Auburn, Ala.--Ready or not Coach Gus Malzahn's Auburn Tigers will take on the nation’s No. 2 ranked college football team to open the 2016 season
Kickoff is set for 8 p.m. CDT on Saturday as Clemson visits Jordan-Hare Stadium to begin its quest for a national title after narrowly losing in the championship game last season vs. another SEC team, Alabama.
In contrast, Auburn is trying to bounce back from a disappointing season. It took a bowl victory over Memphis to put the Tigers over the .500 mark as they finished 7-6 to end a season in which they were the preseason pick to win the overall SEC title.
Malzahn’s fourth Auburn team as head coach goes into opening night as an underdog to the defending ACC champions. For our game one What to Watch feature, here are some keys for the home team:
*After starting six games as a redshirt freshman, including the 31-10 bowl victory vs. Memphis, will Sean White be a more productive quarterback? There could be opportunities to make plays through the air vs. Clemson’s rebuilt defense so White needs to bring his ‘A’ game to the opener to give the home team a reasonable chance to pull off the upset.
Not only does White need to be sharp throwing the football, he needs to be able to show mobility in the pocket to buy extra time for his receivers to get open. It will be a real plus if he can help move the chains by running the football.
*The Tigers will have a new main man at running back, but who it will be throughout the course of the season is still to be determined. Sophomore Kerryon Johnson is expected to get the first shot at that assignment with redshirt sophomore Kamryn Pettway likely to be next in line.
Whether it is one of those two guys or any of the three others working at tailback, Malzahn’s team needs to find the right guy to help the Tigers move the chains on a consistent basis after losing his top three rushers from the 2015 team.
*The first major test of the spring training experiment of moving Austin Golson to left tackle will be conducted on Saturday night. Not only is it important that the former starting center do a good job of protecting the quarterback’s blind side, his successor at center, Xavier Dampeer, needs to handle an important role, too.
Austin Golson opened the 2016 season as the starting center.
Even though he is a fifth-year senior, Dampeer has only played in a very limited basis (six games as a backup) so how he performs when the bright lights go on is still to be determined.
*Although on paper Auburn’s linebacker situation looks iffy because the Tigers had to replace last year’s starters, the team’s new position coach has rebuilt the group and been carefully watching what has been serious competition for playing time.
Based on preseason practice the group could be quite solid if Tre Williams is ready for an expanded role and younger players step up. That group includes DeShaun Davis, Montavious Atkinson and Darrell Williams. A plus for the Tigers is the experience that graduate transfer T.J. Neal brings to the position.
*Last season there was concern about the cornerbacks and that is the case again with two potential starters (Jamel Dean and Jeremiah Dinson) expected to be out all year with injuries. In 2015 a talented true freshman, Carlton Davis, stepped up and got the job done. By the end of the season he was playing at a high level.
Josh Holsey has starting experience at cornerback and safety.
This year the Tigers are counting on redshirt freshman Javaris Davis to do the same thing. It will be a big surprise if Clemson doesn’t test the new starter to see what he has got. Versatile fifth-year senior Josh Holsey, who can play every spot in the secondary, needs to stay healthy after missing most of last season with a knee injury. That will be a major plus for the secondary if it happens.
*The defensive coaches have listed 11 linemen on their opening night depth chart and it won’t be a surprise if most see playing time on Saturday. The front four has a promising combination of experienced performers and new guys with talent. The potential is their for the group to be a team strength and considering the high-powered offense Clemson brings to town the Tigers really need this group to be much more productive than it was last year.
*Malzahn has devoted a significant amount of practice time to special teams, which was not a strength for Clemson last season. If Auburn can outplay the visitors in this phase of Saturday night’s game, it will bump up the odds that Auburn can pull off the game one upset.