Clemson and Auburn played one of the most thrilling games in all of college football last year, with the SEC Tigers erasing a 17-point deficit and winning in overtime after a Chandler Catanzaro missed field goal. This year's rematch should provide an equally exciting result, as both teams look to go 3-0 on the season. Let's take a look at the matchups.
Clemson offense vs. Auburn defense
Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd has been a bright spot for the Tigers in what has been an uncomfortable first two games for Clemson fans. After looking uneasy in the first half against Troy, he settled in and has now played three solid halves of football. He's done a nice job of spreading the ball around to both veterans (Nuk Hopkins and Jaron Brown) and freshmen (Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant). Andre Ellington seems to be fully recovered from his injury, and he will need to have a big day if Clemson is going to prevail this week. Chad Morris may have been holding back a little in his play-calling in the first two games, despite the close scores, so look for some new wrinkles in the no-huddle attack this week. Auburn lost a lot from a defense that really wasn't that great a year ago. All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley is gone along with linebacker Josh Bynes, and the defense struggled mightily in Auburn's first two games, surrendering 36 points per game. If Clemson can establish a running game, they should be able to hit some big plays down the field. Auburn has been pretty terrible against both the run and the pass, and they have basically been winning in spite of their defensive efforts.
Key matchup: Ellington vs. Auburn's front seven
Ellington rushed for 140 yards last season against a better version of the Auburn defense. He needs to have success running early to draw Auburn's defense up and allow Boyd to hit the big plays down the field he has been able to in the first two games.
Auburn offense vs. Clemson defense
Everybody knows that Gus Malzahn's offense is dynamic. It led Auburn to a national title last year. And while Malzahn doesn't have his do-it-all play toy Cam Newton this season, his offense has still put up numbers. Quarterback Barrett Trotter isn't going to wow anybody and doesn't have the running ability that Newton had, but he knows how to mangage the offense. He has one of the best young running backs in the country, Michael Dyer, at his disposal, and the speedy Onterio McCalebb is a handy weapon as well. Auburn lost its top two receivers from last year, but Emory Blake has stepped into the go-to-guy role and done a pretty good job. Clemson's defense has not been very good in the first two weeks of the season, allowing Troy's Corey Robinson to throw the ball around at will and continuously missing tackles and assignments as Wofford made them look silly with its option attack. The same mistakes simply will not fly against Auburn. Rashard Hall and Xavier Brewer should be returning to give the Clemson secondary a much-needed lift. The front seven is going to have to improve its play in order to contain Dyer and McCalebb.
Key matchup: Auburn's offensive line vs. Clemson's defensive line
Auburn lost a lot off last year's offensive line, and Clemson will need to dominate Auburn's inexperienced front at scrimmage to stop the run game. They also need to get pressure on Trotter, because he can pick you apart Newton-style if you give him time.
Auburn lost a stud kicker in Wes Byrum, but Cody Parkey has replaced him well so far. Auburn is obviously going to have speed to burn on kick returns. Clemson has had some special teams issues, botching snaps and allowing a successful fake punt against Wofford. Dawson Zimmerman can be a field position changer at punter, however, and Watkins and Mike Bellamy could break one at any time on kick returns.
Auburn has picked up where it left off last season as far as simply finding ways to win. They needed a successful onside kick to beat Utah State and a goal-line stand to beat Mississippi State. They got both. While they could easily be 0-2, they managed to be 2-0. That's how you build a 17-game winning streak. You find ways to win. But it's harder without Cam Newton, and nobody has seen how Trotter will perform at a hostile road venue. I expect a shootout in this one, and Auburn may very well squeak out another improbable victory. But Clemson has revenge on its mind, and I think an inspired defense will slow Auburn down just enough to allow Boyd to lead a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.
Clemson 35 Auburn 31