Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney says stepping out of the ACC and playing Power 5 non-conference games against Auburn, Georgia and Notre Dame are measuring sticks for his program.
Swinney has even said playing these kinds of games, and the fact they have been able to win some of them, has contributed to the Tigers’ ascent in the college football ranks.
As second-ranked Clemson gets set to play the Auburn Tigers this Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Alabama, the script has flipped on Swinney and his Tigers.
Clemson is no longer the underdog in these games and has something to prove to the college football world. Instead, at least in this Saturday’s 9 p.m. kickoff, the ACC’s Tigers are the favorite and the Clemson football program is now considered one of the standards in which all others are measured by.
“We have been waiting to play this game for a long time,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said.
Auburn, who is less than three years removed from playing for a national championship, comes into the ACC vs. SEC tilt as a seven-point underdog at home. Part of that is due to the fact the SEC’s Tigers struggled last season, going 7-6. In fact, the program has taken a gradual slide after playing Florida State for the national championship in 2013.
Since that game, Auburn is 15-11 and just 6-10 in the SEC. They are 10-11 in their last 21 games overall.
Clemson, on the other hand, has won 14 straight regular season games, and 23 of their last 25 overall. The ACC’s Tigers advanced to the national championship game last season, where they fell short to Alabama.
“We are playing one of the best teams in the country. They played for the national championship and almost won it,” Malzahn said. “They have a lot of experience back and it starts with their offense.”
And that starts with quarterback Deshaun Watson, who says his defense just needs three stops and the offense will take care of the rest. Joining Watson is a ton of talent at the skill positions. Wide receiver Mike Williams is back from a neck injury that sidelined him for most of last season, while Artavis Scott, Hunter Renfrow, Deon Cain, Ray Ray McCloud and tight end Jordan Leggett return as well.
Clemson also welcomes back running back Wayne Gallman and his 1,527 yards, and an offensive line that is as deep and as talented as it has ever been at Clemson.
“The receivers are all very talented. They can run with the ball after they catch it,” Malzahn said. “I’m very impressed with the running back, too. A lot of times he kind of gets lost in the whole deal. He is an excellent running back. He breaks tackles and they have a very good running game to go along with their pass game.”
On the defensive side, Clemson has some holes to fill, obviously, but Malzahn is impressed with defensive coordinator Brent Venables, and calls him one of the best in the business.
“He does a very good job of taking away what an offense does best,” the Auburn coach said.
Malzahn is also impressed with linebacker Ben Boulware.
“He does a very good job of getting everyone lined up. You can tell he is their leader back there. He does a super job and I love the way he plays,” Malzahn said.
Auburn expects both their offense and their defense to be tested in this game, and like Swinney, Malzahn is anxious to see where his team is at and how they measure up against what he calls “one of the best teams in the country.
“Overall, we are excited about this game,” he said. “This will be a good measuring stick as to where we are at. We are playing one of the best teams in the country on our home field.”