Gameweek Debate: Auburn vs Clemson
By Southern Pigskin Staff
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Southern Pigskin writers Jeremy Hillman and Brandon Rink break down the upcoming Auburn-Clemson contest.
On Saturday, after a long off-season wait, two Tigers — one from the SEC and one from the ACC — will battle it out in Atlanta for a much-wanted victory. Who will be the top Tiger on Saturday and start the season as the “king of the jungle”? Two of SouthernPigskin.com’s writers debate this topic and choose their winner for the game.
Jeremy Hillman covers the SEC for Southern Pigskin and Brandon Rink covers the Clemson Tigers for Southern Pigskin and the Anderson Independent Mail’s OrangeandWhite.com. Here are their thoughts on the various aspects of this matchup:
Auburn Offense Versus Clemson Defense
Jeremy Hillman: Auburn will come at Clemson with a run-based offense to start the game, running right at a Clemson defensive line that must replace three of their four starters from a year ago. The Clemson linebackers have experience, and will be relied upon to come up and slow down the Auburn rush attack. Look for a steady dose of speedy senior Onterio McCalebb (112 rushes for 5.7 yards per carry in 2011) and talented sophomore Tre Mason (5.8 yards per carry last season) for the SEC Tigers. You will also see dynamic quarterback Kiehl Frazier run the football. He is inexperienced, but has a special skill set that he will be able to display as a first time starter. The trio helped Auburn rush for 273 yards in a big bowl win over ACC foe Virginia just over seven months ago. Once the run is established, Auburn will look to the air and find star senior receiver Emory Blake, speedy Travon Reed and Quan Bray in the slot, and one of the best tight ends in the nation in Phillip Lutzenkirchen down the field. We all saw what the Clemson defense did in their bowl game this past January, giving up an embarrassing 600 yards and 70 points to West Virginia. I don’t expect that kind of production from Auburn in this game, mainly because of inexperience along the offensive line and a new defensive coordinator for Clemson, especially after Auburn’s starting center was suspended this week; however, Auburn’s offense is literally loaded with dangerous skill position players and should be able to create big plays, score points against this still suspect Clemson defense, and have a slight edge in this matchup.
Brandon Rink: Saturday is the showcase for former Oklahoma, and new Tiger, defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ scheme. His unit is especially young on the defensive line, which features a lone upperclassmen starter (defensive end Malliciah Goodman) and a rotation of sophomores at both defensive tackles and bandit end. What’s been interesting is the move towards a 4-2-5 scheme from the 4-3, with Venables almost carving out a new position for talented true freshman defensive back Travis Blanks (four-star prospect, 6-1 190) to get on the field (sharing time with senior linebacker junior Quandon Christian). Former five-star linebacker prospect Stephone Anthony takes over in the middle and seniors Jonathan ‘Tig’ Willard and Corico Wright will rotate at WLB. Under Kevin Steele, Clemson flirted with a 3-4 style, but Venables seems intent on four lineman. The secondary, still stinging a bit from surrendering 407 passing yards against WVU, returns five starters for four spots, with senior and 2011 leading tackler Rashard Hall platooning at both safety spots with fellow seniors Jonathan Meeks and Xavier Brewer. With depth issues at cornerback, Brewer is also playing there, where he started last season before the move to safety. The Orange Bowl massacre was rock bottom and motivation for the eight upperclassmen ACC Tigers back who played significant snaps last season, and things are looking up in this matchup, with Auburn center Reese Dismukes’ suspension and Michael Dyer out of the picture. Dyer was really their only playmaker in last year’s game in Death Valley, rolling up 151 rushing yards, two touchdowns and two of Auburn’s five 20-plus yard plays (52 and 45 yards, respectively) in the game. But they did end up with the fourth-most yards against Clemson’s defense all season (435). In a battle of new coordinators, I really wouldn’t be surprised if either side took advantage, but I’ll agree on a slight edge for Auburn.
Clemson Offense Versus Auburn Defense
Jeremy Hillman: The loss of all-world athlete and receiver Sammy Watkins to suspension certainly hurts the Clemson offense. However, the ACC Tigers are still loaded with skill position talent and will give this Auburn defense fits all game long. It starts with dynamic quarterback Tajh Boyd. He can run and pass (33 touchdown passes a year ago) and with another year of experience under his belt he should be very dangerous. Running back Andre Ellington ran for an impressive 1,218 yards in 2011 and is back for more of the same in 2012. At receiver, Clemson lost Watkins but still has Jaron Brown and DeAndre Hopkins to create big plays in the passing game. The strength of the Auburn defense is the defensive line, with all four starters and their backups returning, and the weakest unit for the Clemson offense is the offensive line. Thus, Clemson will work to get around the D-line pressure and get the ball out in space to challenge the suspect Auburn linebackers. Auburn’s secondary is experienced and talented and should be up to the task of defending the deep ball. Therefore, look for screen plays, misdirection, quick slants, and options to be the big plays for the ACC Tigers. If Clemson can find a way to avoid the Auburn defensive lineman and exploit the Auburn linebackers, they should have a slight edge in this matchup.
