What’s at stake: On the one hand, this isn’t a make-or-break game for either team: it’s only Week 3, it’s a nonconference game, neither side is anywhere near weak enough that a loss by the other would be season-ruining.
But for Auburn, this is a huge, huge game regardless, in part because of the performances of the first two weeks. All offseason, Auburn fans (and to listen to their comments, Auburn’s coaches and players as well) have been convinced that this team could make the leap from middle-of-the-road 7-5 SEC team to West contender and 9- or 10-game winner. The State win was big, but it’s still hard to argue Auburn has looked like that kind of team yet. If they still aren’t showing signs of becoming that kind of team after three weeks (at home, with a little bit of extra prep time), it’ll be time to ask if they have that potential after all. Beyond that, this is the biggest recruiting weekend of the season, and the first home game of the season with any actual, you know, drama. You ask me, this is the week where everything should come together; if it doesn’t, there’s going to be some tough questions to ask.
As for Clemson, it seems pretty simple: no one’s taking them seriously without Spiller, even in the ACC, and no one’s going to unless they start beating teams like Auburn.
When Auburn has the ball: I can’t wait to see what Mike Dyer can do.
Because Clemson hasn’t been much to look at in rush defense so far. They rank 85th in rush defense after two games, 64th in yards-per-carry allowed. And that’s after facing North Texas–not just a Sun Belt team, but a Sun Belt team not exactly known for its rushing capabilities–and a terrible FCS team in Presbyterian. It’s odd, because on paper (and listening to Tracy Rocker) the defensive line should be fine, or better than fine: tackles Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson are both huge and experienced, and one-time No. 1 recruit DaQuan Bowers should be ready for a huge season.
But the numbers don’t lie: 193 yards given up to the Mean Green and 3.9 yards a carry to both UNT and Presbyterian is separated-syllables-for-emphasis lou-sy. The problem is probably the linebacking: Clemson started a pair of sophomores against UNT, and though getting Brandon Maye back this week will help, this is still a frightfully young and not-exactly-impressive-looking group. If Auburn can keep the line from going nuts–and if UNT’s could, you have to think Auburn’s can–there’s going to be some opportunities for some big gains on the ground … and after two weeks of fiddling about with who the workhorse tailback is, there’s not going to be any fiddling against Clemson. Dyer’s going to get the ball, and he should have room to do something with it.
Things aren’t quite as rosy throwing the ball, but it’s not doom-and-gloom here, either. UNT completed 22-of-34 for 269 yards, or 7.9 yards an attempt; for a Sun Belt team on the road at an ACC school, that’s not bad at all. Safety Deandre McDaniel is an All-ACC pick and future pro, but both corners graduated and rather than promote their backups, they moved the other safety (Marcus Gilchrist) out to corner … a sign that their faith in those other corners wasn’t overflowing.
Still, there’s three starting seniors on the unit, and Clemson will expect some big plays when Auburn drops back: McDaniel’s a known ballhawk, and against UNT they collected two picks and five sacks (though those sacks should tell you that the run defense was even worse than the stats would indicate). Newton’s going to have to be careful with the ball, and the tackles are going to have to be ready to deal with Bowers and Andre Branch.
But if Auburn doesn’t turn the ball over, doesn’t allow the pass rush to go nuts, gets at least a few downfield throws completed to keep McDaniel from offering support against the run … Auburn’s going to put up an awful lot of points, I think.
When Clemson has the ball: Auburn has to avoid giving up the big play.
Usually, I’m not the biggest fan of Roof’s keep-them-in-front-of-you-at-all-times scheming, not when we have a defense that tires easily and an offense that’s looking to tire out the opposition. As I’ve explained a couple of times on this site, the presence of Malzahn means that as a rule, Auburn ought to be taking the exact opposite approach defensively; they should go high-pressure, man-to-man, looking for big plays, turnovers, sacks, etc. If they give up a huge play, a long touchdown, who cares? They rest, the offense comes back on the field.
But it didn’t work that way last year, when Auburn was liable to give up huge gainers (especially on the ground) even when playing with a cushion, and it wasn’t the best idea a week ago when the offense wasn’t going full-throttle and State didn’t have the pass-protection or execution to sustain drives … and it’s not going to be the best idea this week, either. Clemson scored touchdowns of 60 and 70 yards and averaged a ridiculous 9.2 yards per-play against North Texas, their first four touchdown drives covering 2, 1, 3, and 4 plays despite none of them starting closer to the end zone than the UNT 48. Andre Ellington is McCalebb-type fast. Kyle Parker throws as good a deep ball as anyone. If Auburn offers this team the opportunity for big plays, they’re going to take it.
