CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson linebacker Kendall Joseph was glad for the fifth-ranked Tigers’ championship celebration and the easy win over Kent State last Saturday. He knows things will get much tougher in a hurry with No. 12 Auburn headed to Death Valley.
Joseph and the Tigers had little trouble dispatching the Golden Flashes 56-3 , a season-opening game that was as much one last party for last season’s national championship.
“That,” Joseph said, “was not our truest test.”
Joseph knows if Clemson hopes to get into the mix for this year’s College Football Playoff, the journey starts in earnest against a Southeastern Conference opponent. And he believes his team is ready.
“It’s what we come to college for,” he said Monday. “We don’t come to play low ranked teams. We want the big showdowns, the prime-time games on TV, everybody watching.”
Clemson has won more than its share of those the past few years, topped by the 35-31 victory over No. 1 Alabama last January to win its first title since 1981. The Tigers, though, have a mostly new cast of characters on offense led by first-year starting quarterback Kelly Bryant.
Bryant, taking over for two-time Heisman Trophy finalist Deshaun Watson, accounted for two touchdowns and 313 yards of total offense, a Clemson record for an opening game. All four of Clemson’s tailbacks — C.J. Fuller, Adam Choice, Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne — had touchdowns and helped the Tigers roll up 353 yards on the ground in their first game without two-time 1,000-yard rusher Wayne Gallman.
Receiver Deon Cain had two catches for 70 yards and a score in his first start replacing first-round NFL draft pick Mike Williams. Tight end Milan Richard also tied for the team lead with 70 receiving yards in place of Jordan Leggett, another of Clemson’s draft picks last spring.
“What you saw is just a team that looked like it had been practicing for 30 practices,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “That was pleasing as a coach. You always worry about an opener. Got a new quarterback, got a new center, got a lot of new pieces, but the communication was where it needed to be, the targeting was where it needed to be, the effort was there.”
Elliott said those elements will be severely tested Saturday night against Auburn’s physical, fast defense. Kent State did not attempt a pass in the opening half last week.
“I’m pretty sure I’ll see (a pass) Saturday, probably a lot of them,” said Joseph, the junior linebacker.
Auburn (1-0) had a similarly dominating opener, blowing past Georgia Southern 41-7. The Tigers’ defense had six sacks and held the Eagles to 78 yards of offense.
“They’ve got good players across the board,” said Kevin Steele, Auburn’s defensive coordinator who held the same position under Dabo Swinney at Clemson from 2009-11. “The thing about it is, where we are (in the SEC), it will be pretty much like that every week for the rest of the year. It’s just the nature of the business.”
Clemson’s Swinney understands that, too. He was happy to rest his starters and build depth with reserves who may not see much action this week, but might be called on later this season. He was also pleased with the Tigers’ efficiency after a bumpy start to the 2016 season, when they had single-digit wins at Auburn and against Troy.
“We were a little sloppy,” Swinney said of last year’s early games. “So it was good to see us play a clean game and get a lot of guys some good, valuable experience. Hopefully, it will help us grow our team a little bit more as we move forward.”