After three vigorous weeks of fall camp and learning fundamentals, schemes and plays, Auburn's football team is turning its attention toward its opening week opponent, second-ranked Clemson. While Auburn's still trying to solidify its depth chart and find starters at key positions, including quarterback, the team will largely use the last two weeks of the preseason to prepare for Dabo Swinney's Tigers.
"I think everybody knows they're one of the better teams in the country," head coach Gus Malzahn said. "They played for the whole thing last year. They've got a lot of guys coming back. They're a good team. There's no doubt. We understand we're going to have to play well."
Clemson returns eight starters on an offense that scored 38.5 points and gained 515 yards per game last season en route to a 14-1 season. Among those returning starters is Heisman candidate Deshaun Watson, who accounted for 5,209 yards of total offense and 47 touchdowns in 2015. The defense loses a lot of experience but still boasts talent galore.
The purple-and-orange Tigers success did not go unnoticed by Malzahn, who has been studying Clemson for much of the offseason.
"Each year, when you look at your schedule, after spring ball or sometimes even before spring, you look at your early opponents," Malzahn said. "I think everyone in the country does that. You try to get as early a jump on it as possible."
While Clemson enters the game with arguably the best quarterback in college football, Auburn's quarterback situation remains unclear, as Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and John Franklin III are all still competing for the job. The competition is still wide open a couple of Saturdays away from the opener and Malzahn would prefer to name a starter before opening night arrives.
"That will more than likely be what we do," Malzahn said. "It's what we've been shooting for. Right now, it is what it is."
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While opening with a team of Clemson's caliber is daunting, Auburn's players are embracing the challenge.
"Coming into week one, I think it's good to play a team as good as Clemson because you need to be ready," senior offensive guard Alex Kozan said. "Everybody has that urgency about them. We have three weeks to prepare for them. We're able to really study them and get a good look at them. It gives us more time. I like going up against top competition in week one because it really tells you where your team's at."
Kozan says he's watched six or seven Clemson games so far in preparation for the season opener. "Their whole defense is really good," Kozan said. "We're taking them very seriously."
Auburn kicks off against Clemson on Sept. 3 at 8 p.m. CST. The game will be televised nationally by ESPN.
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