ATLANTA — When the subject turned to Clemson’s last game, Dabo Swinney preferred to look forward.
No surprise there.
The 14th-ranked Tigers open the season Saturday night against Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta, the first chance for the defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions to make people start forgetting about that gruesome 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
“That’s not really something we’ve spent a lot of time talking about,” Swinney said. “Everybody asks us about it, but that’s in the rearview mirror. We’re really just focused on this season.”
Clemson will be facing an Auburn team that has two new coordinators and rookie starters at several key positions, including quarterback Kiehl Frazier and a pair of freshmen at offensive tackle. Frazier beat out last year’s starter, Clint Moseley, in preseason camp.
“We wanted to make sure we were very thorough,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “We made the decision to go with Kyle, and we’re very comfortable with that. He’s comfortable with that. The team is comfortable with that. Now, we’ll see where he stands at the end of Saturday night.”
Clemson will be without star receiver Sammy Watkins, who is suspended for the first two games after a drug arrest in May. That is quite a loss, considering he had 10 catches for 155 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s 38-24 win over Auburn in Death Valley.
But Swinney is confident that his team has enough receivers to make up for Watkins’ absence, including Charone Peake, who will move into the starting lineup.
“They’ve all got to step up,” the coach said. “I don’t think one guy can replace Sammy Watkins. But certainly, as a group, they’re capable of doing that.”
Quarterback Tajh Boyd directs Clemson’s fast-break offense, which is looking to be just as dynamic, perhaps even more so, than it was a year ago when the Tigers averaged 440 yards and nearly 34 points a game. Scoring was definitely not the issue.
Defense, though, that was another issue.
Clemson finished toward the bottom of the national rankings in points allowed (81st at 29.3 per game) and total defense (71st at 394.4 yards). Not surprisingly after the Orange Bowl debacle, Swinney dumped coordinator Kevin Steele and brought in Brent Venables from Oklahoma.
So far, Clemson’s defenders are relishing the change.
Of course, they haven’t played a game yet.
“We love what coach Venables has brought to the table for us,” linebacker Corico Wright said. “You’ll just see guys attacking the football, whether it’s on the air or on the ground. That’s going to be fun to see.”
The Auburn defense had its own motivation. Last year, it surrendered 624 yards in the loss to Clemson.
“We played pretty decent the first half and kind of let it go the second half,” defensive end Dee Ford remembered. “We have a lot to prove.”
So does the offense. Sure, much of the attention will be on Frazier, but be sure to keep an eye on the guys up front. Not only does Auburn have two tackles playing their first college games – freshman Avery Young on the right side, redshirt freshman Greg Robinson on the left – but sophomore Tunde Fariyike will take over at center for Reese Dismukes, who was suspended after his arrest for public intoxication last weekend.
“I expect us to get the job done,” holdover Chad Slade said. “I know there’s been a lot going on lately. But I believe that we’re going to get the job done no matter who it is out there. We’re going to go out and execute plays and we’re going to get the job done.”
While both coaches stressed that one game does not make a season, Chizik is eager to start building some chemistry for a team in transition heading into his fourth season.
“I have a great comfort level here. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been,” he said. “I know we’re a work in progress. We’ve got a lot of work to do. But every day, we’re dead set on doing it.”
The game at the Georgia Dome will provide a bowl-like setting, with both teams wearing their home uniforms – Auburn in blue jerseys, Clemson in orange – and the sellout crowd of more than 70,000 split basically down the middle.
Clemson played in the Atlanta kickoff game four years, going in ranked No. 9 with high hopes of a big season, much like this year’s team. They faced unranked Alabama, which romped to a 34-10 victory that launched the latest Crimson Tide dynasty under coach Nick Saban.
Center Dalton Freeman was on the sideline that night, a redshirted freshman who could only watch as his team got blown out.
Actually, that wasn’t a bad place to be.
“I remember thinking it was a good year to get redshirted after I saw (massive Alabama nose tackle) Terrence Cody run out of the tunnel,” Freeman said. “It was a humbling night for us. We were very well projected that year to finish in the top 10 and came out and got humbled very quick. It was an interesting year for this program. But since then, a lot of things have changed. Coach Swinney has changed the foundation. I don’t think it’s fair to compare this team with that team at all.”
Clemson has lost six straight in Atlanta since a victory over Georgia Tech in 2003. That includes four defeats to the ACC rival Yellow Jackets, plus a loss to Auburn in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“I’m so tired of hearing we can’t win in Atlanta,” Freeman said. “Who says we can’t win in Atlanta? It’s the same as playing in Wisconsin. It doesn’t matter. We’re just ready to play.”