Man, it is a magnificent feeling to be penning this game preview because it means the long wait for college football and seeing the Clemson Tigers play is coming to an end! It's even better that the Tigers begin the season with a marquee prime-time game against the SEC's Auburn Tigers on the road.
This 2016 edition of the Clemson Tigers enters the season with unprecedented expectations and the highest preseason ranking in its long history. No Howard or Ford team ever found itself this squarely on the radar in August and early September, let alone any of the other coaches who have come through over the years. These are indeed the "good ol' days," but there is much work to be done in order to keep the good vibes flowing.
Auburn offers a big-time stadium environment and many blue chip prospects across its roster. They are only a few years removed from having played in the National Championship Game themselves and should not be taken lightly. Let's get into the match-ups.
Clemson offense vs. Auburn defense
This is the side of the ball where Clemson should enjoy a mismatch in most, if not all, of the games this season. The offense at full strength, as it is entering this game, has no apparent weakness and can offer a devastating running attack led by an offensive line returning three All-ACC performers and the Wayne Train, Wayne Gallman, who is challenging Raymond Priester's now 19 year old career rushing mark this season.
Behind center is the man himself, Deshaun Watson, who will very likely finish this season as the most decorated player in Clemson history (he's already on the brink now), and a plethora of offensive weaponry from returning All-ACC performers Mike Williams, Artavis Scott, and Jordan Leggett. Those three are supported by emerging 5 star sophomores, Ray Ray McCloud and Deon Cain, not to mention the guy who made quite a name for himself in the National Title Game, Hunter Renfrow. This group enters the game with 10 straight 500+ yard performances. Scary good.
Auburn's strength at this point is believed to be on the defensive side of the ball. That isn't the first thought for those looking at a Gus Malzahn coached team. However, Auburn does have some studs on the defensive side of the ball who can potentially do some damage; especially former Clemson targets Montravious Adams and Carl Lawson on the defensive line.
This group is now under the direction of former Clemson DC, Kevin Steele. Many fans have likely chuckled at the thought of Steele facing Clemson, especially when Clemson has the type of offense and quarterback that routinely embarrassed Steele's defenses while in Tigertown. Steele had mixed results last year at LSU and follows the underachieving year of Will Muschamp where the Auburn defense didn't really look good until he had departed for Columbia and they played in the bowl game. I'm sure the Clemson staff will immediately find out how Steele's defense can handle the zone read game and the jet sweep action.
Steele's group will desperately attempt to stop the run game and brace for Watson in the passing game in hopes of landing a sack or getting a turnover here and there to slow Clemson down. The chance for explosive plays will definitely be there because of Steele's naturally aggressive approach. He will put corners on an island and load the box. His system is complex and that means the chances for busts go up. It certainly would be nice to get a free gift or two with a completely busted coverage the way Clemson gifted a few opponents last year.
One thing to watch will be Jake Fruhmorgen at right tackle against the Auburn DE's. Will Carl Lawson move over to the left away from Hyatt or will it be the highly rated Byron Cowart testing that side? Fruhmorgen promises to be a better technician than his predecessor, the converted defensive end Joe Gore, but he has yet to be called upon extensively in this type of environment. Steele will certainly hope he can get a DE winning one on one to minimize his need to blitz and expose himself against Watson's passing and running abilities.
Of course, in true SEC fashion the Auburn defense has had to deal with off the field transgressions and it remains to be seen how that will affect their starting lineup come game time. Auburn is definitely one of the top three or four defenses that Clemson has on the schedule, but I can't get past knowing that it isn't what Alabama put out there in Arizona against a Tiger offense that should be even better this year. As long as Clemson protects the ball, it should expect to score at least in the 30's in game one.
Clemson defense versus Auburn offense
This is an intriguing match-up because both teams have more unknowns here than anywhere else. Clemson fans are well aware of the personnel losses from last year, especially at DE and in the secondary, and the injury to Austin Bryant which has raised some question marks. Meanwhile, Auburn still has unsolved issues at QB and RB as well as brand new left and right tackles on their OL. Clemson's eye discipline and gap integrity will be tested early and often from Malzahn's version of the smash-mouth spread. They love the heavy play action/double move deep shots Clemson fans remember from Chad Morris's days and they will hit Clemson with the zone read/jet sweep run game as well as the power/counter.
Unlike Clemson, Auburn has not shown the ability to throw its way to victory when the run game isn't effective. Sean White has gotten the nod as the starter at QB, though I seriously doubt he will take all the snaps, and I believe it is because he is likely the most effective passer they have. Auburn probably knows that it will struggle to just line up and run the ball at the Clemson front seven and will need to execute some contested throws in the passing game to win. Coach Venables is no doubt looking to force the QB to win the game and put him under intense pressure both with the rush and with mixing looks in hopes of confusing him. Even the super potent offense of North Carolina was in serious trouble for most of the ACC Championship game when the defense effectively rattled Marquise Williams.
The big question here is will the Clemson defense stay sound and allow its front seven difference-makers to rattle White and whomever else takes snaps for Auburn, or will the new members of the secondary lose focus and allow Auburn to generate explosive plays the way North Carolina, South Carolina, Syracuse, and Alabama were able to down the stretch in 2015. I have a lot of trust in Coach Venables and his staff, but admittedly I will have some nerves when the defense lines up early on in this game. I don't feel Auburn can consistently put 8-12 play drives together to score and will need Clemson to bust some to score enough to win.
Here we go again looking at what has been by far the weakest link of the Clemson team the last year or two. Clemson would have waltzed to the title last season had this been a true strength of the team. However, Clemson often had to drive the ball 75-85 yards while the defense was routinely defending from the -40 or worse thanks to a nearly nonexistent return game and very leaky kick coverage. If that can get corrected to the point of at least being average or slightly above average, it could very well be the boost this team needs to win it all.
As for a game like this, I don't need to tell you how losing this phase can lead to a disastrous upset loss. Special teams gaffes can be blamed for some of the biggest upsets or season deciding moments you see during the year. Ask Florida State after they saw a blocked kick and subsequent return doom them in Atlanta. Ask Michigan after their punter's meltdown turned a sure victory into a crippling loss. Poor special teams play very nearly put Clemson's magical season in jeopardy last year when Louisville's dormant offense was given life with a kickoff return touchdown just as Clemson was prepared to bury them. I still have nightmarish memories of the trip to Athens in 2002, when an undermanned Tiger team should have beaten a top ten UGA squad but multiple special teams disasters undermined an otherwise superhuman effort.
We have all heard how hard the staff has worked on this phase of the game, but I know I won't be alone in holding my breath until I see something different. The best news is Clemson returns both kickers and appear to be ready for good seasons. Heugel was the best surprise of 2015 and can add to his resume if he can put kickoffs into the endzone on a regular basis. Auburn special teams has a very good kicker in Daniel Carson and has had some big moments in the last few years, namely the kick six against Alabama in 2013. They certainly have the players to hurt Clemson should the same coverage issues rear their ugly heads on the Plains. If Clemson is sound here it greatly diminishes the chances of an upset. If Clemson can get something really big, such as a kick return score, I can't see Auburn having any chance of winning. Bottom line here, just DON'T SCREW IT UP!