AUBURN, Ala. — Uncertainty filled the air at Jordan-Hare Stadium last September after Auburn football dropped a close game to Clemson.
Plenty of Auburn fans were confused by Gus Malzahn’s decision-making on offense in a winnable game. Some questioned whether the Tigers had any hope of solid production with a question mark at quarterback and a cast of unknowns at running back and receiver.
The 19-13 defeat wasn’t a good sign for the future, many thought.
But in the postgame media room, Deshaun Davis was certain of one thing — Auburn’s defense was back.
SEC COUNTRY PREDICTIONS: Auburn takes on No. 3 Clemson in Death Valley
“We wanted to come out and make a statement that Auburn defense is different,” Davis said after that loss to the eventual national champions. “You aren’t just going to come out and roll over us. Everything you get you’re going to earn. … We turned a lot of heads, but we’re not done.”
This weekend, when Auburn travels to Clemson, the tone around the defense will be quite different. This time, Auburn will be looking to build on the top-notch performance that still went down as a loss.
“Coming down toward the end of the game, it just didn’t fall in our way,” junior defensive tackle Dontavius Russell said this week. “But I feel like we played well enough to win that game, so we just have to build on that. This year, hopefully we come out with it.”
At that point last season, No. 2 Clemson was fresh off a 2015 season in which it took Alabama down to the wire in the national championship game. The Tigers boasted arguably college football’s best-looking offense heading into 2016 with so many players staying put from a season in which it averaged more than 500 yards and 38 points per game.
They returned Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson and top back Wayne Gallman. Clemson also brought back future first-round NFL draft pick Mike Williams from injury, adding even more firepower to a prolific receiving room.
Auburn’s defense, on the other hand, was viewed as a weakness. The Tigers made some strides in Will Muschamp’s one-season return as defensive coordinator, but they still ranked 71st nationally in yards per game at the end of a frustrating 7-6 campaign. Kevin Steele, who wasn’t a highly regarded hire by Malzahn, was Auburn’s fifth defensive coordinator in seven years.
Yet that same Auburn defense put together the best defensive performance against Clemson since Clemson’s 24-22 victory against Notre Dame in 2015 that was played in a hurricane. With nothing but clear skies, Auburn held the eventual national champions to season-low marks of 399 yards and 19 points.
“We’re a really good defense — in all three stages, the D-Line, linebackers and the secondary — we’re a really good defense,” former Auburn cornerback Josh Holsey said after the game. “Going forward, people are going to notice that our defense is back, we’re back to playing Auburn defense. We’re going to be one of the best in the country, I can feel it.”
Holsey was right. Auburn’s Week 1 performance against Clemson wasn’t a fluke.
Auburn finished the 2016 season with top-30 finishes in several major statistical categories such as yards per play, points per game and third-down conversions. In terms of yards allowed per game, 2016 marked the first time Auburn had a top-30 defense since Tommy Tuberville’s final season in 2008.
“It was a great feeling,” Auburn linebacker coach Travis Williams said earlier this year. “It was a great start. We got a long ways to go, but we got it going in the right direction. And it feels good to be a part of that, just being a part of changing the culture of how we play defense around here.”
It all started with the Clemson game, when Auburn squared up against an elite offense and — for the first time in several years — held it in check.
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The 2016 season opener was a statement performance for the Tigers’ defense and Steele. The former LSU defensive coordinator engineered a dramatic turnaround from the first game of the season, and a lot of it came down to his simple strategy.
Steele and Muschamp, in the coordinator’s words, “are from the same family tree” in the coaching world. Both run a four-man defensive front with a hybrid Buck defensive end that stands up on the edge. Muschamp installed that defense at Auburn in 2015. And after so many changes over the last decade of Auburn defense, Steele didn’t want to make his players go through the same process again.
“A lot of the things are very, very similar,” Steele said earlier this year. “Some of the things maybe had changed a little bit or the wording had changed, so we kept as much of it as we could. Make no mistake about it, I think Will did an outstanding job of setting the table. … We got in and with the tweaks or whatever we did, we kept the process going.”
The comfort level in that process was evident throughout the season. Future NFL defensive linemen Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams had career years in 2016. Holsey went from a player without a position to an eventual draft pick as Auburn’s most productive cornerback.
“A lot of guys — I know Josh Holsey, for an example — didn’t want their senior year to be of another Auburn defense that couldn’t stop anybody,” Davis said last December. “For years, it’s always been about Auburn scoring 30 or 40 points but giving up 31 or 41 points and still losing. We came in this year with a standard to hold teams to less than 18 points. We held up to that.”
Auburn did that, finishing with an average of 17.1 points per game allowed. That all started with the 19 they held Watson and Clemson to in the season opener.
Dabo Swinney’s Tigers would go on to put up more than 450 yards and 30 points in each of their wins over ranked foes Louisville, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, Ohio State and — most notably — Alabama in a rematch for the national title.
The Tigers opened their second season under Steele by keeping Georgia Southern’s offense out of the end zone and holding them to 78 total yards — the second-fewest in Auburn history.
Still, after the statistical leaps Auburn’s defense has made in the past 12 months, some players still feel like they’re flying under the radar heading into to Death Valley.
“There’s always a chip on our shoulder because nobody respects Auburn‘s defense,” sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson said last week. “But we’re going to bring that tradition from back in the day, and we’re going to have fun this year. We’re just trying to get back to Auburn football.”
For the coaching staff, nothing has changed. Steele said the Tigers on defense will approach the trip to Clemson the same way they did when they were still viewed as a weakness last fall.
Keeping those expectations at the same level, Steele says, helps the performances do the same. And in order for Auburn to upset No. 3 Clemson this Saturday night, it’ll need some more of what it showed last September.
“Play the next play at a higher level than you played the one before with better technique, better focus, and improve,” Steele said. “At the end of the day, assess it and be better the next day. We just keep doing things the same way and keep preaching the same thing. They’ve bought into it.”
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