This Saturday, Auburn will venture into the loud and intimidating atmosphere of Death Valley, but not the same one they visit every other year in Baton Rouge.
The Tigers will take on the challenge of knocking off the defending national champions, Clemson, that beat Alabama on a touchdown pass with one second left to take the College Football Playoff trophy out of Nick Saban’s grasp.
This isn’t the same Clemson team that dominated the playoffs last season, however. Big changes have come, and the other Tigers have lost some of their superstars to the NFL.
The most notable difference is at quarterback. Deshaun Watson, the two-time Heisman trophy finalist, has his first NFL regular-season game with the Houston Texans on Sunday. Replacing him is junior Kelly Bryant, who silenced any doubters in his debut. Bryant went 16-22 for 236 yards, one touchdown and one interception against Kent State. He also ran seven times for 77 yards and another touchdown.
At the wide receiver position, Clemson faces a big challenge in replacing Mike Williams. While they still have veterans Hunter Renfrow and Deon Cain, Williams is the receiver who torched the Auburn defense for 174 yards in 2016. Aside from Williams, Watson only had 74 other passing yards in their victory over Auburn.
Clemson also lost their feature running back, Wayne Gallman, to the NFL’s New York Giants. Gallman ran for 123 yards and a touchdown against Auburn in 2016. C.J. Fuller, who had no carries against Auburn last year, has been chosen to replace Gallman as the starting running back.
Fuller was kept off the field against Kent State, likely to prevent any unnecessary injury in a fairly noncompetitive game. With the seven carries he did get, he fared well with 51 yards and two touchdowns.
The Auburn defense will prove a bigger challenge than Kent State, however. Kevin Steele’s Auburn defense held Georgia Southern to 78 yards of total offense in their opener. The Eagles’s quarterback, Shai Werts, was held to a meager 8 passing yards. The triple option attack of Georgia Southern never reached the end zone, with their seven points coming off a fumble recovery returned for a touchdown.
In their opening game, the Auburn defense could not have looked more dominant. While the offense could have had a stronger outing, there were few concerns.
Most of the offseason hype surrounding Auburn was focused on transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The former Baylor quarterback went 14-24 for 185 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. He also had nine carries for 17 yards and a touchdown, with one fumble that went the other way for Southern’s only points.
While it wasn’t a dominating performance by any means, he showed few reasons to be concerned over the quarterback position. It was Stidham's first time playing a real football game in almost two calendar years.
At the running back position, starter and Heisman candidate Kamryn Pettway was suspended for the Georgia Southern game. Head coach Gus Malzahn did not announce the suspension of Pettway, along with wide receiver Kyle Davis and backup quarterback Sean White, until less than an hour before kickoff.
In Pettway’s absence, the Auburn rushing attack did not struggle by any means. Kam Martin had 14 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown, with one fumble that was recovered by Auburn.
Kerryon Johnson had 16 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown, but pulled up with an apparent leg injury in the second quarter. He was 34 yards into the run and likely would have scored.
The play was reminiscent of Kamryn Pettway’s injury in the 2016 Vanderbilt game, where he was sure to score on a fourth-quarter run but pulled up with a hamstring injury after a 60-yard sprint. Malzahn said on Tuesday that Johnson missed practice on Sunday, but they are hopeful he will return in time for the Clemson game.
With Kyle Davis suspended, Stidham found success in multiple targets. Will Hastings led the team with four receptions for 68 yards and a touchdown, while Darius Slayton had three catches for 43 yards and one fumble. Stidham threw completions to seven different receivers, but Kyle Davis will provide him with more deep targets when he returns against Clemson.
Pettway will also return in the Clemson game, as Malzahn mentioned when he first announced the suspensions. Pettway’s presence should draw more defenders to the inside, allowing receivers to get open for Stidham.
Clemson, who is currently ranked fifth in the AP Top 25, will try to stop Auburn’s offense as well as they did against Kent State. Kent State ran for 119 yards while throwing for only one yard. Both Auburn and Clemson will be facing greater challenges than they did in their opening games.
In 2016, Clemson was favored to win the game by 7.5 points. The surprising defensive dominance by both teams resulted in a final score of 19-13. This year, Clemson is favored by 5.5 points.
Both teams had strong defensive showings in week one, and if that happens again this week, another low scoring competition can be expected.
This game will be the fifth between SEC and ACC teams this season, and an Auburn win would keep the SEC undefeated against the conference of the defending national champions.
The game kicks off at 6:00 PM CT on Saturday and will be aired on ESPN. In a battle between two playoff contenders, No. 12 Auburn will try to get revenge against No. 5 Clemson for last year’s defeat and keep an undefeated record. A win for either team should solidify them as a serious contender and one of the best teams in the nation.