Oh, what might have been. If only Trovon Reed had come down in bounds on a potential touchdown catch, if only Kiehl Frazier had not badly overthrown a few wide open receivers, and if only Auburn had been able to score even one touchdown on three trips into the red zone, the Tigers could be looking back at Saturday night with a smile. But thanks to those mistakes, and quite a few other things, Auburn is 0-1 and facing an early must-win game against Mississippi State.
We should be clear about one thing: Both teams blew plenty of opportunities on Saturday night. Auburn had every chance in the world to win the game, but Clemson had a number of chances go by the wayside. Drops by receivers, defensive players unable to come up with fumble recoveries or interceptions, and a long field goal miss were just a few things that allowed Auburn to stay in the game. Looking at the game's final stats, one would think it was a lopsided result. Clemson held big advantages in total yards (528-374), rushing yards (320-180), first downs (28-17) and offensive plays (87-64). While the players in blue should be frustrated that they were unable to come up with a few more plays that could have resulted in a win, they need to understand that it just as easily could have been a Clemson blowout. In our preview of this game, we noted that Auburn entered the season with many questions. While there were a few bright spots like the running game and special teams, those questions were, unfortunately, met with poor answers in Atlanta.
The roller coaster ride of highs and lows during the game were personified in the play of Frazier. The quarterback's final line was ugly -- 11 of 27 for 194 yards, one touchdown and one interception -- but he managed to show a few sparks of greatness. Frazier kept pretty good composure in the face of some decent pressure, especially for a guy making his first-career start. His scramble on third and four to pick up a fourth-quarter first down was a thing of beauty, and he did make a few nice throws. However, he threw into double coverage more than once and overthrew open receivers with too much regularity. All in all, it was and uneven performance that is to be expected from a rookie starter. If Frazier was as inconsistent throughout fall camp as he was on Saturday, it's no wonder Gene Chizik and Scot Loeffler waited so long before handing him the keys to the offense. Frazier has miles to go before he is ready to be successful against SEC-quality defense. The good news is that Loeffler has a great track record of developing quarterbacks, and Frazier seems to have the raw talent to be great. He'll face more growing pains this season, but he should look like a completely different quarterback by Week 13.
While Frazier's play left much to be desired, he didn't receive a ton of help from his wide receivers. Everyone knew that Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen would be big pieces of the passing game, but we didn't know if any other Auburn receivers would be able to step up and make some plays. To put it succinctly: Nope. Of the 11 completed passes by Frazier, eight were to Blake and Lutzie, who combined for 180 yards and a TD. Onterio McCalebb caught two balls for six yards, and Quan Bray made one catch for eight yards. Reed, Travante Stallworth, Jaylon Denson and Melvin Ray all received playing time at receiver, but none of them managed to make an impact on the boxscore. It's going to be hard for Frazier to have success if Blake and Lutzenkirchen are the only two players that can get open. Someone else has to step up and keep opposing secondaries from focusing all of their attention on Blake. Reed seems like the best candidate for the job, but he disappointed against Clemson. His catch out of bounds was a perfect example of the receivers not named Blake or Lutzenkirchen failing to give Frazier any help.
The highlight of the night for Auburn was easily the running game. Tre Mason did a nice job of picking up yards between the tackles, which allowed McCalebb to get around the end on jet sweeps. The two combined for 188 yards and 7.23 yards per carry. While the offensive line was shaky at times in pass protection, it was mostly excellent on running plays. Freshmen Greg Robinson and Avery Young held their own and even excelled at times on the ends, and Chad Slade, Tunde Fariyike and John Sullen were pretty strong in the middle. Robinson made a few mistakes but played well overall in his first start. Fariyike wasn't great, but he was as good as Auburn fans could have hoped in his spot start at center. Considering the good play of the O-line against Clemson, the prospect of All-American Reese Dismukes re-joining the ranks gives us hope for the future. With Jay Prosch laying huge blocks from the fullback position, Mason was often able to get to the second level, which is evident in his 7.6 yards per carry average. Mason only ran the ball 14 times, so it's still unclear whether or not he can grind for 25 or 30 carries in a game, but his opening day effort was promising.
All in all, the offense showed promise. It was frustrating to watch Auburn stall every time it approached the end zone, but with some improved execution and tinkering of the play-calling, that problem can be fixed.
