Auburn game will set tone for 2012

Will Saturday's game against Auburn decide Clemson's season?

Simply put, no. There will be 11 more games in the regular season, and there would be no reason for fans to overreact to Saturday's result, win or lose.

Take a look at Georgia last season. The Bulldogs lost their first two games, and Georgia fans lost their minds about it. But Georgia rebounded to win 10 straight games and the SEC East title along the way and had a solid season. So a loss, or a win for that matter, Saturday won't end Clemson's season.

But it certainly will set the tone.

We have seen that in the past with the Tigers. Everyone remembers the debacle against Alabama at the Georgia Dome a few years ago. Clemson was a top-10 program entering the season, but it was exposed by the Crimson Tide, and that 2008 season turned into a disaster, so much so that Tommy Bowden left as the head coach in the middle of the season.

A couple of years ago, Clemson lost a close, hard-fought game against Auburn because it just couldn't make the big play when it was needed. That 2010 season turned into a year of frustration, and after the three-point loss to Auburn, the Tigers lost five more games by nine points or fewer.

On the positive side, we saw a tone-setting win last year for Clemson over Auburn. After a slow start to the game that had the fans at Death Valley looking around and wondering was what going on, Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins and the rest of the Tigers came alive for a dynamic victory. That win showed the Tigers they had the talent and weapons to win those kinds of games, and the momentum carried over to the next week with a win over Florida State, followed by another big victory over Virginia Tech. And it set the tone for the ACC championship season.

That's what's on the line Saturday at the Georgia Dome for the Tigers. That game won't determine their season, but it certainly can point the season in one direction or the other. A loss in a game they will be favored to win really could set things off on the wrong foot. It would make the games against Ball State and Furman harder to get up for and put questions in the back of the minds of the players and fans moving forward. It could also make the players feel like they have pressure to make up for the loss in the opener, and that kind of pressure is never a good thing for a team.

On the flip side, a win could get the season started off in a positive manner as the Tigers play most of their tough games (outside of the annual game with South Carolina) in the first seven contests of the season. After the opener, the Tigers travel to Florida State in the fourth game and then host Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech in the sixth and seventh games. After that, things get much easier in the second part of the season. … on paper at least.

In short, if the Tigers can win Saturday, that can get the ball rolling and get a positive vibe around the team as it faces that tough stretch to open the season.

So how do the Tigers get that much-needed win and jump-start their season the right way? Offensively, the formula that was showcased last season included taking care of the football and having a high-flying passing attack while mixing in some run, especially later in the game. That's what worked last year through the first eight games of the season when the offense was dynamic and almost unstoppable.

In the closing stretch of the 2011 season, Clemson fans saw just how important avoiding turnovers is, and those are the kinds of mistakes the Tigers must stay away from Saturday.

If they can do that, they can get into a rhythm, get Boyd and all his talented receivers going and get Andre Ellington into the mix. That combo would be too much for the Auburn defense, no matter how much it has improved, to overcome.

On defense, the Tigers simply need to avoid big plays and make Auburn come up with long, sustained drives without make mistakes of its own. Auburn has a new offensive coordinator and a new starting quarterback, and it will be finding its way in the opener. It likely will need some breaks to get things going, and Clemson's defense doesn't need to help out by missing assignments and surrendering big plays. If the Tigers can do those things, they'll walk away with a season-opening win and set the tone for what could be another special season.

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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