(Editor's note: In the future, our game previews will dig a little deeper. We've been a little behind this week.)
The first two editions of this Auburn-Clemson mini-series were, in some ways, mirror images of one another. In 2010, In the Week 3 meeting in 2010, we still weren't sure what to expect from our Tigers, led by Cam Newton. Clemson raced out to a 17-0 lead in Jordan-Hare Stadium, but Auburn turned the tables in the second half and and escaped with an 27-24 overtime win. Clemson went on to have a less-than-remarkable 6-6 regular season, and Auburn would end the year celebrating SEC and BCS titles.
In 2011, it was Clemson that featured then-unknown playmakers, and it was Auburn that jumped out of the gate quickly, taking a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter in Memorial Stadium. But just like in 2010, the home team overcame the initial shock to flip the game around. Clemson tied Auburn at 21 at halftime and cruised in the second half en route to a 38-24 win. Auburn had its share of struggles from that point forward and finished the regular season with a 7-5 record, while Clemson would go on to win 10 games and its first ACC title in 20 years.
Now, Auburn and Clemson meet in the Georgia Dome to play the rubber game of their three-game series, and both sides enter the game with plenty of questions to be answered. Clemson is breaking in an almost entirely new offensive line, and there have been some doubts in fall camp about whether or not it is ready to face a talented defense. Speaking of defense, Clemson has a new coordinator in Brett Venables. Have his players fully grasped his system? Dabo Swinney has a great group of talented receivers, but without the suspended Sammy Watkins, will they be able to make plays against Auburn's secondary? When he's on, quarterback Tajh Boyd is an offensive terror, but he became a turnover machine in the face of pressure last season. What happens if Auburn's defensive line gets into the backfield often? Will Boyd make a few game-changing mistakes?
If those questions seem like too much to overcome, it's just because you haven't been paying attention to Auburn. Gene Chizik's team could be outstanding, disappointing or something in between, and we have no idea what to expect. An impressive four-year stretch of recruiting has finally led to decent depth for the Tigers, something that's been missing ever since the overthrow of the Tuberville regime. But even with the added depth, it's impossible to look at this roster and make a confident prediction for Week 1 or the rest of the season. Will an offensive line with nine freshman and sophomores on the two-deep be able to handle elite defensive lines? Is Kiehl Frazier the answer at quarterback? Will the defense adjust quickly under new coordinator Brian VanGorder? Will we really see improvement from the linebackers and secondary, which have been so disappointing in recent years? Anyone out there that feels confident about the answers to these questions, please get in touch. We have some wagers to place and stocks to purchase.
Whichever team has the right answers to its questions on Saturday will start the 2012 campaign 1-0. The team that can't answer its questions will have a new one to ponder: Will we be able to right the ship and have a successful season?
AUBURN OFFENSE VS. CLEMSON DEFENSE
When thinking about Clemson's defense, the first thing that comes to mind is "70," as in "Oh my God, Clemson just gave up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. /dies" There were few defenses at the BCS conference level as bad as Auburn's last season, but the folks from Clemson don't have much room to talk. The Tigers gave up 394 yards per game, 986 and 5.6 yards per play in 2011. The 29.3 points per game that Clemson allowed -- obviously inflated by the Orange Bowl bludgeoning -- was actually slightly worse than Auburn's 28.9. After such a dismal year, Dabo Swinney did what any coach would do: He fired his defensive coordinator. In 2012, Kevin Steele is replaced by Brett Venables, who was hired away from Oklahoma. Last year, the Sooners allowed 22.1 points per game, 376 yards per game, 949 plays and 5.15 yards per play. Those don't look like great numbers, but against the offensively inclined competition of the Big 12, they were outstanding. OU led the conference in scoring defense and was second in total defense.
The unit matchup where Clemson has the greatest advantage has to be their defensive line vs. Auburn's offensive line. It's not like Auburn has any other option, but by starting freshmen Avery Young and Greg Robinson on the ends of the line, Clemson's defensive ends should be able to get into the backfield with some regularity and, perhaps, draw a few false start/holding penalties. Whereas Auburn's DEs are lighter and built to outmaneuver their O-line counterparts, Clemson's ends are much bigger -- Malliciah Goodman checks in at 6-4, 270; Corey Crawford is 6-5, 270 -- and will try to overpower their youthful opposition. Goodman against Young will likely be one of the biggest matchups on the field. Auburn's true freshman tackle will have his hands full with the senior end, and if he can't keep him in check, quarterback Kiehl Frazier will be in trouble.
