War Eagle Extra

The Other Tigers: Clemson beat writer on season-opener against Auburn

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson poses for a photo after their 23-17 win over Florida State in an NCAA college football game last season.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson poses for a photo after their 23-17 win over Florida State in an NCAA college football game last season. AP

A familiar name stepped up to help the Ledger-Enquirer preview Auburn’s opener against Clemson.

The Clemson beat writer for The Post and Courier Aaron Benner, who formerly captained the War Eagle Extra blog, takes a look at how Dabo Swinney’s squad prepared for the game, the expectations for Deshaun Watson and the other key players to watch at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

We shared our thoughts on Auburn in similar fashion for Brenner over on his Tiger Tracks blog.

LE: Coming off last year’s runner-up finish, have you sensed Clemson’s coaching staff approaching this season differently? How are they managing expectations as the preseason No. 2 ranked team in the country?

Aaron Brenner: The Clemson way is this: every game is the same, every season is different from each other yet holding the exact same expectations. Dabo Swinney has done his best to preach that this preseason is no different from any other, but he's not fooling anybody: Clemson wasn't plastered all over magazine covers and championship conversations before 2015, or any other year before that. Things are definitely different now; it's just the coaches are doing their best not to let their players buy in to the hype.

As far as how Clemson is approaching road trip to Auburn to kick off the season, you'll hear how the Tigers will play as hard against Auburn as they will next week against Troy and the following week against South Carolina State. That's just how the Tigers roll, and the outside world has to admit, it's worked very well to the tune of a 46-8 mark the last four years.

LE: Does Clemson have a weakness on either side of the ball Auburn coaches should be looking to exploit?

Brenner: As much as the Clemson coaches evoke confidence in these young defensive ends, if I were Rhett Lashlee I'd be grinning like a Cheshire Cat and thinking, "let's find out." Clelin Ferrell is supposedly ready for a breakout season, and Richard Yeargin and Christian Wilkins are plenty skilled, but life after Vic Beasley, Kevin Dodd and Shaq Lawson could be more of a challenge than anybody realizes. Look for Auburn to send some speedy backs to the edge, away from Clemson's interior linemen and linebackers and looking to test the containment of Clemson's DEs and tackling of its cornerbacks. Also: when Clemson has the ball, Auburn would be wise to try to create some presnap penalties and get a couple of Clemson's new starting offensive linemen jumpy, which would fuel the Jordan-Hare Stadium home crowd.

LE: You got to watch Deshaun Watson up close last season and there is a lot of hype coming into his junior year, is it Heisman or bust for the quarterback?

Brenner: Pretty much, yeah. I mean, the kid tends to take everything in stride; if he goes on and has a merely decent year leading Clemson to 10 wins (which would be a relative disappointment), he's probably still a top-five pick in next spring's draft, and onward he'd go to the next chapter of his life with very few regrets. But, he made it known how badly it hurt to go to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and then to Glendale, Ariz. for the national championship game, and come home empty-handed both times. Davey O'Brien trophies just aren't quite as shiny, so Watson is raring for a second (and likely final) chance at college football's top individual and team prizes.

LE: Who is the most important player on Clemson’s roster behind Deshaun Watson…

Brenner: Will give you two answers: left tackle Mitch Hyatt, because he's protecting Deshaun Watson. Hyatt figures to see a steady diet of Carl Lawson on Saturday, and Hyatt has been questioned by offseason articles by Pro Football Focus analyzing Hyatt's NFL future (as a true freshman last year, Hyatt's praises were sung again and again since, to football neophytes, he seemed to be doing a fine job.) On defense, it's probably weakside linebacker Ben Boulware, just because he's the glue of the entire defense. He's not only the vocal leader and elder statesman of the gang, but he's the best tackler, and if something were to happen to him healthwise, Clemson would get extremely thin at linebacker in a heartbeat.

LE: It’s been 66 years since Clemson won a game at Auburn, is Dabo playing up that history at all leading into Saturday night?

Brenner: He actually did bring up how Clemson hasn't won at Auburn since 1950, or the year Pat Dye celebrated his 11th birthday. Swinney, as a longtime Crimson Tide player and coach, knows exactly how difficult it is to win at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Alabama was 1-4 at Auburn with Swinney on the roster or coaching staff, and Swinney's 2010 Clemson team pushed Auburn to OT before Cam Newton won that game, the Heisman and national championship. Of course, none of that will have much to do specifically with Saturday's matchup, but Clemson fans who don't qualify for Social Security would love to tell the tale of watching their Tigers win at Auburn.