On the defensive side of the ball, Saturday's play was a bit more troublesome. Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford led the ends and provided a great pass rush for most of the evening, and the defense did a nice job of holding Clemson to field goals on three of five red zone attempts. But other than that, it was a rough night for the Tigers. Jeff Whitaker believes he and his fellow interior linemen weren't pushed around by the Clemson offensive line, but we must disagree. A defense doesn't allow 320 yards on the ground without its line getting pushed around. It didn't help that the linemen were spaced out a little wider than normal to defend against the spread, but Auburn's tackles couldn't clog the middle with any consistency. And just as many Auburn fans feared, the Tigers' linebackers were almost non-existent in run support. That, combined with some awful tackling, allowed running back Andre Ellington to rack up 231 yards on 26 carries.
The lack of basic fundamentals exhibited by Auburn was the biggest disappointment of the night. With Ted Roof gone and Brian VanGorder now in charge of the defense, there are expectations for some serious improvements. It may take a while for VanGorder's system to fully set in, but there is no excuse for the inability to perform basic defensive tasks, and that's what happened against Clemson. We didn't have high expectations for the linebacker unit, and they didn't do anything to surprise us. They were routinely out of position and didn't control the middle of the field. On the other hand, Auburn's secondary had received pretty good reviews from coaches during fall practice. Even though the defensive backs were Auburn's biggest liability during the Roof era, we had hopes that they would show how far they have come. That didn't happen against Clemson. Safeties Jermaine Whitehead and Ryan Smith were particularly disappointing. They rarely made their presence felt in pass coverage, and Chizik made it clear in the postgame press conference that their positions are under close evaluation. The DBs were beaten all night by Clemson wide receivers, and their tackling was poor, as well.
Animated Drive Chart brought to you by Gameday Depot.
The drive chart tells the story: too many red zone field goals for Auburn.
- The running game -- Mason picked up 106 yards, and McCalebb added 82. Neither player found the end zone, but they were the reason Auburn's offense was able to have success between the 20s. Jay Prosch was great at fullback, as he blew defenders up all night.
- The kicking game -- Cody Parkey was called on often to put points on the board, and he was perfect. Parkey made field goals from 37, 46, 27 and 36 yards. He also did a nice job on kickoffs, booting four for touchbacks and two that led to short Clemson returns. Steven Clark didn't get a ton of distance on his three punts, averaging 39.3 yards, but he got the ball high enough to force three fair catches.
- The defensive ends -- They were the only real bright spot on defense. Corey Lemonier had two sacks, and Dee Ford had one. Against a quarterback without Tajh Boyd's agility, they would have done much more damage. Boyd escaped a number of sacks during the game.
- The passing game -- If you want to take the optimist's view, it's clear that there is plenty of room for improvement. Frazier is talented, and he's nowhere near his ceiling. The offensive line will get better as the year goes on, and sooner or later, another receiver will begin to make plays. But right now, it's just not good enough. Completing just 11 passes in a game will make it tough to win against SEC defenses. Everyone involved needs to get better.
- The red zone offense -- Three trips to the red zone, three field goals. That's not good. Auburn needs better execution from the players inside the 20, but it could use some better play-calling, too. The power running game got the Tigers down the field much of the night, but when they could sniff a touch down, Loeffler resorted to fade routes and other passing plays. Unfortunately, none of it worked.
- The run defense -- Auburn was terrible against the run on Saturday, and it allowed Clemson to wear the defense down in the fourth quarter. The interior lineman couldn't get off blocks, and the linebackers couldn't stay in the right positions.
- The defensive fundamentals -- Poor tackling and poor coverage plagued Auburn all night. It was a hauntingly familiar sight for fans who are still recovering from Roof's defenses. VanGorder may have to play younger players who may not know the defense as well as the older guys. Anyone that can make sound fundamental plays needs to be on the field.
Saturday night's matchup in the Georgia Dome could have had a much different ending. Auburn's offense moved the ball well between the 20s, and if the good Tigers had been able to execute in the red zone, they likely would have left Atlanta with a victory. Of course, even though the Auburn defense did a nice job of holding Clemson's offense to field goals after long drives, the bad Tigers had a few drops and other missed opportunities that kept them from running away with a big victory. For Auburn, the season-opening loss featured plenty of good work to build on, and the Tigers' defense likely would have had more plays go its way against a team without such a good spread offense. Boyd and the other Clemson skill players gave Auburn some problems that the Tigers won't face against any other teams this season. Still, major issues exist for Chizik's team. If the Tigers can't make headway on correcting them soon, they'll be looking at an 0-2 start to the season.