All of Auburn football’s five losses in 2016 stung, but the Tigers won lessons in each. This week, SEC Country will examine what the Tigers can do to put themselves in a better position to win this season’s rematches.
2016: Clemson 19, Auburn 13 | 2017: at Clemson, Sept. 9
Auburn had the ball trailing by six points with less than a minute remaining in its 2016 home opener.
Yet even then, Auburn fans packed into Jordan-Hare Stadium focused on how coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers started the night against No. 2 Clemson, the eventual national champion.
Following the longest quarterback competition of Malzahn’s college coaching career, he’d been adamant about naming Sean White the starter. That all seemingly changed less than five minutes into the game.
White took the first snap, as expected. Then senior Jeremy Johnson popped in. After that, junior college transfer John Franklin III appeared. Three quarterbacks attempted passes on the first six plays.
“Yeah, it was a surprise,” said Rod Bramblett, Auburn’s play-by-play announcer. “I think part of it was they knew they were facing a really, really good Clemson team. They wanted to get off to a good start … and I think it was kind of a surprise factor in hopes that they would catch Clemson off guard — and it may have.
“It probably did. But I think it also hampered Auburn’s execution a lot.”
The QB carousel continued for the remainder of the night, which ended in a 19-13 loss.
“I think a lot of people watched that game and just wondered what was the envisioned light at the end of the tunnel for Auburn,” ESPN college football analyst Cole Cubelic said. “There were a lot of people scratching their heads, confused as to not just the rotation of who took the snaps — that was a big part of it — but just the series of play-calling, continuously going back to plays that didn’t work, that didn’t have any chance to work.”
Cubelic, a former Auburn offensive lineman, was working another game that day and was able to watch his beloved Tigers. He’d been looking forward to the matchup between Auburn’s offensive line and Clemson’s defensive line.
“I thought that was the matchup that would decide the game,” Cubelic said. “[Auburn’s line] was still good, did some good things, but there were some plays that didn’t really give them much of a chance.”
Lack of indentity
It was a confusing and somewhat overwhelming game. Still, there was value that came from the last-second loss.
“Auburn did as good of a job against Clemson as anyone did,” Bramblett said. “The defense did a good enough job to win that football game, but offensively it was a game they weren’t quite sure yet of what their identity would be at quarterback.”
It took longer than expected — and surprisingly entailed Malzahn handing over play-calling duties to then-offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee a few games later. That’s when Auburn football found its field leader. The Tigers won six consecutive games after losing two of their first three.
“I think they learned a lesson from that and eventually settled down and got into a good situation with Sean White,” Bramblett said. “When Sean White was healthy, Auburn was a pretty good offensive club. They may have lost that game because of the lack of identity at quarterback, but they probably won some games because they learned what they were and what they needed to do the rest of the year.”
And there was more good. Going against Heisman hopeful Deshaun Watson and his offensive weapons was no easy task. But Cubelic was impressed with Auburn’s defense.
“On the positive side of things, you learned you had a young defensive line led by two seniors that played well,” Cubelic said. “There was a young group of kids up front that you were going to be able to lean on and rely on.”
First-year coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense attacked and pressured, at times stifling the visiting Tigers. So the defense, Auburn’s biggest question heading into 2016, ended up being the highlight.
“That is one of the best teams in college football,” Malzahn said after the game. “Holding those guys to 19 points was really unbelievable as far as the effort.”
Ready for a rematch
Auburn has a shot at revenge on Sept. 9 at Clemson, but winning at Memorial Stadium won’t be easy. Auburn still has several areas of concern.
With Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, the Tigers hope to avoid another erratic QB rotation. But it’s a new offense under first-year coordinator Chip Lindsey.
There’s talent on the offensive line with graduate transfers Casey Dunn (Jacksonville State) and Wilson Bell (Florida State) joining returners Braden Smith, Austin Golson and Darius James. But will they have time to gel during fall camp and the season-opener Sept. 2 against Georgia Southern?
“One of my biggest question marks is finding the first five, and do they stick with them?” Cubelic said.
It’s all part of establishing an identity, which will be key to being ready for what Bramblett says will be “an SEC atmosphere” at Clemson on Sept. 9.
But Auburn can take this from last season’s game against Clemson: A loss does not mean the season is over.
“The way things are set up, because it’s a nonconference game early in the year, if you lose that game, you’re competitive if you win or lose,” Bramblett said. “You still have everything in front of you to play for. Especially if you’re Auburn in the SEC.”