auburn Tigers are more or less in a rebuilding state. Clemson’s perceived strength is the very reason why members of the media expect Clemson to win Saturday night.
During the past four seasons Clemson has averaged only 26.1 points per game against the first two power five opponents of each season. During those eight games Clemson scored into the 30s only twice, which means Auburn could benefit from playing a Clemson offense that may not be hitting on all eight cylinders on opening night.
Watson is one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but he did throw at least one interception in nine of his 13 FBS games last season, including two picks during three games. The key for the Auburn’s defense will be making Clemson one-dimensional, forcing the opposing Tigers into obvious passing situations.
From 2000-2015 Auburn is 24-7 in games the opponent passed for at least 300 yards and 6-22 in games the opponent rushed for more than 225 yards. During the past four seasons Clemson is 9-6 in games in which it was held to under 140 yards rushing, averaging 28.1 points per game. Clemson’s offense will be too explosive to shut down completely, but Auburn’s defense can take away Clemson's offensive balance.
Auburn’s offense must find consistency, something it lacked during 2015. From 1992-2015 Auburn has compiled a 148-14-1 record in games the Tigers scored at least 33 percent of the time. Auburn’s inability to generate explosive plays in 2015 is something the coaching staff emphasized improving for this season. Malzahn’s 2015 offense (No. 92) was his first to fall out of the nation’s top 30 in generating impact plays.
What makes the college game so special is the constant change among teams from year to year relative to their level of success. The temptation is there to write off the 2016 Auburn Tigers based on the results of 2015. If this were a successful blueprint for prognosticating the outcome of football games then 1974, 1993, 2004, 2010 and 2013 seasons should never have been successful ones for Auburn. The combined records of the teams that preceded those seasons was 30-30-1.
Saturday night’s opener is a big game for Malzahn’s Tigers, but they can’t afford to allow it to become too big. This game will not be decided on one play or one series, which means a test of Auburn’s fortitude. Auburn may be the more talented team with a slightly more experienced roster, but Clemson's edge at the quarterback position could be the difference in the game. Clemson 34, Auburn 28
In other games around the Southeastern Conference:
No. 9 Tennessee over Appalachian State
South Carolina over Vanderbilt
Mississippi State over South Alabama
West Virginia over Missouri
No. 5 LSU over Wisconsin
Texas A&M over No. 16 UCLA
Arkansas over Louisiana Tech
No. 18 Georgia over No. 22 North Carolina
No. 25 Florida over UMass
Kentucky over Southern Miss
No. 1 Alabama over No. 20 Southern Cal
No. 4 Florida State over No. 11 Ole Missnull