If Clemson is playing, then it must be a five-star matchup.
At least that is the way it seems the last two years. Saturday’s game between the fifth-ranked Tigers and No. 12 Auburn will be the 11th time Clemson and its opponent have been ranked in the top 20 when entering the game. Six of those games have been top 10 matchups
Playing in games of this magnitude is becoming an old hat for Clemson, especially considering it has played in the last two national championship games, including last year’s College Football Playoff Championship Game victory against Alabama.
The Tigers (1-0) have won nine of the previous 10 such matchups and they are hoping to draw off of those experiences again on Saturday.
“Something I’ve learned from being here is the bigger the game, the smaller you have to make it,” said defensive tackle Christian Wilkins on Monday. “People always tell you that this is a big game, you have to get ready for them. People are not going to want to talk to you as much during the week because you know you have to get focused.
“Well it’s the same way with every opponent. Every game is just as important.”
Maybe that explains why the Tigers have won 37 of their last 40 games and have not lost to a ranked team during the regular season since losing at No. 24 Georgia Tech in 2014.
Auburn is tough up front. When Clemson beat Auburn 19-13 to open the 2016 season, the ACC Tigers held Auburn to 87 rushing yards on 41 carries. After that, no one could stop Auburn’s strong running game as it went on to lead the SEC in rushing at 271.3 yards per game.
Clemson’s Dexter Lawrence says the SEC Tigers’ success had a lot to do with an offensive line that returns three seniors and two sophomores that played a lot last year.
“They’re physical upfront. They have some tough guys,” the defensive tackle said. “Haven’t watched too much of them, but just coming from last year they come off the ball well. They’re really good with their hands. I’m ready to see how they will perform this year.”
Auburn (1-0) is led by running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. Pettway rushed for 1,224 yards last year and scored seven touchdowns, while Johnson rushed for 895 yards and scored 11 touchdowns.
With quarterback Jarrett Stidham giving those Tigers a more balanced attack, Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph calls Auburn the “real deal.”
“The quarterback is solid… the running game they have, they are just well-rounded,” he said. “They have a solid defense. So they will be a good matchup.”
Auburn vs. Clemson, a rivalry? From 1971-2009, Clemson played Auburn just two times, and those two meetings came in the 1997 Peach Bowl and the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl. That’s not exactly what you might call a rivalry.
“Nah,” Joseph said, “not a rival.”
However, starting with Auburn’s come-from-behind overtime win at Auburn in 2010, this year’s game will mark the two programs’ fifth contest in the last eight seasons. Clemson has won the last three games in the series and has a 3-1 edge since that 2010 game.
“They’re a very historic program. A lot of talent, and it’s just exciting,” Joseph said. “I wouldn’t say they’re our rival, but I guess we feel a way about each other. Tigers against Tigers, it will be fun to go against each other.”
The last time Clemson and Auburn played in Death Valley, Clemson beat the then defending national champions, 38-24, in 2011. It snapped Auburn’s 17-game winning streak at the time.
Smith listed as questionable. Clemson free safety Van Smith has officially been listed as questionable for Saturday’s game with a sprained knee.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney told the media on Sunday that Smith sprained his knee in the first half against Kent State. The Clemson coach said he looked better on Sunday and he was hopeful Smith will be able to play this week.
Right now, K’Von Wallace is listed as the second-team free safety and will more than likely get the start if Smith cannot go against Auburn.