War Eagle, everybody! It's time now to start our annual tradition of reviewing Auburn's football opponents for the coming season. The season starts with a bang, this year, as Auburn travels to Atlanta to play the Clemson Tigers on September 1st. While Auburn has won 2 of the last 3 from Clemson, it sure seemed from where I sat that Auburn was manhandled up front at times in each game.
Twice Clemson snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, before running away with the game in 2011. In 2007 in the Chick Filet Bowl, Clemson stubbornly stuck to their base defense against the Tony Franklin high-tempo spread. Despite two 4th quarter Clemson scores to take a 17-10 lead, the game evaporated as Clemson's defensive line could barely stand at the end. Auburn drove for a tying TD, and a winning one in overtime against a defensive line that had played most of 94 snaps. Auburn prevailed 23-20.
In 2010, Clemson came to Jordan Hare Stadium and whipped Auburn badly for 3 of the 4 quarters of regulation. An early second half letdown let Auburn score three quick touchdowns, and thus send the game to overtime. In a game that turned their season, Clemson dropped a game-winning pass in regulation, had another glance off a diving receiver's hands in overtime, had the game-tying field goal wiped off the board on an illegal snap, and then lost on a subsequent missed field goal.
In 2011, Clemson got off to a slow start trying to run the ball on Ted Roof's gap-control defense. Auburn led 21-7 in the second quarter, then Clemson realized that Auburn could not get pressure on the quarterback, and couldn't stop the blitz. The home team then outscored Auburn 31-3 down the stretch.
In each game against Clemson, Auburn has had real trouble up front on both lines of scrimmage. To win the game, Auburn had to scratch, claw, and frankly rely on some luck. This year, things may be different. Clemson returns just their center Dalton Freeman on their offensive line, and only one starter returns on the defensive line. From online comments from those who watched this year's Clemson spring game, it really didn't go well for the interior offensive line.
Offensively, Clemson is loaded with scary fast, experienced, talented folks in the skill positions. I bagged on quarterback Tajh Boyd in this space a year ago, and folks on the Clemson boards called him "fatboy" and said that he had regressed after this year's spring game, throwing two picks to one TD. Me, I think 20 for 26 passing is pretty good with a shaky offensive line. We got a taste of a lot of these talented receivers and backs in last year's game in Clemson. Returning are multi-year starting running back Andre Ellington, and dangerous receivers Sammy Watkins, and DeAndre Hopkins.
Clemson's decent to excellent special teams should get an injection of athletic players from a pretty good recruiting class this past February. Rocket-legged punter Dawson Zimmerman will be missed, but incoming freshman Bradley Pinion looked outstanding in the Clemson spring game. Clemson was solid in coverage last season, and has a plethora of dangerous return man candidates.
Defensively, Clemson is switching systems this year. After giving up 73 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, the Tigers parted ways with defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, and hired Brent Venables away from Oklahoma. Much like Auburn's Brian vanGorder, Venables prefers an attacking style. As a Bob Stoops disciple, expect to see a lot of 9 and 10 man fronts, with only a single safety playing back. Clemson will be comin'!
Unit Matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Clemson offensive line: Auburn has moved to a more attacking style, and has gained quite a bit of strength and power in a year's time up front. A front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Gabe Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special. Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. Clemson's offensive line features veteran center Dalton Freeman, and 4 new starters, with only left tackle Brandon Thomas having significant starting experience. From left to right, the current Clemson depth chart is Thomas, sophomore Kaylon Davis, Freeman, junior Tyler Shatley, and sophomore Gifford Timothy. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris runs the Gus Malzhan offense, which features lots of guard pulls. If the tackles and center don't handle their man, it gets ugly in the backfield, as Auburn found out last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Clemson backs: Auburn seems to be leaning towards a starting lineup of senior Darren Bates, junior Jake Holland, and redshirt freshman Kris Frost. It is likely that senior Jonathan Evans will make a big push in fall camp. Clemson's Andre Ellington is fast, low to the ground, and difficult to get a bead on, not to mention a couple of years of starting experience. Sophomores D. J. Howard and Mike Bellamy are dangerous as well. Clemson has plenty of lead-blocking beef from junior fullback Darrell Smith. Advantage: Clemson.
Auburn corners vs. Clemson receivers: This was an area where Auburn was torched last season, but much of it was due to a non-existent pass rush. This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there's fast, talented guys two deep behind them. Clemson has sophomore Sammy Watkins and junior DeAndre Hopkins, who can give any corner fits. There is depth behind the Clemson starters, as well. The edge goes with experience, in this matchup. Slight Advantage: Clemson.
