“We’re getting to open our season with the ACC champions,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “I think that’s enough said.”
Few stages trump the one where Auburn and Clemson will open their 2012 campaigns: a couple of regional rivals, ranked in the top 25, clashing in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic undercard tonight at the Georgia Dome.
Labor Day weekend is a busy one in bustling Atlanta, including conventions and concerts, festivals and parades. Arguably the highest-profile event of them all kicks off at 7 p.m. in an all-Tigers affair.
This moment has been a long time coming for Auburn, now removed from the pressuring title of defending national champs while dealing with numerous positional battles in preseason and a rash of off-field detrimental incidents.
“They get lost in the daily rigors of training camp by beating on each other, but our light at end of the tunnel was knowing they’d be playing in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game,” Chizik said. “That was the bright spot for these guys. There’s a pep in their step, just as I’m sure it is at Clemson. The hype for this type of game is pretty cool, and our guys have embraced it.”
Auburn (8-5, 4-4 SEC in 2011) features three offensive linemen making their first career start, also true of its quarterback, sophomore dual threat Kiehl Frazier.
“I know there’s been a lot going on lately,” right guard Chad Slade said. “I believe that we’re going to get the job done no matter who it is out there.”
This marks the first made-for-TV battle to open an Auburn season since Chizik’s arrival from Iowa State.
“We’ve got a fantastic opportunity here to really see where we stand as a football team,” the fourth-year coach said. “Whether that dictates how the rest of your season unfolds, we won’t know that until December. But if the last two years of history have anything to say in it, then it could very well.”
Clemson will go without All-America wide receiver Sammy Watkins due to suspension, but Dabo Swinney’s Tigers (10-4, 6-2 ACC in 2011) return a bevy of offensive options led by quarterback Tajh Boyd and tailback Andre Ellington.
“Very unique situation with the 50-50 fans,” Swinney said. “Great opportunity to seize the moment on this stage and find out about your team early in the season.”
Since a few lackluster practices two weeks ago, Auburn players have oozed optimism toward a new season which will require contributions from several young players.
“This year, there are way more leaders now – the senior class is a lot bigger than last year,” said sophomore defensive lineman Gabe Wright (Carver High). “It’s a much smoother path for the freshmen.”
Auburn is technically the home team, and it will wear its blue uniforms, but Clemson will wear orange jerseys to illuminate on HD television screens. Attending fans have been invited to wear their team’s colors.
Clemson had lost 14 straight to Auburn before last fall’s 38-24 comeback rally in Death Valley. This is the first regular-season matchup at a neutral site outside Alabama or South Carolina in the series history.
“It’s huge. We consider this an away game that we have to win,” Auburn junior defensive end Dee Ford said. “We have a lot to prove. They’re starting to be a consistent rival with us.”