AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football wants to get back to championship contention in 2017 under Gus Malzahn, and some projected the Tigers to get there during the past offseason.
So for Malzahn, there might not be a better way to see how close his Auburn team is to that level than a road game this Saturday night against defending national champion and No. 3 Clemson (7 p.m. ET/6 p.m. CT on ESPN).
“I told our team earlier in the week that it’ll be a good measuring stick of where we’re at this year,” Malzahn said Wednesday on the SEC coaches teleconference. “They’re very good on defense, they’ve got most of their guys back. Their defensive front, I think, is good as any in the country. And of course, offensively, they’re very good.”
Outside of rival Alabama, Clemson has been the closest thing to the gold standard in college football over the last several years.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has led the Tigers to six straight seasons with double-digit wins, including three conference titles, back-to-back College Football Playoff berths and one national title. By comparison, Auburn has only won double-digit games four times since 2004.
The last time Auburn beat Clemson, all the way back in 2010, the Tigers won the national championship that Swinney’s team now holds. Clemson has won three straight in this series (2011, 2012 and 2016) and has emerged as a national power during that stretch.
“We’ve had some history here as of late,” Malzahn said. “I think it is kind of getting to be a rivalry game. Obviously last year, they got the best of us. They’re one of the top programs in the country, and they’ve got their program where it should be.”
Clemson’s balance on both sides of the ball has been a key factor in its rise under Swinney. The defending champions had NFL-caliber star power on offense and defense in their meeting with Auburn last season, and Malzahn sees the same in this year’s Clemson squad, which is now led by quarterback Kelly Bryant.
“I tell you what, they look about the same to me,” Malzahn said. “They’re extremely deep on defense. Offensively, their quarterback looked outstanding last week.”
If Auburn can pull off the upset in Death Valley on Saturday night, the Tigers would almost assuredly jump into the Top 10 nationally and state its case for championship contention. Many people, from analysts to oddsmakers to coaches, expect to see another tight contest, much like the 19-13 Clemson win last fall.
“It ought to be a good game,” Malzahn said. “It’ll show where we’re at.”
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