AUBURN, Ala. -- Dabo Swinney rocked back in his chair, crossed his arms, and grinned at the cadre of cameras and reporters waiting for an explanation for what seemed inexplicable. A former Alabama player and assistant coach, Swinney was no stranger to Jordan-Hare Stadium, and the way he saw it, kicking a field goal -- a near chip shot that would’ve iced Saturday's game with 40 seconds left on the clock -- wasn’t worth the risk.
“I was playing the odds,” Swinney said. “I’ve seen some crazy things happen here. I wanted the game in the hands of our defense.”
Go ahead and question Swinney’s grasp of probabilities. The odds of a blocked kick followed by a scoop-and-score seemed astronomical, but he still managed to rattle off three or four games from the distant past that impacted his psyche enough for those odds to feel far greater. What Swinney’s critics can’t question is Clemson's defense.
After an offseason during which the doubters were ubiquitous following the departure of three starting linemen, four members of the secondary and the Tigers’ leading tackler, Clemson’s defense answered the bell in Saturday’s season-opening, 19-13 win over Auburn and gave Swinney more than enough reason to want that unit on the field when the game was on the line.
Big changes on the defensive line? That didn’t matter with five-star recruit Dexter Lawrence racking up seven tackles, a sack and a pass breakup.
An almost-complete overhaul of the defensive backfield? That simply meant Jadar Johnson finally had a starting job, and he looked like an old pro swatting down Auburn’s final heave into the end zone as time expired, preserving Clemson’s win.
“We get doubted every year, and then they had like 30 yards in the first half,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said. “We came to play, and I wasn’t surprised that [Swinney] put it on us (to win the game).”
And it’s not as if Auburn didn’t present its share of challenges.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn played the role of mad scientist Saturday, sending out myriad personnel groupings in hopes of confounding Clemson’s defense. He employed three different quarterbacks, switching with reckless abandon and, at times, having all of them on the field at once. Auburn threw deep balls and ran the option. It played in spread formations and, believe it or not, ran a bit of old-school wing-T.
Clemson had answers for everything -- even if some of those answers came in an unlikely way.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had been “tipped off” -- that was the extent of his explanation -- that Auburn might run some Wing-T, and he hadn’t the slightest clue on how best to defend an offense rarely employed beyond the high school level. So, a day before the game, Venables sat down at his computer and did what we all might do in such situations.
“I literally Googled, ‘How to stop the wing-T,’” Venables admitted afterward.
The plan worked like a charm. Auburn ran for a woeful 87 yards on 41 carries, the lowest total by the Tigers in Malzahn’s tenure as head coach.
Auburn’s first-half offensive tally was just 38 total yards, its lowest output in the first half of a game since the 2011 Iron Bowl. It was also Clemson’s best performance on defense since 2009, long before Venables arrived.
The Clemson defensive front that generated so much offseason concern -- exacerbated by the loss of defensive end Austin Bryant in fall camp -- was dominant, racking up 13 tackles for loss in all, more than in any game last season when the Tigers had two defensive ends who are now playing in the NFL. The new-look secondary allowed just two completions of more than 16 yards, five fewer than Clemson allowed in each of its final three games last season.
“We’ve just been able to reload,” said Christian Wilkins, who filled in as an edge rusher in Bryant’s absence, finishing with six tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and a pass breakup.
It wasn’t all a well-oiled machine, of course. There were glitches in the system as Auburn played on a short field through much of the second half, and flubs like Boulware’s brutal roughing-the-passer penalty late in the fourth quarter set up scoring chances.
But without question, Clemson’s biggest plays came from the defense -- the unit that was supposed to be a worry to everyone except, it seems, Swinney.
The hype around quarterback Deshaun Watson and the offense had been immense. Even during pregame warmups, it was an appearance by former Auburn great Cam Newton that had Clemson’s locker room talking. And so when Boulware appeared to have the game closed out, picking off Auburn quarterback Sean White at the 1-yard line with 6:15 left to play, he raced down the sideline in celebration, finding Newton and sending a message -- both to the reigning NFL MVP and to the college football world in general.
“I was just being dumb,” Boulware said. “I saw him, so I pointed at him and smiled. It was all in good fun. He was smiling.”
Boulware did say he asked Watson, a close friend of Newton’s, to smooth things over just in case the celebration didn’t sit well with the NFL star, but it wasn’t necessary.
Even if the offense struggled and Swinney’s coaching confounded, Clemson’s defense made a strong statement that it was ready for another run back to the College Football Playoff.
“I don’t have to proclaim we’re a great defense,” Boulware said. “Just look at the numbers.”