Auburn safeties vs. Clemson secondary receivers and quarterback: Right now, sophomore Erique Florence and junior Demetruce McNeil are penciled in as Auburn starters, but expect sophomore Ryan Smith to play a lot, and also walk-on Trent Fisher. Auburn's young here, and the safeties in vanGorder's system have to make a lot of defensive calls. Clemson has a number of talented guys they can put in the slot, such as Jaron Brown and Charone Peake. The Tigers also have senior tight end Brandon Ford, who's pretty fleet for a big man. Advantage: Clemson.
Punting: Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can't be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent's 20. Clemson hosted a battle this spring between senior Spencer Benton and freshman Bradley Pinion. Pinion got the better of it during the spring game, hitting 8 punts for a 44.3 yard average. Clemson gave up 9.3 yards per return on 24 returns. On returns, DeAndre Hopkins averaged only 4.9 yards per return. Auburn's returning sophomore Quan Bran managed 7.4. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. With the tee spot moved from the 30 to the 35 yard line this season, Parkey could improve that ratio, unless the coaches decide more sky-kicks are in order. Auburn's spring game didn't provide any clues, there. By comparison, Clemson's trio of kickers last season only managed 13 touchbacks on 91 kickoffs. Senior Spencer Benton is the incumbent starter once again. Clemson was a bit better in coverage last year, giving up 20.0 yards per return, to Auburn's 22.1. Sammie Watkins was the leading Clemson kick returner in 2011, averaging 25 yards per return. Auburn utilized several guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, while Clemson junior Chandler Catanzaro was 22 of 27. Adding to Auburn's uh-oh factor, Parkey was rumored to be battling injury this past spring. Advantage: Clemson.
Auburn offensive line vs. Clemson defensive line: Auburn's starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. I'll be shocked if Miller is still starting in the Georgia Dome, but stranger things have happened. The most likely result is for Slade to move to right tackle, and either sophomore Eric Mack or redshirt freshman Christian Westerman to start at right guard. In any event, Auburn is very young, if talented on the o-line. The good news is that most of these guys were bloodied early and often last season. Clemson's defensive line is also inexperienced, but came out of spring drills better than expected. The Clemson starting ends are expected to be senior Mallicaih Goodman and sophomore Corey Crawford. Tackles should come from a pool of sophomores, Grady Jarrett, Tavaris Barnes, DeShaun Williams, and Josh Watson. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Clemson linebackers: Auburn lost 1000 yard rusher Michael Dyer last December, but returns a stable of talent. Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the "between the tackles" back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. Clemson has a mix of experience at linebacker. Penciled in as starters are junior Quandon Christian, sophomore Stephone Anthony, and senior Jonathan Willard. Senior Coricho Hawkins provides depth. These guys were required to read and react in prior years. This spring, they were to attack. Results were mixed in the spring game. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Clemson corners: Auburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. Clemson junior Darius Robinson has some experience, but is a bit on the light side at 170 pounds. Sophomore Beshaud Breeland is expected to start at corner on the other side, and should be able to match up on the boundary with Auburn's guys. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Clemson safeties: All eyes will be on the Auburn quarterback, at this point likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier had 1 rush for 3 yards against Clemson, last season. Venables will call the big blitz early and often in Frazier's first start, and Auburn must be ready to counter. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. Clemson has experience at safety, and is unlikely to give up the big play or call the wrong coverage. Some combination of the three seniors will play this fall, Rashard Hall, Xavier Brewer, and Jonathan Meeks. Advantage: Clemson.
On paper, Clemson appears to have a big edge in the skill departments, but may be suspect on both lines of scrimmage, particularly in the first game of the season. With mostly young players up front, there's no way in practice to simulate the fury of big-time college line play before the game. Auburn has a great opportunity to really come out with a bang early, and hit some folks in the mouth. I'd also grant Auburn the pressure edge. Auburn's not highly regarded coming off last season's 5 big losses, while Clemson is a defending conference champ. The heat is on Dabo's team to prove that they are not the group that gave up 73 points in the Orange Bowl.
What's worrisome for Auburn is that time has proven that it's really tough for any team to run for 100 yards against a Venables defense. The Auburn offense spent most of the spring working on the running game. Where Venables has been suspect is against the committed, disciplined passing attack. Can Auburn, with a new starting QB take advantage of some matchup problems with Blake, Lutzenkirchen and McCalebb?
The Auburn defense looked absolutely clueless against Chad Morris' offense last season. Has Brian vanGorder had any experience defending against the Gus Malzhan attack? History says no. The most recent SEC wisdom says to attack the middle of the line against that attack, and hope your corners and outside linebackers can make tackles in space. Auburn has the talent, and the mismatch up front to make this happen.
Prediction: Both offenses look shaky against attacking defenses. Auburn's o-line fares better in its matchup than Clemson's, and Auburn special teams outplay their counterparts. Auburn's Cody Parkey hits the game-winning field goal, 20-17.