After a rather boring “soft launch” in “week 0,” college football was back in all its glory in week 1. We were treated to a historic comeback as UCLA trailed Texas A&M 10-44 with 2:07 remaining in the third quarter and roared back to win. Virginia Tech edged West Virginia in a barnburner that came down to the final play.
The best may have been the Labor Day special between the Volunteers and the Yellow Jackets. Tennessee trailed Georgia Tech late, but recovered a fumble and drove down the field to tie the game in the final minutes. A blocked kick preserved the tie and they won in double OT. Even in defeat, the most impressive performance came from new GT QB TaQuon Marshall who ran for 249 yards and five TDs! He also connected on 5/9 passes for 120 yards. With him at QB, the Yellow Jackets will be dangerous, even if their defense is still mediocre.
And of course, Alabama and FSU slugged it out until Florida State’s special teams made several major blunders that handed the game to the Crimson Tide. Florida State’s offensive line did not look any better than last season and this time it cost them big as QB Deondre Francois took a beating (as usual), and exited with a season-ending knee injury. This makes Clemson the big favorite to win the ACC for the third straight season (some of us were already picking Clemson). The Tigers haven’t won the conference in three consecutive seasons since they did it at the end of the Danny Ford era (‘87, ‘88, ‘89).
Clemson, for their part, was dominant in a week 1 win over Kent State. The Golden Flashes are expected to finish towards the bottom of the MAC so we have to be cautious about taking too much from the win, but it was surely an encouraging performance. Kelly Bryant’s improvement demonstrated why the coaches tabbed him the starter (my thoughts on him here). The running backs and tight ends quelled worry that Clemson would struggle to replace Wayne Gallman and Jordan Leggett (my thoughts on emerging players here), and the defense was as dominant as expected.
Now the biggest - yes the biggest - test of the season comes, on Saturday, but before we break it all down, our usual caveat.
We've divided the offense and the defense each into three portions. On offense, the starting QB comprises one-third of the rating, the heaviest weight for any single player. The five starting offensive linemen comprise another third, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) comprise one-third. They are displayed separately as well as as part of the overall offense average.
Similarly on defense, the two-deep along the D-line, at linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.
We acknowledge there are some players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Lamar Jackson) as well as those who under-perform their star ratings. Nevertheless, recruited talent is strongly correlated with wins on the field. In 2016, this analysis revealed a major talent deficit for Louisville along the O-line. Despite solid performance from their O-line to that point, we cited this as reason for optimism and Clemson validated that optimism by winning at the line of scrimmage.
So let’s jump right in with the offense:
We start at QB where Kelly Bryant and Jarrett Stidham face off. Both were Rivals four-star recruits and both should be good this season. Stidham has a lot of hype and expectations around him, but Bryant had the better week 1 performance. Although Kevin Steele impressed us last year as his defense slowed a Watson-led Tiger offense, I’m excited to see a major running threat at QB attack his defense. That’s an area, as you may (painfully) recall, where his defenses often struggled during his time at Clemson.
Starting on the offensive line, Auburn boasts three seniors and four former four-star recruits. Last year they finished 6th in adjusted line yards (S&P+), but finished 49th in adjusted sack rate (S&P+). It’ll be fascinating to see if Auburn tries to run right into the teeth of our defensive line anchored by Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. One big concern here is what happens late in a grueling game. Do we have enough DL depth to keep our studs fresh or will they wear out like the guys in the Tennessee vs. GT game?
Finally, you see the skill position talent pretty comparable here. Although Clemson has more of a reputation for WR talent and NFL draft picks, five different former four-star WRs litter Auburn’s two-deep. Clemson’s DBs will be tested.
Let’s move on to the defense:
Here Auburn has an advantage.
At linebacker, they start two seniors and a junior. Their linebacking corps did a good job plugging holes and stopping the Georgia Southern run game. Five-star senior Tre Williams at WLB stood out in week 1 according to our friend, Jack Condon, at College and Magnolia.
Auburn’s secondary boasts six former four-star recruits in their two deep compared to just two for Clemson. They weren’t challenged much through the air in week 1 though so they’re probably the biggest unknown on Auburn’s defense at this point.
It’s their defensive line that may pose the most interesting challenge. Let’s look at how that War Eagle two-deep defensive line stacks up against the Clemson OL starters:
They have outstanding talent on their defensive line including three former five-star recruits. The losses of DE Carl Lawson and DT Montravius Adams are big, but it appears that they have the talent to replace them without a major drop-off, a phenomenon we’ve experienced many times at Clemson.
Last season, Auburn ranked 14th in rushing defense, but just 31st in passing defense (S&P+). It’s yet to be seen how that will shake out this season, but if week 1 is any indication, they’ll again be stout against the run once again.
So how does this all shake out?
Auburn has the rush defense to halt the Tigers if they become one dimensional. That means Kelly Bryant will be counted on to move the chains in critical moments. This is certainly a scary proposition given he’s never been relied upon before, but two things give me confidence.
First is his encouraging week 1 performance. He showed an accurate deep ball - something that isn’t so dependent on competition level. He completed easy passes and let his skill players do the work and he looked good in the option running game. Second, is Bryant’s speed and willingness to run. Even if he struggles a bit through the air, I’m not sure I believe in a Kevin Steele defense to stop a dual-threat QB in a spread offense. They used a lot of man defense in last season’s matchup, a defense that can fall victim to the QB scramble.
I am buying some of the hype on Auburn and could see them challenging LSU in Baton Rouge (they haven’t won there since 1999) and Alabama at home (their defensive strengths matchup well against the Tide). They’ll be the Clemson’s biggest test of the season, but I think they fall just shy of pulling off a road upset.