Death Valley will be rocking on Saturday night, as Clemson continues its national title defense by hosting Auburn in one of college football’s most anticipated non-conference matchups of 2017. These two teams met last season in Jordan-Hare Stadium, with Clemson winning 19-13. Auburn and Clemson easily took care of business in Week 1. Auburn defeated Georgia Southern 41-7, and coach Dabo Swinney's team dominated Kent State 56-3.
Adding to the intrigue for this game is the mystery surrounding both teams. While Clemson has the talent to make a CFB Playoff trip and win the ACC once again, there’s a new quarterback under center after Deshaun Watson departed for the NFL. New starter Kelly Bryant was sharp in the opener, but Auburn is a tougher test. A similar theme is unfolding for Auburn, as Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham was steady in his first game under center. However, Clemson’s defense is one of the best in the nation and will provide coach Gus Malzahn with a better indicator of where his offense is going into SEC play.
Auburn holds a 34-14-2 series edge over Clemson. However, these two teams have played only four times since 2010. Clemson has won the last three meetings against Auburn.
Auburn at Clemson
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 9 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Clemson -5.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Kelly Bryant and Jarrett Stidham
So far, so good for Clemson and Auburn at quarterback in the 2017 season.
Kelly Bryant inherited big shoes to fill in replacing Deshaun Watson following last year’s national championship victory. The junior opened spring ball with a lead over true freshman Hunter Johnson and redshirt freshman Zerrick Cooper and added to the separation in the fall. In his first career start, Bryant delivered one of the best debuts by a new quarterback in 2017. Against an overmatched Kent State defense, Bryant completed 16 of 22 throws for 236 yards and one touchdown and rushed for 77 yards and a score on seven carries. It’s only a small sample size, but Bryant kept the Clemson offense performing at a high level and maintained the unit’s big-play ability. However, the real test for Bryant in replacing Watson starts on Saturday night. Auburn’s defense was expected to be one of the best in the SEC this fall, and this unit is already off to a strong start. The Tigers allowed only 78 yards (with 58 coming on a late drive) against Georgia Southern last Saturday. Coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense doesn’t have a glaring weakness, but this unit lost two key standouts – Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams – up front to the NFL. Against a standout Clemson offensive line, can Steele’s defense generate a pass rush to disrupt the timing of Bryant and limit the big plays downfield?
Jarrett Stidham was one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and was pressed into duty in his first season at Baylor due to an injury to starter Seth Russell. Stidham showed flashes of promise for the Bears, completing 68.8 percent of his throws for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns. After Art Briles was dismissed at Baylor, Stidham left the program for a junior college and did not play football in 2016. The sophomore has a chance to be the missing piece for an Auburn attack that led the SEC in rushing offense last season but struggled to piece together consistency or big plays through the air. In the opener against Georgia Southern, Stidham knocked off some rust, completing 14 of 24 throws for 185 yards and two touchdowns and added 17 yards and a score on the ground. Similar to Bryant, this is a huge test for Stidham on Saturday night. Clemson’s defensive line is arguably the best in the nation, and the linebacker and secondary units should be near the top of the ACC by the end of 2017.
Both Bryant and Stidham deserved high marks for their performance in Week 1. But the challenge only gets tougher for Week 2. Which quarterback will deliver in key moments and build off promising Week 1 games?
2. Clemson’s Defensive Line Against Auburn’s Offensive Line
Anchored by All-America candidates Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell, Clemson’s defensive line was rated No. 1 nationally by Athlon Sports for the 2017 season. In addition to those three standouts, the Tigers are working early in the season to build depth, especially after end Richard Yeargin was lost for the year due to injury. And as expected in the opener, Clemson thoroughly dominated Kent State’s offensive line. The Golden Flashes attempted 44 runs and only managed 119 yards.
Auburn’s offensive line was a standout group last fall, bulldozing opponents for 5.5 yards per rush and allowing only 19 sacks in 13 games. Line coach Herb Hand is one of the best in the nation and returned a strong foundation with three starters back for 2017. Guard Braden Smith is an All-America candidate, with Darius James and Austin Golson joining him as returning starters. This unit is going through some early shuffling, as Prince Tega Wanogho earned his first career start in Week 1, with Mike Horton stepping in at left guard. Both players were making their first career start against Georgia Southern, yet helped this unit average 6.6 yards per rush. While the performance in Week 1 was good enough to beat the Eagles, Auburn has to be better up front and continue to mesh as a unit. Stidham was sacked three times, and Georgia Southern generated eight tackles for a loss.
The battle between an offensive line and a defensive front isn’t as nearly as exciting as watching the quarterback and receivers go at it with cornerbacks and safeties. However, this matchup is crucial to the outcome on Saturday night. Will Auburn’s offensive line continue to develop and hold off the nation’s top defensive line? Or will Clemson assert its dominance up front, get to Stidham and limit the Tigers’ ground game?
3. The Skill Talent
Kelly Bryant’s transition from backup to starter was certainly eased (or helped) by a strong supporting cast. In addition to the ACC’s top returning offensive line, the Tigers returned national championship hero Hunter Renfrow, big-play threat Deon Cain and a cast of other options – Ray-Ray McCloud, Amari Rodgers, Tee Higgins, Diondre Overton – in the receiving corps. Running back was the biggest concern for Swinney’s offense, as Wayne Gallman was an underrated cog in the high-powered attack. But Clemson is hardly lacking for options. C.J. Fuller, Adam Choice, Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne each appear capable of handling a share of the carries on Saturday night.
Auburn running back Kamryn Pettway did not play in Week 1 due to a suspension, but he’s slated to return on Saturday night. Pettway led the SEC by averaging 122.4 rushing yards per game last season, with his 235-pound frame providing plenty of power to go with big-play ability. Pettway’s return comes at a crucial time for coach Gus Malzahn. Junior Kerryon Johnson suffered an injury in last week’s win over Georgia Southern and is not expected to play. The Tigers also have reinforcements coming at receiver, as Kyle Davis is back in the lineup after sitting out Week 1 due to a suspension. While Davis is likely to see plenty of targets from Stidham, junior Will Hastings (four), Darius Slayton (three) and Nate Craig-Myers are a few other weapons at receiver to watch on Saturday night.
While much of the focus on Saturday night’s game is with the defenses and quarterbacks, don’t overlook the skill talent. Can the Tigers get consistent production on the ground? How will Pettway perform in his first game back? Also, which receivers will step up for Stidham?
There’s no shortage of intrigue for this matchup. How will the defending champs look in their first big test without Deshaun Watson under center? On the other sideline, Auburn entered the season as a potential CFB Playoff sleeper team to watch. If coach Gus Malzahn’s team can pick up a road win in Death Valley, Auburn could be undefeated headed into the Iron Bowl against Alabama. Also, how will quarterback Jarrett Stidham perform against one of the nation’s best defenses? Stidham and Bryant will have their moments, but the Clemson defense is the difference. Look for Clemson’s defensive line to make a play late that seals the victory.