CLEMSON — The first game of a college football season is always fraught with anticipation – new faces in new places, running new schemes with new twists.
Clemson’s season opener is no different – and the fact that the Tigers are staring at an ESPN-televised showdown against Auburn only heightens the excitement.
There’s no doubt we’ll know plenty more about the No.14 Tigers following Saturday night’s Atlanta showdown against Auburn inside the Georgia Dome.
Here are five things we’ll be watching as the Tigers tangle with…. the Tigers.
1. How much will Clemson miss Sammy Watkins? Make no mistake: the absence of the reigning national freshman of the year will be felt Saturday night. Watkins begins a two-game suspension following his May arrest on drug charges, and he’ll be missed all over the field. Watkins does a little of everything – he’s a breakaway receiving threat, able to make defenders miss out of the backfield and a dangerous kick returner.
Sophomore Charone Peake, who has drawn praise from coaches for his focus and athleticism, will start in Watkins’ place. Peake stands 6-foot-3 and is one of the three fastest players on the roster; he could be a legit deep threat. Talented junior DeAndre Hopkins, sophomore Martavis Bryant, senior Jaron Brown and sophomore Adam Humphries will also be expected to carry a bigger load – no one player can replace Watkins.
2. How will Clemson’s rebuilt offensive line fare? Offensive lines thrive on chemistry, and this particular group hasn’t had a lot of field time together. Only two starters – senior center Dalton Freeman and junior left tackle Brandon Thomas – return from a line that struggled with short yardage last fall. Sophomore David Beasley overtook fellow sophomore Kalon Davis at left guard, and starting right tackle Gifford Timothy missed two weeks with a torn meniscus. A sophomore, Timothy will also be making his first start tonight. Coaches have raved about the line’s athleticism and potential, but there’s ample reason to believe there will be bumps in the road early on, especially against an Auburn defensive line that returns its entire two-deep.
3. Is a young Clemson defensive line ready for prime time? Senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman is the only returning starter from 2011’s tough, nasty defensive line. A trio of sophomores – Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson and DeShawn Williams – will rotate at the defensive tackle slots, with freshmen D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins expected to see significant time. At the other end spot, Vic Beasley has made a strong push against expected starter and fellow sophomore Corey Crawford. Auburn’s line returns only two starters, and freshman All-America center Reese Dismukes will miss the game following last week’s public intoxication arrest. There’s reason for optimism here.
4. How has Tajh Boyd progressed? Throughout the preseason, we’ve heard about the new and improved Tajh Boyd – lighter, a better game manager, a better runner. He struggled down the stretch in 2011, throwing nine touchdowns against nine interceptions over the final six games. He worked extensively on footwork and film study in the offseason, and entering his second season as the starter, Boyd should be a more mature player. He’ll get a good test against an Auburn defensive line led by junior Corey Lemonier, one of the nation’s top defensive ends.
5. How will Clemson handle a big stage? A year ago, the Tigers beat three consecutive top-25 teams in Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech, and mashed the Hokies in an ACC title game rematch. Yet, the feeling persists that Clemson can’t handle big-stage moments, largely due to embarrassments like Alabama’s 34-10 stomping in the 2008 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic and West Virginia’s 70-33 shellacking in the 2012 Orange Bowl. Throw in the fact that Clemson hasn’t won in Atlanta – a major recruiting base – since 2004, and you understand why this is a big, big night for Dabo Swinney and Co. As coaches and players love to say, you’re only as good as your last game. Dispatching Auburn under the Georgia Dome lights would do plenty towards changing Clemson’s national perception.