The Auburn-Clemson football rivalry is older and more storied than one might expect. It goes beyond a simple battle over which team is the better Tigers or who looks better in orange. The story goes that Walter Merritt Riggs, considered to be the father of Clemson football, was originally a member of Auburns football team. Riggs, when forming the Clemson football team, purchased some of Auburns practice uniforms for his players to use. When it came time to select a mascot, Riggs allowed his players to choose. Some say Riggs influenced them into choosing the Tiger. Others say the players chose the Tiger to emulate Princeton, the team who had most recently won the college football national championship. Regardless of which version of the story you believe, there can be no doubt that the Auburn Tigers and Clemson Tigers are historically and aesthetically linked.
This Saturday marks the 51st installment of the Auburn-Clemson football rivalry. While Auburn holds the overall lead with 34 wins in the series, it has been Clemson emerging victorious in each of the last three matchups. Just last season, Clemson defeated Auburn on their home turf by a score of 19-13. Auburn will certainly look to return the favor this year. Without any further ado, let’s take a look at how these teams will match up on Saturday.
Strength versus Strength
The story of this game figures to be Auburn’s rushing attack taking on Clemson’s front seven. Both units were particularly formidable in 2016 and figure to be just as good if not better when they face-off this weekend.
Auburn’s ground game ranked 6th in the nation last year. This year, their top two leading rushers return to pave the way once again. Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway make for one of college football’s most dynamic backfield duos. Pettway returns from a suspension in week two. That, combined with the fact that he received zero carries in last year’s lost to Clemson, should make for a determined Pettway when he takes the field this Saturday, and a determined Pettway is a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, Johnson got off to a hot start in week one against Georgia Southern. He tallied 136 yards and a score before exiting due to injury. That same injury could ultimately keep him out of the game against Clemson. Should he take the field, Johnson will be difficult to stop. If not, it will likely be Kam Martin who picks up the slack. Martin also picked up 136 yards and a touchdown in week one, so he’s no slouch either. If there’s a weakness in the Auburn rushing game, it lies with the offensive line. The unit, while effective overall, still managed to surrender three sacks and eight tackles for a loss in the game against Georgia Southern.
There are few teams in college football as well equipped to handle Auburn’s rushing attack as the Clemson Tigers. The combination of preseason All-Americans Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins make for a fearsome combination in the middle of the defensive line. Auburn running backs will have a harder time than usual finding a lane with Lawrence and Wilkins disrupting play after play. On the edge, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant have the responsibility of containing any runs that reach the outside. Bryant and Ferrell, while typically known for their pass rush ability, should have enough experience and skill between them to do their job effectively. Backing up the defensive line, are Kendall Joseph and Dorian O’Daniel. These linebackers are one of the rangiest duos you’ll find at their position in all of college football. They’ll need every solitary inch of that range to keep up with Auburn.
It’s hard to say which team has the edge in the matchup of Clemson’s defense and Auburn’s offense. On one hand, Clemson’s defensive line should easily surpass Auburn’s offensive line, considering their struggles against the lowly Georgia Southern. On the other hand, Auburn’s running backs may have enough talent to overcome those struggles. Factoring in the coaching minds at play with Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables going up against Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, and there is simply no prediction that could do this game justice. We’ll just have to wait till Saturday night for the fireworks.
New Quarterbacks, Bright Lights
Both Tiger teams are in similar spots when it comes to the most important position in all of football. Each team debuted new starting quarterbacks in week one. Auburn gave the nod to transfer arrival Jarrett Stidham, while Clemson went with longtime backup Kelly Bryant. Saturday represents a major hurdle for both men in their burgeoning careers as starting quarterbacks for their respective teams. How Bryant and Stidham perform in the pressure cooker that is Death Valley during a night game will directly impact the outcome of this game, and the remainder of the season.
In his debut as starting quarterback for the Clemson Tigers, Kelly Bryant looked simply electric. Bryant had previously proven himself to be a dynamic player when running the football, and he showed it again in the first game, but his passing ability was still in question heading into the season opener. Against Kent State, Bryant displayed poise, accuracy, and strong decision making. He delivered the ball with confidence, showing few signs of nervousness in his first collegiate start. The highlight of his day came on the Tigers second drive of the game, when he lofted a picture perfect pass to receiver Deon Cain for a 61 yard touchdown. Auburn’s defense is in a higher echelon than Kent State’s to be sure. Factor that in with the aforementioned pressure, and Bryant will be challenged come kickoff.
Jarrett Stidham’s debut for Auburn was slightly more of a mixed bag. He finished the game with 185 yards passing and two scores, with another 17 on the ground and another rushing touchdown. However, his stat line also included two interceptions and a fumble, which resulted in the opposition’s lone score of the contest. The rust from Stidham’s nearly two years away from football was apparent. What was also apparent was that rust coming off as the game went on. The former 5 star recruit seemed to grow more comfortable and confident as the game progressed. But just like Auburn presents a much greater defensive threat than Kent State, so too does Clemson represent a tougher challenge than Georgia Southern. Stidham will need to polish his game if he is to stand a chance against the hostile Clemson crowd and the yet more hostile Clemson defense.
The edge in this quarterback battle will go to the man who better handles the pressure of such a massive moment so early in the season. It may be easier to award that edge to Bryant, as he’ll be playing in front of a home crowd. But given the strength of Auburn’s running game, it could be Bryant who is ultimately asked to do more in this game. Whether he can handle that type of load is still unclear. Stidham may just need to act as an effective game manager for Auburn to emerge with a victory. Handling his nerves may prove to be the greater challenge.
Saturday’s matchup of Clemson versus Auburn should be a pleasure to watch. Kickoff is at 7pm, at which point, we will find the answer to these burning questions. That includes the most important question of all: Who is the better Tiger?