Even though Dabo Swinney’s team played for a crystal football in each of the last two seasons, many didn’t give Clemson a chance to do so this year. After all, the Tigers had to replace a number of key players this fall, including Deshaun Watson, Wayne Gallman, Mike Williams, Carlos Watkins, Ben Boulware, Cordrea Tankersley, and Jadar Johnson. Given all of these losses, virtually every college football expert predicted that the Tigers would take a step back in 2017.
No one will say that after Saturday night’s 14-6 win against Auburn.
Make no mistake about it: Clemson has the best defense in the country. Yes, I realize that’s a strong statement to make just two weeks into the season. However, the Tiger defense proved it on Saturday night. After Auburn marched 69 yards on the opening drive – aided by a few penalties – Clemson absolutely dominated this contest.
Clemson’s front seven limited Auburn to just 38 yards on 42 carries. And the pass rush was ridiculous, recording 11 sacks, including a huge one on third-and-goal that prevented Auburn from taking an early two score lead. This stop turned the tide in the contest, and took all of the wind out of Auburn’s sails.
To put Clemson's 11 sacks into some perspective, Auburn hadn't allowed more than 19 in an entire season since Malzahn took over in 2013
— Paul Myerberg (@PaulMyerberg) September 10, 2017
While the defense deserves the credit for the victory, it’s important to note that the Clemson offense turned in a solid effort as well. Sure, there’s room for improvement (only 282 yards of total offense), but it’s hard not to be impressed with the play of Kelly Bryant. After a huge hit knocked him out of the game in the second quarter, he returned to lead the Tigers to back-to-back touchdown drives, which ultimately decided the contest. Instead of running timidly after taking a big hit, he ran the ball with authority over the final 30 minutes of the contest.
For the evening, he threw for 181 yards, and added another 59 on the ground. Although that’s not enough to make anyone forget about Deshaun Watson, it’s a pretty good outing against a defense that ranked 28th in yards per game in 2016.
So, what does this win mean for Clemson in the long run?
Simply put: it means that the Tigers are still a threat in the national championship race. Yes, there’s work to do (something Dabo Swinney said in the postgame interview), especially on offense. But Clemson’s defense played like the best unit in the country against an offense that will end up being one of the most explosive in college football this year.
With a defense this special, it’s hard not to like the Tigers’ chances moving forward.