The critical stretch of the 2017 season begins Saturday night with yet another high profile battle featuring the Clemson Tigers facing a formidable SEC foe. These types of games have become more commonplace as Dabo Swinney has elevated the program to an elite status. Part of his plan is seeking a major non conference game every year in addition to the end of season rivalry with USCjr. Auburn has served as a frequent opponent as this is the fifth time since 2010 the two have met. Clemson lost the first game to the eventual national champion and Cam Newton led Auburn Tigers in OT but has since gone 3-0 in the series and won a national title of its own. 2011 was the coming out party for Tajh Boyd and especially Sammy Watkins as the Tigers rallied from an early deficit to an eventually convincing 38-24 victory. 2012’s game in the Georgia Dome was a tight affair, but Nuk Hopkins dominated the Auburn secondary and Andre Ellington put up a huge game in a 26-19 victory. Last year saw Clemson struggle to put away a feisty Auburn squad but eventually prevail 19-13. This game will be the first time both teams are ranked during that stretch. Let’s get to the matchups!
Clemson offense vs. Auburn defense: Alex Craft has provided a nice look into the workings of Kevin Steele’s Auburn defense. They are a talented group for sure and are coming off a dominant performance against Georgia Southern’s tricky spread option attack. Meanwhile, the Clemson Tigers rolled up over 600 yards in throttling Kent State. Both fronts are going to see a huge ramp up in ability on Saturday night. Clemson’s OL is likely the best of the Dabo Swinney era, but that moniker cannot be fully given until a test like this is passed. Of course, the last two Clemson OL groups have done what precious few have done since 2008, handle the vaunted Alabama Crimson Tide defense enough to put up over 500 yards and 30 points twice. Clemson also lined up and straight ran the ball in for touchdowns on Alabama in both contests, a feat about a rare as the Eclipse since Saban took over down there. The Clemson OL faces the Clemson DL all spring and fall camp, so it should be more than ready to face the challenge Auburn presents. The X factor is Justin Falcinelli and Kelly Bryant’s ability to set the proper protections so Auburn doesn’t get a free run at the quarterback. As long as the Tigers can hat things up and make it a mano a mano situation, things should be OK. Steele, of course, will attempt to find ways to confuse and disrupt the Clemson line. Both defensive coordinators in this game are going to try to make the quarterback beat them.
Auburn went with more press man coverage last year than Clemson usually sees from anyone. Steele was not going to give Clemson the outside screen game. I would expect a similar strategy this year, so it will be up to Bryant and the Clemson skill to execute the tough back shoulder fades and contested throws on the outside that coverage demands. Clemson had several chances to take control of the game last year that were derailed by poor execution or flat out drops. Those plays need to be made this time around as the margin of error without Deshaun Watson is smaller. If Deon Cain is going to make a real name for himself, this is the perfect game for it as Auburn will challenge him in a way many teams would fear to try. I expect Clemson to use a lot of trips to the opposite of Cain in hopes of generating a pure one on one for him.
Last year’s game saw a workman performance from Wayne Gallman who was able to churn out over 100 yards and just over 4 yards a carry. That wasn’t lighting it up but far exceeded the rushing output Auburn was able to muster. The ability to run the ball, at least at a decent clip, is going to be extremely important as it is unlikely Bryant can carry the team with his arm alone in a way that Watson did versus Pitt last year (and even then we lost that game). We will certainly see an array of runs for both Fuller, Feaster, or whomever is at running back, as well as Bryant, after using just the very basic stuff in week one. Hopefully a few of these runs will catch Auburn by surprise and help produce some explosive plays. Elliot and Scott have a lot more film of Steele’s current system and personnel than they had going into last year’s game and I expect a crisper performance from the offense than what we got last year on the Plains. If Clemson can generate a serious run game in this one, look out for the remaining opponents who nearly all lack Auburn’s overall defensive talent. The biggest problem last year for Clemson was the Carl Lawson vs. Jake Fruhmorgen matchup and both of those guys are not in the game this time.
Clemson defense vs. Auburn offense: Dbbm has a nice overview of the Auburn offensive attack you should check out. Clemson handled Auburn’s run game last year and that really was the difference. Auburn managed just 2.1 yards per rush and 87 yards in 2016’s game. Pettway returns from suspension and offers the biggest threat in my opinion, as his size and physicality is the type of thing that bothered Clemson last year (see James Connor, Bo Scarborough, and even the guy from Troy). Kam Martin provides more of a speed back option for Auburn. Big Tre Lamar will need to step up and control the middle behind the DL. While new Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham can run a little, he offers a similar run threat to Sean White. Controlling the running back will be first and foremost in this one. Regardless of Malzahn’s offensive coordinator, their system is their system. They come with tempo and look to pound you with their basic three runs and try to hit you over the top off the play action. There will be a lot of eye candy with motions and jet sweep action. Stuffing them on first down really slows up their offense. After a light day at the office last week, Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Austin Bryant will be looking at a heavy snap load on Saturday night. I don’t anticipate much substitution for those guys beyond 8-15 snaps.
Clemson came out with Trayvon Mullen and Ryan Carter as the starting corners last week. This is likely the pairing we will see the most of this season unless Carter has to slide to nickle or safety for extended time. Hopefully Van Smith will be able to play as his veteran presence is vital facing a team with the misdirection and vertical threats Auburn presents. Auburn was able to sneak one big play off fake reverse action last year that helped them get back in the game (a rare bust from Jadar Johnson). That kind of thing is much more likely against an inexperienced safety. Meanwhile Tanner Muse will be looking to continue his head hunting ways, but he must be smart to not let over-aggression get him burned. As usual, Coach Venables will be pulling out all the stops to stuff the run game and trust his secondary to hold up. The Death Valley crowd will be counted on to help disrupt the Auburn offense as well.
Special Teams: Clemson has shored up most of this part of the game with the mostly reliable kicking of Greg Huegel and vastly improved coverage units. Ray Ray McCloud looked a lot more comfortable fielding punts last week and Amari Rogers showed glimpses of being dangerous as well should he be called upon. Clemson could certainly use an explosive play out of the return game (big returns were crucial in the Louisville game and Alabama game last season). New punter Will Spiers hit it well in his one opportunity last week but folks have noted a rather slow get off time. Of course, he has Dexter Lawrence as his weak side personal protector so he probably feels pretty secure. Auburn features an elite placekicker in Daniel Carson (is he on his sixth year of playing now?). We certainly don’ t want the game coming down to a Carson field goal. He nailed a 53 yarder in last year’s game. He will likely eliminate our kick return opportunities as well.
Overall: As much as you find things to like with this Auburn team, the fact remains they haven’t really done much on this type of stage since their BCS title game run in 2013. The last two seasons, Auburn is 3-7 vs. ranked opponents. Those three wins were against Texas A@M (who finished 8-5 that year), LSU (who finished 8-4 that year), and Arkansas (who finished 7-6 that year). Meanwhile, Clemson has of course won all but 2 of its games in that span. There is something to be said for KNOWING you can do something vs. THINKING you can do something. Clemson has a roster full of guys who have played in this type of game and won it. Auburn will desperately need to get off to a good start. If the game starts like the 2015 Notre Dame game or the 2016 Louisville game, it is hard to imagine Auburn not being overwhelmed. Clemson is much more likely to play relaxed and confident in this game. Stitham is an upgrade at QB for Auburn, but better guys than him have come into the Valley and taken a loss. In the end, I think Cain will hurt Auburn’s defense enough to create a cushion and then the defense and run game will take it from there.
Clemson 31-Auburn 20