It’s hard to imagine being the defending national champion and having a chip on your shoulder, but that’s exactly what No. 3 Clemson has as it gets ready to face No. 13 Auburn Saturday in Death Valley.
All week, Clemson players and coaches have brought up the notion no one gave Clemson any credit for going into Auburn last season and beating those Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time since 1951.
“We opened up with them last year, and I remember nobody really wanted to give us a lot of credit for that win early in the season,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “But man, I really came away very impressed with Auburn and their personnel.”
Clemson (1-0) needed two knocked down passes in the end zone by former safety Jadar Johnson to hold on for a 19-13 victory. Auburn, who went on to earn a spot in last year’s Sugar Bowl, held Clemson to its lowest point total and yards (399) all season.
“Everyone is always killing the ACC,” linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said. “There are still some doubters that think that we got off easy last year playing at Auburn and coming away with a win from that game. So hopefully this year we can go out there and leave no doubt.”
Though the Tigers will be motivated, the challenge this year might be more difficult.
Auburn (1-0) has a new quarterback in Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham and a new offensive coordinator in Chip Lindsey. The running game, which Clemson held to 87 yards in last year’s win, should be the same, but who is carrying the football will be different.
Clemson did not see the SEC’s leading rusher last year in Kamryn Pettway, who will be making his 2017 debut after missing last week’s Georgia Southern game due to a suspension. Last year, Pettway averaged 122 yards per game for Auburn.
At 6-foot, 235 pounds, Pettway has been a battering ram for the Tigers’ running game. Throw in Stidham, who settled down the quarterback situation, and all of sudden Auburn has a balanced offensive attack that is capable of moving the ball on anyone.
Many experts expect Auburn to be the only team that can challenge top-ranked Alabama in the SEC.
“I think the biggest difference is last year they were unsettled at quarterback when we saw them,” Swinney said. “They played three or four guys against us. But I have been very impressed with their quarterback.
“They have solidified their depth. They’ve got really good skill, and you know, their running back led the SEC in yards per game last year. They’re good up front on both sides in the trenches, very deep in the defensive line. Defensively, they’ll be easily a top 10 defense in the country.”
In other words, Auburn is a complete team.
“I think just the addition of Stidham coming in and his understanding of what they want to do offensively and the nuances of the zone read and his ability to throw the football down the field with great poise, that’s the biggest difference,” Swinney said. “But other than that, I mean, they’re Auburn. I mean, they’re always one of the most talented teams in the country, well-coached and physical. Not much has changed from that standpoint.”
And maybe if Clemson wins this year’s game, they will get a little more credit than what they feel they did not get after last year’s win.