The season is right around the corner and Auburn’s schedule is expected to be among the toughest in the country in 2016. What’s in store for the Tigers? SEC Country previews Auburn’s four non-conference opponents and provides a prediction for the upcoming season.
2015 record: 14-1, 8-0 SEC
Coach: Dabo Swinney, 9th year, 75-27 overall
Returning starters: Offense (8); Defense (4)
Game time: Sept. 3 at 9 p.m. ET
Who to watch for Clemson
Look no further than quarterback Deshaun Watson. He threw for 4,104 yards and 35 touchdowns, and ran for 1,105 yards and 12 scores while winning the ACC title and losing 45-40 to Alabama in the national championship. Watson will be the Heisman Trophy favorite this upcoming season and for good reason. Even Alabama coach Nick Saban says there hasn’t been a quarterback as good as Watson since Cam Newton led Auburn to a national title in 2010.
Four of the top six rushers are back on the roster, including running back Wayne Gallman (1,527 yards, 13 TDs) and so are four of the top five receivers. Simply put, the offense will be stacked and difficult to stop for any defense this season and is the ultimate test for Auburn’s defense with first-year coordinator Kevin Steele.
The defense will be the biggest question mark, though coordinator Brent Venables has built depth through some strong recruiting classes over the last few years. Remember, Clemson had only three returning starters on defense heading into the 2015 season, and yet its group was among the best in the country thanks to the incredible performances of defensive ends Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson (24 combined sacks). Dodd and Lawson have left for the NFL, but Venables is sure to have more talent ready to play when Clemson visits the Plains.
Why Auburn can win
Auburn has a strong running attack with Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson providing a 1-2 punch, but Clemson’s defensive line could prove to be an issue. Clemson is still strong in the trenches despite losing 73.5 percent of its sack production from last season, so the key in the season opener might just be the passing game.
Auburn fans will certainly gasp upon hearing that its team’s best chance to win might be through the air, but that could prove true. Only one starter returns in the Clemson secondary, which was an all-star group last season. Attacking Clemson’s secondary will be a tall task for whomever Auburn names as quarterback. Sean White has the best arm on the team, but John Franklin III has the best legs. Who will start? No one will know until mid-August.
It’s anyone’s guess how the quarterback will fare in the opener. Nick Marshall looked nothing like the quarterback fans remembered on the way to an SEC title compared to the season opener against Washington State in 2013. Jeremy Johnson also struggled when he got his first big shot in 2015 against Louisville.
Auburn has the advantage of playing at home inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, and if Auburn’s much-publicized defensive line lives up to the hype and gives Watson trouble, the fans and the defense will make for a potent combo against the Clemson offense.
Auburn will be a work in progress during the first few weeks of the season and opening with possibly the best team in the country is not always great for a program trying to lick its wounds following a 7-6 season. Then again, players have had something to look forward to all offseason with this game and there’s no doubt they’ll be ready mentally. The questions is whether everything will gel offensively and defensively to mount the upset against the favored Tigers of Clemson. We’ll go with Clemson 35, Auburn 28.