AUBURN, Ala. — Football is a game of matchups — player vs. player, unit vs. unit, coach vs. coach and scheme vs. scheme. And in order for Auburn football to pull off a big road upset at defending national champion Clemson, it has to take control of those game-defining matchups.
No. 13 Auburn heads to No. 3 Clemson on Saturday night (7 p.m. ET on ESPN) for a Week 2 showdown that will go a long way in determining the trajectory of Gus Malzahn’s Tigers in 2017. Auburn breezed to an easy win over Georgia Southern in Week 1, but winning those individual showdowns that they dominated last week will be a new challenge in Death Valley.
Let’s break down this matchup between the teams by ranking the top-7 matchups that will matter the most. There are others that will play a part in how the game plays out, but these are the seven that will demand the most attention.
7. Auburn pass rush vs. Clemson QB Kelly Bryant
Auburn’s defensive line made life difficult for Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts in his few passing opportunities. This week, Kelly Bryant gets his first big start against a top-notch defense, and he has the ability to make teams pay if they don’t bring him down in the backfield. Auburn has to generate pressure from all angles — not just Jeff Holland and Marlon Davidson — and keep Bryant contained. If they don’t, he can create big plays with his legs or his arm. If they do, Auburn can generate some of those quick defensive drives they’ll need in a hostile road environment.
6. Auburn RB Kamryn Pettway vs. Clemson’s front seven
Clemson allowed only 87 yards on 41 carries on the ground against Auburn last year. However, Auburn didn’t run its best back from 2016 in Kamryn Pettway. This weekend, Pettway will bring his powerful style to a Clemson front that has one of the nation’s best defensive lines and a linebacking corps that is experienced despite not having the leadership of Ben Boulware.
5. Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham vs. rust
Gus Malzahn expects Jarrett Stidham to “play better” after his up-and-down debut against Georgia Southern. A less vanilla playbook should help him against Clemson, but he is getting back into the flow after missing almost two years of football. The Texas native needs to be sharper and shake off any rust left over from Week 1. If he can do that, Stidham could be the biggest difference between last year’s ugly 19-13 loss to Clemson and a much different story this year.
4. Auburn receivers vs. Clemson secondary
Auburn’s biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball heading into the season was its receivers — full of potential, but limited on production. They had their high and low moments against Georgia Southern in Week 1. Auburn brings vertical threat Kyle Davis back into the fold, and Nate Craig-Myers should be motivated for a big day after zero targets last weekend. Clemson had to replace Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson from an elite secondary last season, but there’s plenty of talent in the back end. Which rising group will get the edge here?
3. Auburn secondary vs. Clemson receivers
Auburn’s defensive front set the tone last season against Clemson by holding Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman and the rest of the ground game to 151 yards on 44 carries. Clemson made up for it with its passing attack, namely the back-shoulder throws from Watson to Mike Williams. Those playmakers are gone, but Clemson has reloaded in that area. Bryant had a great start against Kent State, and receivers such as Deon Cain and Hunter Renfrow can be game-changers. Auburn’s secondary, which replaced a couple of starters, wasn’t tested during Week 1. Its first challenge will be a massive one.
2. Auburn offensive line vs. Clemson defensive line
Last season, Clemson’s defensive front wreaked havoc on Auburn’s offensive line with 14 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Auburn was constantly behind the chains, and it made a handicapped offense even worse. This year, the Tigers didn’t get off to a strong start in this category, as Georgia Southern’s defense came up with a surprising 8 TFLs. Clemson has two All-American candidates in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence up front, and they’re surrounded by potential stars such as Austin Bryant and Clelin Ferrell. Auburn’s revamped offensive line must do a better job at keeping Stidham upright.
1. Auburn OC Chip Lindsey vs. Clemson DC Brent Venables
Not to take anything away from Auburn’s defense vs. Clemson’s offense, but this looks like the matchup that will determine a lot Saturday night. Auburn needs to put up a better offensive showing, and this should be the first time Tigers fans get to see a full-blown Chip Lindsey offense in action. His tweaks and schemes will go up against Brent Venables, one of college football’s top defensive minds. Venables is creative with how he generates pressure, and that will be key against Stidham. This should be a fun football chess match.