No. 2 Clemson was hardly firing on all cylinders on Saturday night as it opened the season with a tough road matchup at Auburn. But Deshaun Watson and Co. were good enough to avoid a potential season-altering upset, holding on to defeat their Tiger brethren 19-13.
It was a low-scoring, sloppy battle, as neither team seemed willing to seize on the chances provided them. Clemson maintained a tenuous lead for most of the night until gaining some breathing room via a 16-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Hunter Renfrow with 9:59 left, but Auburn answered with 3:22 remaining to cut the lead to six. After a strange decision by Dabo Swinney not to kick a field goal on the team’s last drive, Clemson then had to survive two Hail Mary attempts from Auburn before emerging from the Plains with a win.
Here are three thoughts on Clemson’s victory:
1. Clemson isn’t in top form, but there’s no reason for concern yet
Despite bringing back just about everybody from last season’s electrifying offense, including Heisman finalist Watson, the Tigers didn’t exactly pick up where they left off in 2015. Faced with what should’ve been a relatively easy matchup against an Auburn defense that ranked 71st in total defense last year, Watson wasn’t his usual self, the team’s ground game never really got going (Wayne Gallman averaged just 4.1 yards per carry) and the unit in general never seemed to click.
Clemson had its moments, of course. The aforementioned TD to Renfrow was a beautiful throw and catch, and Watson kept his poise all night, maintaining his composure in the face of a raucous crowd. Meanwhile, Mike Williams was dominant in his return from injury (more on that below). All in all, though, it was a disappointing performance for the No. 2 team.
But there’s no need to panic. This is still the same cast of explosive characters that rolled to an ACC title and playoff win last season, complete with another powerful weapon in Williams. Going on the road at night against an SEC West team is no easy way to open a season, and this Clemson performance is likely the result of the first-game sloppiness that can be found all over the country. On the other hand, the defense does have more to prove—it was solid Saturday night, but an offense like Auburn’s didn’t provide a proper test for Clemson’s rebuilt secondary, so it’s hard to take too much from this performance.
2. Williams stars in return from neck injury
The redshirt junior entered this season with sky-high expectations despite missing almost all of last season after suffering his scary neck injury in Clemson’s opener. If his performance Saturday is any indication, he’ll have no problem meeting them.
Williams was dominant all night, finishing with nine receptions for 174 yards. The stats don’t tell the full story either—it was clear Auburn had no answers for him, with his 6’ 3”, 225-pound frame and smooth route-running proving a matchup nightmare for whoever tried to cover him. Time and time again as Clemson’s offense scuffled, Williams served as the safety valve. He and Watson connected on multiple back-shoulder throws, the type of high-level passes that are mostly found only in the NFL and that are near impossible to stop when executed at a high level.
Williams did have one critical error, losing a fumble in the first half, but you can chalk that up to rust. Overall it was a highly successful return for the receiver, and Clemson has to be salivating at adding him back to its already deep corps of offensive threats.
3. Guz Malzahn may be running out of time, and he’s hastening his departure
One of several high-profile bosses entering the season on the hot seat, the Auburn coach was seemingly in a no-lose situation on Saturday. His team was not expected to topple the second-ranked Tigers, so he couldn’t really hurt his cause with a loss, and yet he had a prime opportunity to buy himself some breathing room and goodwill by pulling an upset. But given the way the game unfolded, it’s fair to say Malzahn cost himself.
While Malzahn made some questionable strategic decisions, the biggest issue was the bizarre quarterback rotation. Sean White was named the starter going into the season but he, Jeremy Johnson and JUCO transfer John Franklin III all saw playing time against Clemson. What made that unforgivable was the erratic fashion in which Malzahn deployed them, seemingly at random. On some occasions one would enter only to be pulled after just a couple plays, and White and Franklin were each pulled at various times despite having success through the air or on the ground immediately before being removed. It didn’t really make sense, and it gave the impression that Malzahn had no real plan for what he was doing.
It’s impossible to know what Auburn AD Jay Jacobs is thinking in the wake of the team’s loss, but it’s safe to say Malzahn did himself no favors. With Texas AM and LSU looming in Weeks 3 and 4 and a dangerous Arkansas State team on the docket for next week, Malzahn is resting on dangerous ground.