For Auburn to be successful on offense, Kiehl Frazier must get the ball out of his hands quickly, and Scot Loeffler's gameplan should be designed to allow that to happen. Plenty of handoffs, screens and underneath throws should be in order. The running game, especially, needs to make headway to keep Clemson's linebackers honest. Onterio McCalebb is listed as the starting running back, but it's highly unlikely that he'll be able to do much damage between the tackles. Either Tre Mason or Mike Blakely have to establish the power attack. If that happens, Auburn can keep the Clemson D somewhat off balance and give Frazier a better chance at success.
AUBURN DEFENSE VS. CLEMSON OFFENSE
If Auburn is going to win this game, the Tigers' defensive line will be the reason. With only its starting center returning from last season, Clemson's offensive line is an even bigger question mark than Auburn, and that's something that the good Tigers must use to their advantage. Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford are terrors at the ends, so Auburn's interior linemen need to clog up the middle on both running and passing plays. Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd fell apart in the face of pressure last season, and if he is constantly on the run in the Georgia Dome, he'll make make mistakes. In addition to hampering Boyd, Auburn would like to avoid situations where running back Andre Ellington is allowed to reach the second level. AuburWitn's linebackers make up the weakest unit on the field and would be greatly helped if the line can disrupt Clemson's running game without too much support.
The Auburn secondary is fortunate that it doesn't have to deal with Sammy Watkins, but that doesn't mean Clemson is without playmakers. The orange and purple Tigers have one of the best receiving crops in the nation, and any one of DeAndre Hopkins, Jaron Brown or Charone Peake could break out for a Watkins-like performance. Auburn's defensive backs are markedly improved over recent years, and if they'll have to be if they want to keep Clemson from scoring at will. Chris Davis and Ryan White will have to be lock-down cornerbacks, and Jermaine Whitehead and Ryan Smith need to have smart, physical games at safety.
Clemson will play with a fast pace on offense in an attempt to tire out its opponent, but for the first time in years, Auburn actually has defensive depth. Gene Chizik's team should be able to make it through the game without running into too many fatigue problems. Whether or not it can stop Clemson will be decided by execution.
With an All-American-quality punter and kicker, Auburn is significantly better than Clemson on special teams. With the new kickoff rules, neither team will have many return opportunities. However, Auburn could pick up some hidden yardage in the punt return game. Steven Clark will allow very few returns, but Clemson's punt team gave up 16 yards per return last season, second-worst in the ACC. Clemson is breaking in a new punter in Spencer Benton, so we'll just have to wait and see what he's capable of. Quan Bray is a playmaker, and he'll punish Clemson if given the opportunity.
Both kickers are solid. Cody Parkey connected on 72 percent of his field goals as a sophomore, and that number should only improve this year. Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro -- nice alliteration -- hit 81 percent of his field goals in 2011. If either side should need a pressure-packed kick late, Parkey and Catanzaro should be up to the challenge.
- It's a neutral-site game, so neither side will have a total home-field advantage, but there will be more Auburn fans in the Dome, for whatever that's worth.
- Tajh Boyd has a year of experience under his belt, while Kiehl Frazier is making his first start. We have to think Frazier is more likely to make a big mistake.
- Both teams are dealing with suspensions that affect them in different ways. Auburn center Reese Dismukes is out, which shakes up an already fragile offensive line. Without wide receive Sammy Watkins, Clemson lack's a proven playmaker on the edge.
- Auburn has played in the Georgia Dome four times since 2007, coming up with four wins.
Like any other games involving SEC teams, this one will be won in the trenches. Both offensive lines will struggle, and because of that, both quarterbacks will make mistakes. Auburn's defensive line is a little better and a little deeper than Clemson's, and it should be able to force a few more mistakes. Auburn answers the questions and pulls off the upset 23-20.