If history tells us anything, Saturday night’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game between No. 25 Auburn and No. 14 Clemson will be a major springboard for the winner.
Although the Tigers of Lee County, Ala., have a commanding 34-12-2 lead in 48 meetings, the last two games between the schools have been physical, hard-hitting contests that have featured, great individual performances, missed opportunities and big comebacks. They’ve also been a major confidence booster for the winner. Something that likely won’t change when the two Tigers hook up in the Georgia Dome.
Take the 2010 season for example. Eventual national champion Auburn trailed Clemson 17-3 at the half in Jordan-Hare Stadium before Heisman winner Cam Newton rallied the Tigers to an emotional 27-24 overtime victory. Clemson had a chance to tie the game in OT after Auburn’s Wes Byrum made a 39-yarder to give Gene Chizik’s squad the lead, but a young Chandler Catanzaro missed the game-tying field goal just moments after a 5-yard illegal procedure penalty cost Dabo Swinney’s Tigers three points, and Auburn held on to win a thriller.
Following the Clemson win, Chizik’s club played with a quiet confidence that led the Tigers to the BCS title.
A year ago in Death Valley, Auburn jumped out a 14-0 lead before Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, rookie wideout Sammy Watkins, tight end Dwayne Allen and an opportunistic defense paced the Tigers of South Carolina to a 38-24 win.
Chad Morris’ offense was the story in Clemson’s first ‘W’ over Auburn since a 34-0 thumping in 1951. His offensive unit rolled up 624 yards of total offense and racked up 32 first downs. Morris’ group also converted 14 of 18 third downs and punted just three times. The Clemson victory ended Auburn’s 17-game winning streak, which was the longest in the nation at the time.
After the Auburn game, the Tigers reeled off five more wins — and started the year 8-0 — before suffering their first loss of the year at Georgia Tech. Although they did struggle down the stretch, Swinney’s crew still won the ACC and played in a BCS bowl.
This week, Chizik was asked why the Auburn/Clemson game has been such a tone-setter the past two years.
“I guess it’s just the way it’s unfolded the last two years,” Chizik said. “In 2010, that was an eye-opening game for us because we were able to win it, but I felt like we got physically beat on the lines of scrimmage in 2010, and that was something that I think catapulted us into understanding what it was going to take to win this league that year. For them, the game got away from us in the fourth quarter, and they really played well down the stretch of that game. That catapulted them into a win against Florida State the next week and so on and so forth. It was a trend-setting game for them as they moved forward.
“This year, it will be interesting. I’m really looking forward to it. The next week we have to play a tough SEC West game, so I think this is going to be a great indicator for us of just where we stand. Whether that dictates how the rest of your season unfolds or not, you don’t know that until December. The last two years, if history has anything to say in it, then it might.”
In 2012, don’t expect the intensity between these two southern schools to cool off. Some Auburn players, notably defensive guys, want to make up for their lackluster performance against the Tigers a year ago. On the other hand, Clemson wants to prove it can beat the Tigers — and an SEC school at that — again. It also wants to redeem itself after being embarrassed 70-33 in the Orange Bowl at the hands of star quarterback Geno Smith and West Virginia.
Whichever team wins, it will have to do so minus two talented sophomores. Clemson’s Watkins is suspended, as is Auburn starting center Reese Dismukes (6-3, 300). Both will be missed, but Dismukes’ loss might be more significant than the loss of Watkins due to Clemson’s options at the skill positions.
Dismukes was a Freshman All-American a year ago and started every game for the Tigers as the team’s offensive line anchor. Sophomore Tunde Fariyike (6-2, 301) will start in place of Dismukes. Fariyike has never started a game as a Tiger, but he’s the smartest player on the team and has worked extremely hard to improve his game.
“It is a unique challenge,” Chizik said about the center situation. “The great thing about young people is that they know that a challenge is in front of them. In my experiences, they really do everything they can to respond.
“We don’t expect it to be any different in this case. Tunde had a good practice on Sunday and he will have a good week. I feel very sure of that. It is a big challenge for him. That position, if you don’t know, is extremely critical with communication in directing the lines and protections and things of that nature. It is a very critical position for us. He has been here a couple of years and that is what he is being called to do.”
Besides the player storylines (Boyd/Clemson’s run game vs Auburn’s front seven; Kiehl Frazier and Fariyike QB-center snap exchange/pre-snap reads; Boyd/Clemson WRs vs. Auburn’s secondary; Auburn’s run game against Clemson’s front seven), don’t sleep on the battle among the coaching staffs. Former Oklahoma DC Brent Venables is now calling the shots for Swinney’s defensive unit. But Auburn secondary coach Willie Martinez coached with Venables as a member of the Oklahoma coaching staff a year ago. He should be familiar with what Venables has dialed up against Scot Loeffler’s offense at times during the game.
Another battle to watch will be Auburn’s new DC Brian VanGorder against Clemson’s Morris. Chizik is familiar with Morris’ scheme because he is a disciple of former Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. That knowledge, coupled with VanGorder’s defensive prowess, should make for an interesting chess match between two talented coaching staffs.
Clemson. Auburn. Round 3. Are you ready Tiger fans?