Auburn game loaded with storylines

It's game week, so that means this time next Sunday, we'll be looking back on Clemson's first game of the season against Auburn at the Georgia Dome.

As we get ready for the first week of the season, here are some story lines to focus on going into the season opener.

MISSING SAMMY: The Tigers have known for some time that superstar wide receiver Sammy Watkins isn't going to play the first two games. That won't really matter in the second game against Ball State, but it could be a big factor against Auburn.

Just look back to last year's game. Watkins had 10 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns, and he helped turn the game around and electrify the Death Valley crowd after Auburn got off to a quick start.

Those numbers are going to be almost impossible to replace with just one player, but if there is a position that can handle such a loss at Clemson, it's the wide receiver group. Remember just a couple of years ago when Clemson's receivers were not very dynamic, couldn't get separation from defensive backs and simply couldn't make plays?

Well, it's a totally different group now, probably the best wide receiver group the program has ever had.

That starts with junior DeAndre Hopkins, but sophomores Martavis Bryant, Charone Peak and Adam Humphries should be able to help make up for Watkins' absence. And don't forget about the underrated Jaron Brown. I'm not sure a Clemson wide receiver has ever made more clutch, third-down catches than he had last year.

That group will give Tajh Boyd more than enough weapons to against an Auburn defense that will be much improved and better coached with Brian VanGorder running the show.


No Sammy Watkins means one of Clemson's other receivers has to step up against No. 25 Auburn Saturday. (Roy Philpott)
STRONG UP FRONT? One of the main topics of discussion every year, it seems, surrounding the Clemson program is the offensive line. That's no different this year.

Dalton Freeman is entrenched as the starter at center and has been a terrific player for Clemson his entire career. But surrounding him are plenty of question marks.

Brandon Thomas is the only other lineman with a good bit of experience, while Tyler Shatley has experience … on the defensive line. David Beasley hasn't played much, Gifford Timothy looked good in the preseason but has been slowed by an injury, and the other spot is going to come down to redshirt freshmen Shaq Anthony and Joe Gore.

That's not exactly a recipe for success against an Auburn defense, which should be strong on the defensive front.

But that certainly will make the opener interesting to see how Clemson's offensive line stands up to an SEC defensive front. It did well in this game last year after a slow start, and moving Shatley over from the defense was indeed the right move.

This group's play could be the key to Saturday's game.

STRONG UP FRONT II? On the other side of the line, Clemson has just as many questions … outside of Malliciah Goodman, that is. Goodman is a senior who has had a terrific career, but the Tigers need him to take the next step with so much inexperience surrounding him. Last year's defensive front was dominated by seniors Brandon Thompson, Andre Branch and Rennie Moore, but with all of them moving on, there are players who will have to step in and lead.

And they are all freshmen and sophomores. Besides Goodman, the other defensive ends are made up of two redshirt freshmen, two sophomores and one true freshman.

There are 10 defensive tackles on the rosters but no juniors or seniors. How they handle the atmosphere at the Georgia Dome will set the tone for the defense.

REPLACING ALLEN: Dwayne Allen was a dynamic talent for Clemson from his tight end spot, and he proved to be a perfect fit for Chad Morris' offense. Remember when people questioned how the tight end would fit into the offense? There was even talk that Allen might transfer. How silly does that look now?

This season, Brandon Ford will need to be just as good as Allen was last season. Ford is that important.

Ford, a former wide receiver, is a talented pass catcher, and he is a good route runner. Boyd took huge steps forward in his progression as a quarterback last year by finding Allen in key situations, and that shouldn't change with Ford. With an inexperienced offensive line, it's important that Boyd has a quick option to find in Ford.

BIG DAY FOR ANDRE: Another plus for Boyd and the offense is Andre Ellington.

Sure, Clemson has a lot of weapons on the outside for Boyd, but the Tigers need Ellington to have a big game Saturday.

That kind of balance will slow down the rush from Auburn's defensive front and give Boyd more time to throw. But we've all seen how much better this offense is when Ellington is involved. If you need proof, go back and watch the ACC championship game.

The Tigers will need a similar performance Saturday.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley

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