Perhaps the Auburn Tigers' toughest test of the 2016 college football season—aside from a visit to No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl—comes in the season opener at Jordan-Hare Stadium. On Saturday night, Auburn hosts Clemson, who last took the field when they lost the College Football Championship Game.
Auburn is looking to have a bounce-back year, coming off a season that saw them finish 7-6 and in dead last in the SEC West. The Tigers fell short of expectations after they were predicted to be a national title contender, and a win over Clemson would be a start in doing the opposite this year. Falling outside of the AP Top 25 Poll, Auburn also received fewer votes than seven other teams that aren’t ranked.
"There are a lot of unknowns," Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. "They have players we don't know a lot about, and we have players they don't know a lot about. You don't ever really know until you see a team for two or three games."
Clemson could be every bit as good as they were a year ago when their only loss came against Alabama in the national championship game. Quarterback Deshaun Watson is back a year after finishing third in the voting for the Heisman Trophy award.
Along with LSU running back Leonard Fournette, Watson is the leading candidate to win the award this season. As a sophomore, Watson completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 4,104 yards, 35 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. But it’s his ability to be a dual-threat quarterback that makes him so difficult to stop. Watson was Clemson’s second-leading rusher last year with 1,105 yards on the ground and 12 scores.
Watson would’ve been a top draft pick had he been eligible to enter the NFL after last year, and he’s the projected No.1 overall selection in the 2017 draft.
"It's going to be very stressful," Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner said, via al.com. "We've got to be very disciplined in how we play. We can affect him in pass rush and get him off the spot, but then not be disciplined in pass-rush lanes and he pulls it down and he keeps the play alive... We're going to have to schematically come up with different ways to play smart."
But it’s not just Watson that’s returning. Clemson’s leading rusher, Wayne Gallman, is also back after totaling 1,527 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Top wide receiver Artavis Scott is back, as well, having caught 93 passes as a sophomore. Only nine players in the country had more receptions than Scott in 2015.
Auburn ranked just 85th out of 128 FBS teams in total defense last season, though the unit should be improved in 2016. Defensive end Car Lawson, who registered 7.5 tackles for a loss and four sacks in 2014, is starting the season healthy after playing just seven games last year. Safety Jonathan “Rudy” Ford, who led the team in tackles for the past two seasons, is also back.
Slowing down arguably the best player in college football, however, is easier said than done. Clemson is expected to get the win, favored by 7.5 points at both Las Vegas and online sportsbooks, and the over/under is 62.5, via OddsShark.
Prediction: Clemson over Auburn, 37-27