From Kirk Herbstreit picking Clemson to win the National Championship to Athlon Sports picking them to make the playoff even without winning the ACC, pundits are quite high on the Tigers. In fact, I have not heard anybody with any credibility pick Auburn to upset Clemson on Labor Weekend, and (SPOILER!) none of our writers did either. That doesn’t mean we’re not delivering our usual detailed previews though!
In this lineup analysis article, which will evolve into a weekly article, we look at the 24/7 composite recruiting rankings of the current college starters back when they were high school recruits. We also look at their seniority, because the two most objective measures we can look at are their recruiting ratings and the years of college coaching (including JUCO) they’ve received.
Before we get elbow deep in the lineup analysis, a couple of caveats. We included only the 22 starters on offense and defense. For future matchups we may tweak this as time permits, but with a sample of 44 total players it is important to keep in mind that this is valuable as a general commentary on the talent level of teams. Small differences (e.g., 3.82 vs. 3.80) can be viewed as a virtual tie.)
More than anything else, I hope these serve as easy-to-digest top-line analyses that indicate the general talent levels of our opponents’ offenses and defenses in relation to ours. With that perspective, we should be able to better assess how successful our coaches are at player evaluation and maximizing the talent they have as well as how well our players compliment each other.
Lastly, because the depth charts, particularly for Auburn, contain a handful of unknowns, we relied on the Montgomery Adviser to help us put together a starting lineup for Auburn the weekend before the game.
So, with all that being said, now let’s jump in the with offense:
We knew Auburn, despite their recent struggles, was still recruiting well. So, to see them not too far behind Clemson in terms of recruited offensive talent isn’t totally surprising. As we dig a little deeper though, the story on offense looks more favorable for Clemson.
Auburn starts two four star WRs and a three star WR compared to Clemson with two four stars and Renfrow who we list as a two-star. That would indicate an advantage for Auburn, but objective analysts would agree that Clemson - not Auburn - has the advantage at WR.
Additionally, Clemson lists four-star RB Wayne Gallman and three-star TE Jordan Leggett in the starting lineup. These star counts align with Auburn at those same positions, but again, no objective analyst would fail to give Clemson the edge at running back and tight end where Auburn will use Kerryon Johnson (probably) and Jalen Harris (probably), respectively.
While the skill position talent is equal from a star rating perspective it’s hard not to credit Clemson coaching with superior talent evaluation and/or player development as the Clemson offense appears so much more promising.
Where Clemson earns the talent edge graph above and also where Auburn gains their seniority edge is on the offensive line. Let’s look closer there:
Here we see a fairly major gap in talent favoring Clemson and an even bigger gap in seniority favoring Auburn. This largely comes from the tackle position where Clemson starts Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen, two talented sophomores. For Auburn, Alex Golson is expected to move to tackle where he’ll play opposite Robert Leff, giving Auburn seniors at the bookends. Auburn’s senior laden offensive line should help their offense improve from last season.
Clemson’s O-line shouldn’t be discounted because of their youth. True sophomore Hyatt started all of 2015 and was excellent while Fruhmorgen saw time as a back-up and was also a highly recruited tackle. Clemson has a chance to be elite on the offensive line.
Lastly, the most important position, QB, gives Clemson a dramatic edge. This is underplayed in the averaged rating where QB is only as important as a slot receiver, and Watson is only one star better than Sean White.
Now it’s on to the defense:
This is the data point that struck a cord with me. The talent on these defenses is excellent! Not only is the recruiting star average for Clemson’s defense in-line with their excellent offense (negligibly higher in fact), but Auburn’s is even higher than that. This is good news for both teams.
For Clemson, this should make us feel a bit better about the long-term (and I mean season long) outlook for this defense. There may be some growing pains, but this breakdown doesn’t even include Dexter Lawrence, Trayvon Mullen, or Austin Bryant. Seeing that the defense is about as talented as the offense, just younger, should inspire hope. Get to the Louisville game healthier and more experienced and maybe this defense can start becoming an elite unit.
For Auburn, new defensive coordinator, Kevin Steele, inherits a young unit (just 3.10 on seniority, with only four players who enter their fourth or fifth year in college football), but a talented one. They’re especially talented on the D-line with two four-stars and two five-stars as well as a secondary that includes all four-star players.
The question for them is if Steele can distill what has often been called a complicated defensive scheme down enough for this young group to handle it early in the season. This is where I believe Clemson has a big edge in this game.
Auburn has all the talent in the world on defense, but they were talented last year under DC Will Muschamp and finished just 34th in the S&P+ rankings and 71st in yards per game allowed (skewed by an up-tempo offense).
So then we ask, is Steele and upgrade from Muschamp? Will Steele’s scheme be more effective? I think Muschamp’s prior success as a defensive coach and our familiarity with Steele make this hard to believe. This points to talent evaluation, talent development, and overall defensive coaching as being key differences.
Brent Venables is one of the premier defensive coordinators in the country and with time and some injury luck, Clemson’s unit could be borderline elite by the Florida State game. Further, this coaching advantage, despite the star averages, means Clemson’s defense should be as good as Auburn’s in week 1.
One area of particular interest I have in this matchup is the battle on the lines. When Clemson trots out their offensive line, one we’ve been saying may be even better than last season’s, they will be going against an incredibly talented defensive line that includes DE Carl Lawson and DT Montravius Adams. While Auburn may not be an elite team, they very well may have an elite defensive line. Looking at their raw talent is impressive. Not even Florida State can boast two five-star players on their defensive line. This is the one area where Auburn can really challenge Clemson’s offense and I’m excited to see Clemson’s O-line prove their elite-ness. (Auburn only had 19 sacks last season, but added a four-star freshman DE who is slated to start and got Carl Lawson back from injury.)
Finally, we look at the overall picture:
Without context, this is a scary graph so let’s give it some context.
Clemson has the talent edge on offense, and while it’s not huge, it’s present at the QB position, which is huge. Auburn has a lot of talent on defense, and I mean a lot. Their D-line features two four-star and two five-star starters! The matchup between Auburn’s defensive line and Clemson’s offensive line will be the best positional matchup of the game as we’ll see two potentially elite units going after each other.
For Auburn to upset Clemson they need two things to go their way. They’ll need Sean White to play well enough to keep the disparity in QB play within reason and Auburn’s defensive line to beat Clemson’s offensive line.
These objective statistics certainly make me take the threat Auburn poses appear more ominous, but I do not believe they’ll do enough to upset Clemson.
Notes: Stephen Roberts was included in these calculations and has since been suspended by Auburn. Christian Wilkins and Mark Fields were included as starters, but are now listed as co-starters with Richard Yeargin and Ryan Carter.