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Auburn at Clemson Q&A Preview with College & Magnolia

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NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

We’re back with Jack Condon of College and Magnolia for our Q&A preview of this week’s huge matchup. What now looks like the toughest opponent of the season, the Auburn Tigers, roll into Clemson for a 7pm ESPN game. Jack helps us size up our opponent.

Auburn’s defense smothered Georgia Southern’s rush-heavy attack to the tune of 1.5 YPC in week one. Some may have expected a drop-off from this unit given the departures of DE Carl Lawson and DT Montravius Adams. What did you see and what are you expecting from the Auburn defense this season?

I think we were all a little surprised at how well the defense played on Saturday night. There really was no threat at all of Georgia Southern making it a game unless the Auburn offense turned the ball over several times deep in its own end. Aside from their longest play of the night (25 yards), GSU averaged 0.96 yards per play. Going against any FBS team, that’s an accomplishment in itself.

As for our impressions, the defensive line was unbelievably nasty for starters. Jeff Holland and Marlon Davidson more than picked up the slack that Carl Lawson left, and the interior of the line got plenty of penetration as well with Derrick Brown and Byron Cowart having big games on the inside.

Right behind them, the linebackers were stepping up and grabbing TFLs/Sacks by the handful also, with Tre’ Williams being the main guy to watch, as he put himself on the map in 2017 with a pair of sacks and some viciously sure tackles. The linebackers are definitely a strength of the unit, and there were no weaknesses visible anywhere on the front seven.

The only thing that we don’t know, and it’s only for lack of evidence, is how the secondary will play against the pass. They were fantastic in run support against GSU, with our safeties notching a couple of TFLs at different points in the game, but the Eagles were never a threat to throw the ball. I want to believe that they’ll be more of a ball-hawking secondary, but again, they didn’t have to be in Game 1, and the defense was still very vanilla overall, so a lot of what you see will also be new to Auburn fans on that side of the ball.

There has been a lot of off-season hype around new QB Jarrett Stidham. He has the potential to stretch defenses and open up space for what was already an excellent Auburn rushing attack a season ago. His 14-24 debut was far from flawless though. What’s your evaluation?

Two things were pretty evident on Saturday night. One, Jarrett Stidham has all the tools to be the best quarterback in the SEC. Two, he hasn’t played quarterback in a live game situation in quite some time.

It took a bit for the rust to come off, mainly with things like holding the ball too long, not feeling the pressure (an orange no-contact jersey in fall camp will do that to you), and general nerves resulting in a few errant throws.

I don’t think Auburn fans, coaches, players, or Stidham himself are worried about his development, but we’d probably like to have Mercer this week, and then Clemson next week just to get him oiled up a little more.

Chip Lindsey also didn’t reveal anything in the game he called, so that’s a factor for sure. Stidham and the Auburn offense were blander than bland, and even with some miscues were able to roll up 535 yards with 350+ on the ground.

Can you give us a high-level update on what’s going on with that great RB duo of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson?

Well, rumors spread over the few weeks leading up to kickoff that we may see some suspensions in the opener, then lo and behold, we did. Just before kickoff, it was announced that Pettway, wide receiver Kyle Davis, and backup quarterback Sean White were all suspended for the GSU game.

Pettway and Davis will be back and on the field on the first play for Auburn against Clemson, so that’s not an issue. They’ve served their one-game suspension, and now Pettway will be very fresh and ready to run after not getting many opportunities early in the season in 2016.

As for Kerryon Johnson, he ran for 136 yards in about a quarter and a half on Saturday before pulling up with what looked like a classic hamstring pull on another long run in the second quarter. He immediately stopped running, lightly fell to the ground, and didn’t play again. In Gus’ midweek press conference, he said that they hoped Kerryon would be ready for the Clemson game, but I know that we’ll most likely find out his status once the game kicks off.

If Johnson is unable to go, we will have Kam Martin moved up to second string again. He ran for 136 yards against Georgia Southern as well, and probably packs a bit more of a speedy punch than Johnson does. He showed more ability to run between the tackles on Saturday night, and he popped off two runs of more than 35 yards. He and Pettway would provide quite a formidable 1-2 combo in the backfield.

What positional or personnel matchup gives you the most optimism for Auburn in this matchup?

Based on what we saw on Saturday night, I think most Auburn fans would say that we feel pretty good about our defensive front seven slowing down your running game and getting pressure on Kelly Bryant. I know he’s a pretty mobile quarterback, but they did a great job with a mobile (albeit freshman) this past weekend, not allowing him to wiggle out and escape.

What positional or personnel matchup worries you most in this trip to Death Valley?

I’d have to flip it around and say that our offensive line against your defensive line is likely the biggest worry for most Auburn fans. We didn’t show that great push that I’m sure will improve the further we get into the season, and it took some time to get the running game going. I think Pettway’s running will make it look like the line is opening better holes since he’ll break more tackles than Johnson or Martin, but I don’t expect us to do exceptionally well running the ball on Saturday night.

It’ll be Jarrett Stidham’s moment to shine when the Auburn offense is on the field. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a score somewhat similar to last year’s game, to be honest, although think it’ll be a bit higher scoring than that.

Would you care to make a prediction for the contest?

For my official prediction (and this is done on Tuesday so I don’t quite have the proper feel for it yet), I’ll say Auburn wins a classic Auburn heart-stopper 26-23. The defense gives up a couple big plays but holds up pretty well, while the offense chooses to kick field goals this year instead of going for it on 4th down. Daniel Carlson hits four, and one of those is the difference in the game.

A big thanks to Jack Condon for stopping by to share his perspective. Be sure to follow @CollegeAndMag for more from him. To see our Q&A on their site, click here.