AUBURN, Ala. — According to Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, season openers aren’t decided by talent or preparation — first games are won with adjustments.
How a player practices during the fall is a good indication of how he will perform in real time, but until the lights come on in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night coaches can’t be certain of anything.
Clemson enters the season ranked No. 2 with good reason. Even after losing several key players to the pros last year, Clemson’s roster shows depth and loads of talent. The Tigers are led by Heisman favorite Deshaun Watson. As skillful as it is, Clemson will have to make in-game adjustments.
So don’t count out Auburn yet.
Auburn’s offensive and defensive lines are experienced.
Here’s how the teams match up at each position:
Clemson: It’s no secret that Watson is one of if not the best player in college football. Last year he was the first player in FBS history to throw for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards. He finished third in Heisman voting and almost singlehandedly defeated Alabama in the national title game. This season he’ll be out to prove he is the absolute best.
Auburn: In 2015, Sean White became the first Auburn freshman since 1999 to make his first start in an SEC game. White handled being thrown into the starting lineup well, but struggled with injuries most the year — and it showed in games. White threw 4 interceptions and only 1 TD pass.
Clemson: Veteran Wayne Gallman set the Clemson record for single-season rushing yards (1,527) last year. Clemson has depth behind him if needed.
Auburn: Jovon Robinson, the team’s top returning running back, was kicked off the team on the first day of fall camp. Sophomore Kerryon Johnson (222 yards) will lead a diverse group of young backs. Kamryn Pettway and other young backs fill out the position.
Clemson: All-ACC receivers Artavis Scott and Mike Williams team with Deon Cain (back from suspension) and a trio of four-star summer enrollees to give Watson plenty of weapons.
Auburn: Senior Marcus Davis has established himself as a team leader and he needs to back that up by producing on the field. Three of Auburn’s four freshmen were top-15 recruits. They will get their chance early to make a difference.
Clemson: Clemson lost one senior last season and returns three starters. The line has size — three of them average around 320 pounds — but two freshmen are backups, which could cause problems if adjustments need to be made.
Auburn: The offensive line is the most experienced unit on Auburn’s offense. Braden Smith and Alex Kozan are one of the best guard duos in the country. A couple of linemen changed positions during offseason, but have had time to adjust.
Clemson: Clemson will try to field a similar line to what they’ve had in recent years, but losing Shaq Lawson to the NFL changes things.
Auburn: Auburn’s defensive line could be one of the best in the SEC. For Auburn to have a chance to beat Clemson, Carl Lawson’s line has to be relentless in its pursuit of Watson (and stay healthy in the process).
Clemson: Ben Boulware is the leader of Clemson’s defense. He started every game in 2015, recording 138 total tackles (second on the team) and 3.5 sacks. He’s in charge of a young defense.
Auburn: First-year coach and former Tiger Travis Williams leads Auburn’s linebackers this year. Graduate transfer T.J. Neal and junior college transfer Paul James III joined Tre Williams and Darrell Williams (no relation) to combine for an experienced group.
Clemson: The Tigers struggled to defend big plays last season. They return senior DB Jadar Johnson and sophomore Cannon Smith, but are mixing old and new players again.
Auburn: Injuries and off-the-field issues have plagued the Tigers’ cornerbacks through the fall. All-SEC freshman Carlton Davis returns and safety Tray Matthews is healthy. Senior Josh Holsey brings experience and versatility to several positions.
Clemson: Clemson’s special teams units struggled last year and will try to improve in 2016.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson was a Lou Groza award finalist and is back to prove he’s the best in the nation.
Bottom line: Clemson is more experienced at multiple skill positions, but Auburn should win the battles up front defensively and offensively. If Auburn’s dynamic defensive line can put pressure on Watson and stop the run, Auburn may have a chance to upset the No. 2 team in the country.