CLEMSON — Change is part of college football’s fabric.
Each offseason, coaches leave for greener pastures. Or leave with green in their pockets after being fired.
Coordinators jump to more lucrative opportunities, or are sacked by head coaches hoping to keep their jobs for another year.
“We’ve dealt with that over the years,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who himself has changed his offensive and defensive coordinators the last two seasons. “In this business, there’s a lot of change. There have been years we’ve prepared for teams who have had a whole new staff, new head coach, new coordinators. You spend the whole summer looking at people you’re not going to play.”
This summer has been especially challenging for Clemson. Less than two years removed from a BCS national championship, Auburn has two new coordinators – and two new systems.
Gus Malzahn – mentor of Clemson OC Chad Morris – took his hurry-up, no-huddle system to Arkansas State as the Red Wolves’ new head coach. And much-maligned defensive coordinator Ted Roof bolted for Central Florida, eventually winding up at Penn State.
Saturday night’s Georgia Dome showdown against Clemson marks the debut of offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Throw in the fact that Auburn must prepare for Clemson’s new defense under Brent Venables, and you have a whole lot of mystery.
“Openers are tough,” Swinney said. “You’ve got more time to prepare for one game than at any time in the season. It makes a challenge. Two new coordinators, a lot more film study and questions to answer. It’ll be a game of adjustments, probably for both teams.”
To prepare for Loeffler, who spent last season as Temple’s offensive coordinator, the Tigers have watched plenty of Temple film (studying the power run game) and Auburn film (to study the players who’ll populate the new system).
VanGorder enjoyed success as Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2001-04, but has spent only one of the past seven seasons in college football – as Georgia Southern’s head coach in 2006.
He runs an aggressive 4-3 scheme predicated on quick decisions from linebackers and defensive backs.
He spent the past five seasons as the Atlanta Falcons’ linebackers coach and defensive coordinator, giving Clemson’s film study an NFL bent.
“I’ve studied offensive line NFL stuff, but never defensive stuff,” said senior center Dalton Freeman. “At the end of the day, football is football. It’s a little more complicated at that level, they do a little bit better job of hiding their stuff, but for us, there’s some stuff we haven’t seen, some stuff we have seen. It’ll be about us going out and executing what we’re doing.”
Senior tight end Brandon Ford said much of the preparation has involved watching individual players, seeking strengths, weaknesses and tendencies.
“We look at guys we’ll be going against, like their defensive end, their linebackers, their secondary,” he said. “We rewind the plays, play after play, and watch them over and over, watch the technique. We’ll also watch the games from the Falcons, get a tip here and there. We’ve got a good feel for those guys.”
Ford says it’s entirely possible to over-prepare, given the months of time available to focus on a single opponent, as opposed to the week normally afforded between games.
Still, there will be some new wrinkles, some things that catch players off-guard early on Saturday night.
One thing is for certain: the Georgia Dome’s locker rooms will be buzzing at halftime.
“This is one of those things, first game of the season,” said junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. “They’ve had a lot of time to prepare for it and you’re going to have to make some adjustments on the fly. It’s going to be the same thing for them. We’ve got things we do that they’re not really accustomed to . It’s going to be a match game but I’m excited about it.”