Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney and No. 2-ranked Tigers will face former Clemson defensive coordinator Kevin Steele Saturday when Clemson plays at Auburn in a key early season matchup.
Swinney fired Steele after Clemson's Orange Bowl debacle of 2011, when the Tigers surrendered a bowl-record 70 points in a 70-33 loss to West Virginia.
"It was very difficult because I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach Steele," Swinney said. "He is a great football coach, a great man with a great family.
"Coach Steele was a huge part of us laying a foundation here in '09, 10 and 11. He helped us win our first ACC Championship in 20 years."
Steele has had stints with Alabama, LSU and Auburn since, but this will be his first time facing Swinney and Clemson's prolific offense, which hopes to get off to a solid start following last season's 14-1 record and national runner-up finish.
Clemson has the offensive firepower to make a return trip to the College Football Playoff if things fall into place. The Tigers are blessed with the return of eight defensive starters, including quarterback Deshaun Watson -- who finished third in Heisman Trophy voting last year -- 1,500-yard rusher Wayne Gallman and a stable full of talented wide receivers led by potential first-round draft pick Mike Williams, who missed all of last season after suffering a broken bone in his neck just 12 plays into the 2015 season.
Clemson's offense set myriad school records last season, and 2016 could prove even more productive due the Tigers' plethora of weapons, but Swinney isn't counting on anything yet.
"There are a lot of unknowns," Swinney said. "They have players we don't know a lot about, and we have players they don't know a lot about. You don't ever really know until you see a team for two or three games."
A victory could jump-start a productive September for Clemson, which was an overwhelming choice to win its second consecutive ACC title; after Auburn, the Tigers will return home to host Troy and South Carolina State before traveling to Georgia Tech.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--QB Deshaun Watson will kick off his 2016 Heisman campaign on a big stage, in a nationally televised night game at Auburn, so he's bound to be nervous, right? "Nah," Watson said. "There's no point in being stressed. All we have to do is execute." Watson does that better than perhaps anyone in college football; last year he became the first player in FBS history to pass for more than 4,000 yards and rush for more than 1,000 yards in the same season.
--WR Mike Williams will be eager to return for the first time in more than a year. Williams, who entered the 2015 season coming off a 1,040-yard receiving season, collided with a goal post support while making a touchdown catch 12 plays into the season and missed the entire year. A potential first-round draft pick, he's chomping at the bit to show that he's in good health and ready to pick up where he left off.
--LB Ben Boulware is the heart and soul of the Clemson defense, an inside linebacker who plays full-bore on every play -- or, as defensive coordinator Brent Venables says, "with his hair on fire." He'll need to do just that against Auburn, which will hope to establish some type of ground game early. Look for Boulware, the team's leading returning tackler with 138 stops last season, to be in the heart of the action on almost every play.
--DE Christian Wilkins spent a considerable amount of time at defensive end in spring practice after an impressive showing as a freshman at defensive tackle. His versatility and athleticism enabled coaches to slide him outside, where he'll not only be counted on to replace last year's two starting defensive ends, but also Austin Bryant, who will miss the first few weeks of the season with a foot injury.