AUBURN, Ala. — Clemson has everything going for it entering the 2016 season.
The national runner-up has won 10 games or more in each of the last five seasons. The Tigers of the ACC have the Heisman Trophy frontrunner in quarterback Deshaun Watson. Their talent is deep, rich and experienced.
Oh, and they’ll likely be picked to win the ACC again and will be a top 5 team in the country.
The season opener at Auburn is a crucial stepping stone for a program that seemingly has paved a path of systemic success, but could the Tigers of the SEC prove to be a road trip in more ways than one for Clemson?
Here are five reasons why Clemson, a 7.5-point favorite, will have its national championship hopes dashed Sept. 3 inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
1. Clemson doesn’t know what to expect
Let’s face it, Clemson is coming to Auburn somewhat blind. Heck, even Auburn doesn’t know what its offense is going to look like when the two teams kick off for an evening game.
Believe it or not, this could work in Auburn’s favor. Not many have seen quarterback John Franklin III in action, and if he earns the starting job, an inept offense from a season ago could start churning up the grass much like the groups of 2013 and 2014 did with fellow dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall.
That’s a lot to ask of Franklin III. He has yet to win the starting job and he faces stiff competition. Plus, Auburn has not yet decided on a rotation at receiver, where two to three (and maybe four) freshmen will need to contribute to a group that was frustratingly inconsistent last season as the Tigers rotated Jeremy Johnson and Sean White in an effort to spark the offense.
With that said, Gus Malzahn seems more invested than ever in his offense and if Franklin III can provide the duality Auburn has so desperately missed in recent months, Clemson could be caught off guard.
2. The crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium
The crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium might be one of the more underrated fan bases in the SEC. The 87,451-seat stadium is loud — and even more so with its vibrating sound system and college football’s largest scoreboard.
Sound can exacerbate the effects of heat, leading to further disorientation for visitors. Meanwhile, the home team will feed off that energy.
Auburn fans have seen their fair share of drama at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and they know the Tigers are capable of rallying from deficits if Clemson gets ahead early, so don’t count out the effects one or two big plays could have for Auburn and its fans. Momentum can swing in a hurry on the Plains, and usually in the home team’s favor.
3. Auburn’s defense is much better
Auburn has not had a top-25 defense since 2007, but this might be the year that drought ends.
The defensive line should be among the best in the SEC, but the key will be whether everyone can stay healthy (but isn’t that always the case?). Defensive end Carl Lawson is a game changer. Look no further than the first half of the season opener against Louisville in 2015 if you need to be convinced at how different this Auburn team looks when the former 5-star prospect is on the field.
Deshaun Watson can smack a defense around with his arm, but his legs could get Auburn in trouble. Dual-threat quarterbacks have been a pain for Auburn to defend in recent seasons, but this defense might also be the fastest and most athletic of the Gus Malzahn era. If Auburn gets pressure on Watson, things could change in a hurry for Auburn.
4. Clemson’s defense is reloading
Only three starters return on Clemson’s defense, which ranked in the top 10 in 2015. While the backups and rotation will still be strong, time will be needed to break in the latest incarnation of Brent Venable’s defense.
Auburn has some experience along the offensive line. If they get a good push early, Auburn could move up and down the field with relative and surprising ease against Clemson. Tempo and momentum will be everything in this game, and if Auburn is having success early against the reloading Clemson defense, the upset alert will be on high.
The biggest losses are defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, who combined for 24.5 sacks (!) in 2015. Without them, life would be difficult rushing the passer, especially if that passer is mobile quarterback John Franklin III.
5. Gus Malzahn has a bag of tricks
This is a crucial season for Gus Malzahn as he sits on a much warmer seat than he did a year ago. With everything to lose, perhaps Malzahn will go back to what made him so successful early in his college career: unique formations, trick plays and plenty of misdirection.
We get the feeling Malzahn will throw everything in his playbook — and maybe a few trick plays — at Clemson in the opener in an effort to pull the upset and set the Tigers up for a big run with five straight home games at home to open the season.
Auburn rarely used trick plays last season, but when the Tigers did pull out the trickeration, it usually worked. A big run by freshman Ryan Davis against Texas A&M on Malzahn’s patented Woody play especially stands out.
Why do we think Malzahn will go back to his tricky ways? His comments about reverting to life as a “football coach” rather than a “CEO” this offseason were telling, and designing interesting and exciting plays could be one of several results of his renewed approach.