Watson, No. 2 Clemson open in SEC country against Auburn
AUBURN, ALA. >> Deshaun Watson and Clemson pick up where they left off last season — sort of.
The second-ranked Tigers open against another Southeastern Conference team from the state of Alabama, visiting Auburn Saturday night hoping to resume their pursuit of a national title and, perhaps, a Heisman Trophy for Watson.
They finished an otherwise unblemished season with a 45-40 loss to Alabama in the national championship game. Watson was at his playmaking best in racking up nearly 500 total yards against one of the nation's top defenses.
The task now will be to beat an Auburn team seeking redemption after a disappointing season.
"It's a big challenge out of the gate for us," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Not so big as the one Swinney's Tigers faced to finish off last season. Auburn opens picked to finish sixth in the Southeastern Conference Western Division after flopping last season amid much higher expectations.
Auburn also lost its top three rushers from last season to a dismissal, a transfer and an early entry into the NFL draft. The receivers are mostly unknown, and Sean White won a renewed quarterback battle after throwing one touchdown pass in five starts last season.
It makes for a tough opening challenge for coach Gus Malzahn's team. Swinney points out that openers carry a certain amount of mystery for both sides.
"There are a lot of unknowns," he said. "They have players we don't know a lot about, and we have players they don't know a lot about. You don't ever really know until you see a team for two or three games."
Here are some things to watch in the Clemson-Auburn matchup:
WATSON'S ENCORE? Watson enters the season among the favorites to win the Heisman after a third-place finish. His 478-yard performance passing and rushing in the title game was nearly enough to pull off the win. "Their quarterback is one of the best players in college football, if not the best player," Malzahn said.
AND AUBURN? White beat out Jeremy Johnson and junior college transfer John Franklin III to emerge as the starter. Of the three, Franklin is the biggest rushing threat and could potentially play in a Wildcat role though Malzahn has been mum on the pecking order behind White. White has impressed Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "He's a quality, quality player," Venables said. "He beat out Deshaun at the Elite 11 for top quarterback. He's got that 'it.' He's a very good leader, all the qualities that you love. The intangibles, his toughness, his confidence, he makes everybody around him better."
SEEING STEELE: Swinney will face one of his former defensive coordinators in Kevin Steele, now leading Auburn's defense. Steele spent three seasons under Swinney and helped the Tigers to the 2011 Atlantic Coast Conference title. But soon after Clemson was embarrassed 70-33 by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, Swinney fired Steele and replaced him with Venables. Steele skipped his normal session with reporters this week.
TAILBACK COMPARISONS: Wayne Gallman is coming off a school record-setting season, 1,500-yard season for Clemson. Auburn is high on Kerryon Johnson but he had only 52 carries as a freshman, vaulting to the starting spot when Jovon Robinson was kicked off the team in preseason camp.
GETTING DEFENSIVE: Auburn has struggled defensively in recent seasons but Steele's side of the ball might be the team's strength. Veteran defenders Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Johnathan Ford are all back and joined by Illinois graduate transfer T.J. Neal at linebacker.
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli contributed to this report.