Clemson’s emergence as one of college football’s premier programs has coincided with its success against brand-name SEC foes.
It started in 2011 when, on the way to posting its first 10-win season in 21 years, Dabo Swinney’s squad ended Auburn’s 17-game winning streak with a 14-point win in Death Valley. The following season, Clemson opened the year with another win over Auburn and closed it out with a thrilling 25-24 triumph over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In 2013, Swinney’s group took care of Georgia (38-35) in the home opener, and in 2014, quarterback Deshaun Watson played through a torn ACL to lead the Tigers to their first ‘W’ over South Carolina in six years.
Last season, of course, Clemson fell just short against Alabama in the national title game, although it once again defeated the rival Gamecocks to close out the regular season.
The Tigers will get another shot against the SEC on Saturday in a nationally televised prime-time matchup at Auburn. By now, the expectation is that Clemson will cruise to victory.
Both programs have played for national championships within the last three years — Auburn gave up a late touchdown to lose to Florida State three seasons ago, while the Crimson Tide defeated Clemson this past January. Entering this year with a No. 2 ranking in the AP poll, Swinney’s team is in the best spot to make an appearance in the title game this season.
Clemson returns the majority of the starters from an offense that finished tied for No. 26 in the country in yards per play (6.39) in 2015. That group, which includes (Heisman hopeful) Watson, will likely test an Auburn run defense that allowed 4.54 yards per rush (tied for No. 80 nationally in 2015). However, Gus Malzahn’s team is more experienced up front this fall, returning starters Carl Lawson (junior) at the hybrid Buck spot, Montravius Adams (senior) at nose tackle, and Dontavius Russell (sophomore) at defensive tackle.
Clemson, meanwhile, will have multiple new starters on every level of the defense. With Austin Bryant — the team’s most experienced defensive end — missing time with a foot injury, sophomore Richard Yeargin and redshirt freshman Clelin Ferrell will be the first-team ends. On the interior, All-ACC performer Carlos Watkins and promising sophomore Christian Wilkins will give the opposition headaches.
Cordrea Tankersley is the lone returning starter in the secondary. He’ll head a group of defensive backs that also consists of safeties Jadar Johnson and Van Smith (sophomore), as well as corner Ryan Carter (junior).
One of the bigger story lines to come out of Auburn in the preseason was sophomore Sean White winning the starting quarterback job. White struggled as a redshirt freshman last season, starting five games and throwing for 1,166 yards and one touchdown (with four interceptions) before injuries sidelined him.
Auburn’s offense averaged 27.5 points per game last fall — by far the worst it’s been in that category since Malzahn became head coach in 2013. Even against a Clemson defense that’s breaking in eight new starters, that offense will need to show instant and profound improvement in order to have a chance on Saturday.
While Clemson’s defense remains a wild card, leaving open the possibility that Auburn scores enough points to keep it close, Swinney’s team has too many offensive stars to be outscored. Clemson should take this one comfortably, adding yet another SEC feather to its cap.