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Michael Niziolek: Bad loss would set wrong tone

Auburn choach Gus Malzahn talks with Rhett Lashlee on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016 at the university's athletic complex.
Auburn choach Gus Malzahn talks with Rhett Lashlee on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2016 at the university's athletic complex. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn has a built in excuse if it loses to Clemson under the lights at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday night.

Maybe even more than one.

Coach Gus Malzahn’s squad is facing the No. 2 team in the country, a team that finished runner-up last season, and Deshaun Watson, who happens to be one of the most dynamic players in the country.

“Their quarterback is one of the best players in college football, if not the best player,” Malzahn said this week, echoing his comments about last year’s Heisman finalist from previous weeks.

Clemson is a 7.5-point favorite going into this weekend’s game thanks to the team’s clear edge in experience and talent.

The home crowd not withstanding no one waking up Sunday morning will be surprised Clemson ended a streak of futility on the Plains going back 66 years.

Auburn wants to shock the college football world, but a more realistic and important goal is to prevent a prime time embarrassment.

If Auburn gets rolled coming off a back-to-back mediocre seasons it will set the wrong tone for 2016 considering this is a team supposedly playing with a “chip on their shoulder.”

“We were disappointed in how things turned out (last year) and if you're a competitor, you want to do something about it,” Malzahn said. “Our team has kind of had a chip on their shoulder in the offseason, which I think is good. I know our coaching staff with really myself, we want to get up and we want to play good football and that's what we expect.”

With Malzahn avoiding calling this season a “rebuilding year” at all costs, he won’t have an excuse at the podium Saturday night if his team is on the wrong end of a lopsided score.

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee came the closest of any Auburn coach at tempering expectations for his group, but he didn’t apply his line of thinking to any specific opponent.

“There are a lot of unknowns for us,” Lashlee said of the offense. “Last year, we were very inexperienced, returning only three starters. This year, there are a lot of unknowns for us because we’re playing a lot of young guys.”

The key to making it a close game will probably fall on the defense’s shoulder. There isn’t a coach on the staff that hasn’t praised the group’s depth and focus this season. The whispers of an improved defense started in the spring and are now a full-blown chorus this fall with Carl Lawson at the center of talented bunch.

If Auburn’s defense fails its first test it could signal the start of a downward spiral no one on the Plains wants to see.