Clemson proved many doubters wrong in Week 1 of the college football season, leaving Atlanta with an impressive 26-19 victory over Auburn. It was the Tigers' first win in Atlanta since 2003 when they beat Tennessee in the Peach Bowl.
With an improving offense led by second-year coordinator Chad Morris and a defense learning under first-year Brent Venables, let's talk about what we learned about the Tigers from their opening-game victory.
The most-discussed subject of Clemson's offseason was the state of its offensive line, which was replacing three starters. Stepping into that void against Auburn were inexperienced sophomores David Beasley at left guard and Gifford Timothy at right tackle. along with converted defensive tackle Tyler Shatley at right guard.
The newly configured line performed well in its debut, although it took a while to settle down early in the game, drawing several false starts and giving up four sacks. But part of that can be attributed to Auburn's constant blitzing.
The play of the line improved as the game progressed. The line did not surrender a sack in the second half and paved the way for a powerful rushing attack that gained 320 yards.
If this group can improve a little on pass protection and continue to jell as a unit, this offense could become one of the best in the nation.
With his 231 rushing yards, Andre Ellington took full control of Clemson's running game. He showed us all that when he's healthy, he is a relentless back who is hard for anyone to bring down.
Ellington's decision to return for his senior season has already paid off for the Tigers. His balance, vision and hard running were huge factors in the win against Auburn, which never really slowed him down.
Ellington averaged a whopping 8.9 yards per carry and kept the Tigers' offense out of too many third-and-long situations.
Ellington stepped it up in the absence of Sammy Watkins. He made a serious case as the Tigers' best offensive weapon.
Saturday night, new defensive coordinator Brent Venables' defense took center stage against a new Auburn offense. And while the defense did have its hiccups, it showed plenty of potential.
Aside from a 70-yard bomb, the defense did not give up any more touchdowns and kept Auburn out of the end zone, holding it to four field goals. The defense also managed to keep quarterback Kiehl Frazier contained in the pocket, never allowing him to get into any kind of scrambling rhythm.
The front seven was more disciplined in controlling the gaps, but the defense still needs work in pass coverage and being more aggressive when attacking the run.
The other major concern this offseason was the defensive line, where the Tigers also had untested players after Tyler Shatley moved to right guard.
Against Auburn, the defensive line got enough push to keep the Plainsmen on their toes. The rotation of Deshawn Williams, Grady Jarrett, Josh Watson, D.J. Reader, and Carlos Watkins was effective. At defensive end, the surprising hero was Vic Beasley, the journeyman who seems to have found a home. He split time with starter Corey Crawford and saw most of his time in passing situations.
The defensive line had its moments, but given more time and experience, this line could become one of Clemson's best. This group is not to be underestimated, especially having handled itself well against a more experienced Auburn offensive line.
Coming into his second as a starter, Tajh Boyd looked like a different quarterback against Auburn. Despite one fumble and a tipped interception, Boyd made great decisions with the football. He looked more comfortable in the offense, more comfortable as a runner, and had the look of a leader.
This offense will go as Boyd goes. And without Sammy Watkins, Boyd still led this offense to 528 total yards. He did plenty with his legs, eluding pressure and buying second chances in the pocket with his improved mobility.
A better Boyd gives the Tigers another threat for this already potent offense.
In the offseason, with so many skill players coming back but Clemson struggling to establish a running game, second-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris studied the offenses at Nevada and Oklahoma State, especially their use of the Pistol Formation, where the running back lines up directly behind the quarterback in the shotgun.
That formation was unveiled by Clemson in its season opener. The result: 320 rushing yards.
Morris called a great game, getting the ball out of Boyd's hands on quick-hitting passes early in the game to establish some rhythm and get the offensive line settled down. Then he fed the ball to his playmakers—running back Andre Ellington and receiver Deandre Hopkins.
Morris and his quick-tempo spread offense continues to impress. Clemson ran 87 plays from scrimmage against Auburn.
And he did it all without one of his best receivers.
Coming in, Brandon Ford was the starter, replacing NFL tight end Dwayne Allen. But his first outing was not a good one. He dropped many passes that would have been first downs and even dropped one that was a touchdown.
Against Auburn, the tight ends did not pose a receiving threat. As a converted wide receiver, that was supposed to be Ford's strength.
Sam Cooper attempted a catch, but missed the ball and tipped it, resulting in an interception. The coaches need to get this resolved quickly, as a tight end who is a receiving threat can give Chad Morris mismatches against linebackers and defensive backs, and make this offense even more explosive.