Clemson kicks off the 2016 football season at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium at 9 p.m. The Tigers enter the game ranked No. 2 in the country, the highest preseason-ranking in the program’s history.
Here are the key matchups to watch in tonight’s season opener.
Clemson’s offensive line vs. Auburn’s defensive line: This is the matchup that will determine the outcome of the game more than any other. Clemson has three All-ACC linemen back in left tackle Mitch Hyatt, center Jay Guillermo and right guard Tyrone Crowder. Auburn returns All-American candidate Carl Lawson at defensive end and All-SEC defensive tackle Montravius Adams. When Lawson has been healthy, Auburn’s defense has been a different unit. With Lawson last year they had 12 sacks in seven games. Without him they had just seven sacks. Adams has 107 career tackles, more than any other on the Auburn defense. Clemson’s offensive line allowed just 18 sacks in 15 games, but the Tigers have two new starters in sophomore right tackle Jake Fruhmorgen and redshirt sophomore Taylor Hearn. Clemson will want to establish the run early with running back Wayne Gallman and quarterback Deshaun Watson. Clemson averaged 223.0 yards per game on the ground in 2015. Advantage: Clemson
Clemson’s defensive line vs. Auburn’s offensive line: Auburn has a veteran offensive line. They allowed just 19 sacks in 2015 and averaged 196.4 yards per game on the ground. They have three seniors and two juniors, including Outland Trophy candidate Alex Kozan at left guard and All-SEC candidate Austin Golson at left tackle. Clemson returns All-ACC defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and Freshman All-American Christian Wilkins on the defensive line, but where will Wilkins start the game? He is listed as a co-starter at defensive tackle and at defensive end where he will fill in for sophomore Austin Bryant who is out with a fracture in his foot. Though Clemson has experience and depth on the interior of the defensive front, the outside is young. Redshirt sophomore Richard Yeargin is listed as a starter with Wilkins on the strong side of the line, while redshirt sophomore Clelin Ferrell is starting on the weakside. Wilkins has only been working at defensive end since the spring and former linebacker Chris Register and former defensive tackle Jabril Robinson are listed as backups at defensive end. Advantage: Auburn
Deshaun Watson vs. the Auburn secondary : Auburn safety Stephen Roberts has been suspended for the game due to his arrest last week. The junior played in 13 games last year and started four. He was projected to be Auburn’s starter. Auburn will start freshman Javaris Davis and sophomore Carlton Davis at cornerback. Tray Matthews, a junior will start at strong safety, while senior Jonathan Ford will start at free safety. Last year Auburn tallied 14 interceptions as seven players recorded at least one interception. However, Auburn allowed 222.5 yards per game last season through the air as opponents completed 60.7 percent of their passes. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson completed 67.8 percent of his passes last season for 4,104 yards and 37 touchdowns. Watson led the nation last year in completion percentage on passes of 40 yards or longer. Watson will have All-ACC wide receivers Mike Williams and Artavis Scott at his disposal as well as Deon Cain, Ray Ray McCloud and Hunter Renfrow. Advantage: Clemson
Sean White vs. the Clemson secondary: Last year, White was the first Auburn quarterback in 18 years to record three straight games of throwing for at least 250 yards. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables described him as sneaky good. The redshirt sophomore completed 58 percent of his passes for 1,166 yards. White will be going against a Clemson secondary that has three new starters, though senior Cordrea Tankersley is back after recording a team-high five interceptions last year. Mark Fields and Ryan Carter are both listed as co-starters at the other cornerback spot, while senior Jadar Johnson and Van Smith will start at strong and free safety. The Tigers are very green behind Johnson and Smith as three freshmen are listed as the backups at safety. Redshirt junior Korrin Wiggins will try to help at the safety position as well as playing the nickel. Advantage: Auburn
Kevin Steele vs. Clemson’s offense: You knew this would happen sooner or later. After being let go by Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney after the 2011 season, Steele meets Clemson for the first time as an opposing coach. Swinney said he still as a tremendous amount of respect for Steele as a coach and as a person. However, look for Swinney, along with offensive coordinator’s Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, to try and exploit Steele’s biggest weakness – a running quarterback. When at Clemson, Steele struggled at stopping mobile quarterbacks, especially teams that run the zone-read like Clemson. Last year, Watson rushed for 1,105 yards and scored 12 touchdowns from the quarterback position. Advantage: Clemson
Bottom line: There is no doubt the atmosphere at Jordan-Hare Stadium will be tremendous. Swinney says Auburn already has a seven-point lead before the game kicks off because of the crowd. Early on, I see that playing a factor, plus Auburn will play out of their mind for the first 15 minutes. But once the two teams settle in and start playing football, Clemson will take over, and by the fourth quarter Watson and the Clemson offense will prove to be too much for Auburn’s defense. Clemson will pull away late and will record its first true-road win to open a season in 31 years.
Prediction: Clemson 38, Auburn 17