CLEMSON — The most intriguing of season openers can fill airtime and newspaper columns for several months. As it turns out, they also occupy the film room for the same amount of time.
Clemson’s quest to return to the College Football Playoff national championship game will begin on the road against Auburn on Sept. 3 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Clemson began last year’s run to the title game with a season-opening victory over Wofford, but 2016 will mark the Tigers’ fourth season opener in five years against an SEC opponent, beginning with a neutral-site showdown with Auburn in Atlanta to kick off 2012.
Auburn stumbled to a 7-6 record last fall after being picked to win the SEC Championship in preseason polls. However, the Tigers have proven the ability to bounce back from lackluster seasons, reaching two national title games in the past six years (winning in 2010 and losing in 2013).
“We’re very familiar with a lot of the personnel at Auburn,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said Wednesday during the ACC coaches post-spring teleconference. “They’re a really talented football team, a really talented football team. So we’ve already started the process with our prep work, schematically as far as what they did last year.”
Auburn has 11 returning starters, but no established starting quarterback — Jeremy Johnson and Sean White will compete for the job after splitting all the team’s starts in 2015 — and few proven contributors back beyond offensive guard Braden Smith, defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, and kicker Daniel Carlson.
However, Auburn’s cache is enough to capture the attention of Clemson coaches. So is the fact Clemson has lost all three season openers in a road stadium dating to 1996, including a 45-21 defeat at Georgia in 2014.
“Openers are tough, no matter who you play, but it’s really tough when you play a great opponent on the road,” Swinney said. “There’s always unknowns. You try to gather as much information as you can from spring practice, and their signing class.”
Swinney added that while the coaches will dig into film of all 12 regular season opponents, there is a central focus on the first third of the season, which in 2016 includes home games against Troy and South Carolina State before a tricky trip to Georgia Tech on Sept. 22.
“We’re in the process of doing all our season prep work. We’ll really dial in on those first four and be very thorough, as if we were getting ready to play them,” Swinney said. “Before we take summer break, we want to have a great feel for those first four opponents.”
Both Clemson and Georgia Tech will have just four days off before facing each other — Clemson hosts S.C. State and Georgia Tech hosts Vanderbilt on Sept. 18. The Tigers are winless in their previous five trips to Bobby Dodd Stadium, and while Clemson stifled the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense in 2015 (42 carries for 71 yards), this fall’s squad will have a brief amount of time to prepare for the unique offensive style that contrasts with Auburn’s spread attack.
Clemson is 3-4 in ACC openers under Swinney, including a 2-3 mark when that league opener is on the road. Swinney’s first ACC game as full-time head coach was a 30-27 loss at No. 15 Georgia Tech on Sept. 10, 2009 on four days’ rest.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Georgia Tech (3-9 in 2015, including a home win over 10-3 Florida State) must prepare for a season-opening flight across the Atlantic Ocean to face Boston College in Dublin, Ireland, before hosting Mercer and Vanderbilt. Head coach Paul Johnson said Wednesday he’ll prepare breakdowns on those first three opponents this spring.
“We play Clemson every year,” Johnson said. “They’ve had a great run here the last two or three years. We’ve been fortunate to beat them here. It’s always been hard-fought, tough games, and I’m sure this year will be no different.”