Brandon Rink: I’d say Jeremy made a solid case for the Clemson offense > Auburn’s D, so I’ll just add to it. Chad Morris will look to mask basically four new starters on the O-line with a heavy use of the Pistol formation – hoping to freeze attacking linebackers and make some big gains in the running game with Ellington and co. That’s key to taking some of the pressure off from Boyd in the passing game. Without Watkins against NC State and with Watkins playing hurt against South Carolina, Boyd had his worst and third-worst passing games last season (238 and 85 yards, respectively) with three interceptions and one touchdown. Taking Watkins' spot in Atlanta is fellow sophomore Charone Peake, who has drawn rave reviews this offseason and clocked a fastest-on-the-team 4.24 40-time and stands 6’3 200 – a strong combo of speed and size. Put him opposite the aforementioned Brown and Hopkins and it’s certainly possible Clemson’s offense doesn’t skip a beat even against a more experienced Auburn defense this time around (racked up 624 offensive yards last season in Memorial Stadium).
Jeremy Hillman: Both field goal kickers missed five field goals in 2011. They both are reliable kickers that should fare well in this game. However, Auburn will have the stronger overall special teams in this matchup. At punter, Auburn returns starter Steven Clark who averaged a healthy 41 yards per punt and landed 33 kicks inside the 20 for the Tigers. On the flip side, Clemson must replace their starting punter and will rely on senior Spencer Benton to handle punts. The loss of Watkins hurts Clemson the most here. While they still have guys that can make plays in the return game, he is a special talent in the open field. Auburn returns both their kick and punt returners in Mason and Bray. Mason is explosive and returned a kick for a touchdown last season.
Brandon Rink: Absolutely agree on the impact of Watkins’ suspension here, as the super sophomore is one of the nation’s most dynamic returners, and wants to add punt returns to his repertoire this season. This game has a little extra meaning for junior Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who walked off the field down on the Plains two years ago after missing a 32-yard field goal in the 27-24 overtime loss…just seconds after a made kick was nullified by a snap malfunction penalty. Catanzaro was as consistent as any in the ACC with a range just short of 50 yards. At punter, the senior Benton, who handled kickoffs last year, had to fight off true freshman Bradley Pinion for the spot, and will likely have the strong-legged Pinion peering over his shoulder if he struggles at any point this season.
Jeremy Hillman: With a national title under his belt, most would give Chizik the slight nod over Dabo Swinney as a head coach. The coordinators have been upgraded for both teams with talented defensive mind Brett Venables being hired at Clemson and defensive guru Brian VanGorder being hired at Auburn. Will be fun to watch these two new guys, who are both very respected in coaching circles, defend such dynamic offenses and skill position players. Could this surprise everyone and turn into a defensive battle?? Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris is in his second season, after a very successful first year, and the jury is still out on first year Auburn offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, although he had much success at Temple and has been the QB coach for guys like Tom Brady and Tim Tebow. Both teams will be well coached and prepared for a hard fought battle.
Brandon Rink: It’s an interesting matchup, with Clemson coming off an offseason of breaking the bank to pay its two coordinators the most combined of any school in the country ($2.1 million), and Auburn losing the former highest paid assistant to Arkansas State as head coach (Gus Malzahn). Chizik made a splash of sorts with VanGorder from the Falcons and went under-the-radar with Loeffler. It’s a tough call with Chizik having the 14-0 national title season to point to and Swinney an ACC and two division titles in three full seasons each at their schools. With having at least one coordinator going into year two at his school, I’ll give Clemson a very slight edge.
Jeremy Hillman: This may be the difference in the matchup. Auburn has proven to be very hard to beat in neutral site games (going 10-1 over the last 10 seasons in neutral site contests) and have also played very well in the Georgia Dome. Auburn’s last two games in Atlanta have ended with lopsided victories: Auburn 56 South Carolina 17 (2010 SEC Championship Game), Auburn 43 Virginia 24 (2011 Chick-fil-a Bowl). Clemson, on the flip side, is just 5-8 in neutral site games over the past ten seasons and are just 26-35 in games away from home. Not to mention, Clemson has just a 3-5 record at the Georgia Dome, including two straight losses to Auburn in Chick-fil-a Bowls. Atlanta being so close to Auburn, the crowd will also likely be more Auburn blue than Clemson orange. Look for the intangibles to heavily point in Auburn’s direction. Will it be enough?
Brandon Rink: Add to that, Clemson has only opened away from Death Valley three times since 1990, losing all three (1996 – 45-0 loss at UNC; 2002 – 31-28 loss at Georgia; 2008 – 34-10 loss to Alabama in the Georgia Dome). I wouldn’t be surprised if Auburn has a slight majority in the Georgia Dome, but there’s just a 16-mile difference in proximity to Atlanta for Clemson opposed to Auburn. Clemson has been successful in openers, taking three-straight, 22 of its last 28 and three of its last four against BCS teams. They’ve yet to beat a traditional SEC team in an opener (0-7 all-time), but did down Texas A&M in 2005, 25-24.
Jeremy Hillman: This will be a very physical game with both teams fighting for every yard and every tackle. In a close game, behind a special performance from the defensive line and plenty of rushing yards, Auburn edges out Clemson for a big win.
Score Prediction: Auburn 30 Clemson 28
Brandon Rink: O-line issues, new coaches, suspensions and more are shared going into the matchup between the very similar institutions themselves. I’ve gone back and forth on this one, but the late shuffle on Auburn’s O-line with Dismukes’ suspension swayed me slightly over to Clemson. What you have here is two offensive lines with question marks – one with a first-year starter QB in a new system (Auburn, Frazier) and another quarterback going into year two after breaking most single-season school records and a couple conference ones (Clemson, Boyd). That’s the difference in my mind.
Score Prediction: Clemson 27 Auburn 23