No. 3 Clemson, No. 13 Auburn square off again (Sep 09, 2017)
CLEMSON, S.C. -- A year later, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says the memory of his team's 19-13 victory at Auburn to open the 2016 season remains fresh in his mind.
"They were a complete football team and one of the toughest teams we played all year," Swinney said.
That's a mouthful, particularly considering that Clemson went on to a 14-1 record and a victory against Alabama to claim its first national title in 35 years.
Swinney sees an Auburn team that looks much the same as it did last year as his team prepares to host a Tigers vs. Tigers matchup at 7 p.m. ET Saturday.
Clemson is ranked No. 3, while Auburn is No. 13.
"It was a very competitive game last year, and we expect the same thing this time," Swinney said.
If recent history is an adequate indicator, Swinney will be correct. The five games between the teams in the past 10 years have been decided by an average margin of less than a touchdown, with two of the outcomes decided in overtime.
"This shapes up as a really good battle and matchup for us early in the year," Swinney said. "We like playing these type games, we like seeing where we are. Win or lose, you're going to find out a little more about your team."
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn echoes Swinney's sentiments.
"It will really be a good measuring stick of where we are at from a team standpoint, and that's my message to the team," Malzahn said.
The game promises to stand in stark contrast to both teams' openers. Clemson enjoyed what Swinney termed a "clean" performance in a 56-3 romp against Kent State in its first game, while Auburn thrashed Georgia Southern 41-7.
Both teams showed an intent to run, run and run some more.
"We both want to run the ball, that's clear," Swinney said.
Both did so effectively. Clemson amassed 353 yards on the ground -- its highest total in 23 games -- against Kent State, while Auburn had 351 in its opener.
Although Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson is questionable for Saturday's game after suffering a hamstring injury after rushing for 136 yards last week, starter Kamryn Pettway will return to the lineup. Pettway, who led the Southeastern Conference in rushing yards per game last season (122.4), was suspended by Malzahn for the opening game along with wide receiver Kyle Davis and backup quarterback Sean White.
The quarterbacks for both teams had fairly impressive debuts last week. Clemson's Kelly Bryant accounted for 313 yards of offense and two touchdowns in the first start of his career after replacing two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson.
Auburn's Jarrett Stidham, making his first start after transferring from Baylor, connected on 14 of 24 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns while running for a third.
"We need to build around his strengths and what he feels comfortable with," Malzahn said.
"That's a big part of the game plan. There is nothing like going out there. You've just got to do it. He's been on the road, I believe, a couple of games he played in, and this will be one of the best environments there is, so it will be good for the future.
"Dealing with the crowd noise and dealing with the communication and everything that goes with it, I think it will be real good for him. Like I said at the very first, I think it's good for our team. This game will really show where we're at right now and be a good measuring stick, so I think it's good for all of them."
The key Saturday may be which defense fares best after impressive starts. Clemson held Kent State to 120 yards last week; Auburn limited Georgia Southern to 78 yards and thwarted the Eagles on all 15 third-down attempts.
"They played extremely hard, which is what stood out to me -- outstanding effort," Malzahn said. "That's what we will have to do this week. We are playing one of the best offenses in college football right now. We are going to have to be very physical, and we are going to have to play our guts out."
Clemson boasts one of the top defensive fronts in the nation, anchored by a couple of All-America candidates at defensive tackle in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence.
"Their defensive front, I believe it's one of the top in the country, and when you turn on the film, it doesn't take long to figure that out," Malzahn said. "It'll be a big test for our guys up front. We're not only going to have to run the football, but we'll have to protect the quarterback, so that'll be a big key to the game."
Swinney, whose team must travel to play No. 17 Louisville and No. 18 Virginia Tech later this month, is expecting an electric atmosphere.
"A night game here is special," Swinney said. "There's something special when the lights are on, and it's a full day of enjoyment here in Clemson, S.C. It's just fun to be a part of it."