But if Auburn forces Clemson to grind their way to points, they may have a better chance of stopping them than you’d think. Clemson currently ranks 114th in third-down conversions, having gone just 2-of-9 against UNT and 2-of-10 against Presbyterian. The short passing game could be an issue for the Other Tigers; the ACC Rivals guys mentioned that Parker isn’t always consistent with his accuracy, and with virtually everyone who caught more than a handful of passes last year gone, no one has become a go-to target yet in the receiving corps. (Check out this well-done preview post at Shakin’ the Southland for more teeth-gnashing over the wideouts.) Between Ellington, Jamie Harper, and the boatload of experience on the Clemson line, CU’s going to get some yards on the ground, much as MSU did with the option. But Auburn’s also shown (ever since last year’s Georgia game, in fact) that they can keep even very good ground attacks relatively in check; Parker and the wideouts are going to have make some plays, and if Auburn takes away their ability to do so down the field, do they have the polish necessary to make the little plays that keep a drive alive?
They haven’t yet, and I suspect Ted roof’s plan will to be to find out if they can. Yes, we’re going to see more little swings and screens and quick outs, and they’re going to be frustrating, but as long as Auburn doesn’t give up the bomb–and continues to get the kind of pressure we’ve seen the first two games–they should be all right.
When special teams are on the field: Auburn’s special teams had a miserable week last week, but at least it was the kind of week that shouldn’t be repeated. Carr hopefully has that muff out of his system; the onsides debacle won’t be repeated; and I imagine a lot of practice time this week has been spent shoring up the inside of the field goal unit. The coverage units were the ones we needed to see take steps forward, and to date, they have.
As for Clemson, they’re starting a redshirt freshman at kicker … albeit one who’s hit all of his extra points and his only field goal attempt so far, from 48 yards. They ranked 103rd in net punting in 2009 … but they’re all the way up to 5th so far this season. C.J. Spiller is gone as a return threat … but Ellington and Gilchrist have potential. In short, there’s some reasons to think Auburn might get a bit of an upper hand here, but nothing so definitive we’ll be able to say either way for sure.
Intangible reason for worry
I gotta say, I don’t really like the “vibe” around this game for Auburn. We’ve talked a lot about uniforms, Gameday, recruits, Dyer’s ascension … all under the assumption, it seems, that our Tigers are going to come away with a win in this game even when our record against quality nonconference opposition has been shaky (to say the least) ever since Dye left. That’s an awfully dangerous assumption to make.
Intangible reason for confidence
Clemson hasn’t beaten Auburn in 13 tries and hasn’t won in Auburn since 1950. (They haven’t played in Auburn at all since 1971, but still.) That’s some serious historical precedent to buck.
1. Zero Auburn turnovers in Auburn’s territory. As mentioned above: Auburn has to make Clemson drive the field. Muffed punts and such at our own 20 won’t help that cause.
2. 20-plus carries for Dyer. It’s time to give the offense a focal point, a flag to rally around that’s not “Newton does something crazy.” Getting Dyer that many carries both does that and would be a hell of an indicator for an offense that we’d like to see snap the ball 75-85 times.
3. Two stops on the red zone. Auburn has allowed six opponent possessions into the red zone … and has given up five touchdowns and a field goal. The field goal I can live with, but an 83 percent touchdown rate’s not good enough. Auburn has to get tougher down there.
Success is / failure is: A win including 425 yards of offense or more or 350 yards of offense allowed or less / A loss or a win that does not meet the above conditions
Your bottom line
Is Auburn who we think they are or not?
It’s been a while, really, since they’ve been who we think they are this season. As in, the day of the Capital One Bowl, New Year’s Day, 2006. We felt good about our team that morning. I would argue we haven’t felt that good again since. The 2006 team had to scrape to its victories and got bludgeoned in its losses. The 2007 team started off with those losses to Mississippi State and South Florida. 2008 was 2008. We had one week last year where we got that feeling, that we knew our team was good and they played like it, when our boys went up to Knoxville and throttled them for three quarters.
Here we are again. We think (or at least we did) that this is a team that can at least threaten to get to Atlanta, that can at least flirt with a top-10 finish. We think we have that kind of talent. And so we think, coming home, with some kinks worked out, that this is the week where they play like it. This is the week where they beat a quality opponent and beat them comprehensively. Everything–Gameday, the defensive line, Dyer, national TV, a night game, the recruits, maybe even the first uniform tweak in decades–seems to be coming together for this Saturday.
But we’ve thought that a few times the last few years, and we’ve been disappointed. Two weeks after the Tennessee game last year, we were losing to Kentucky at home with 7 offensive points scored. The 2006 team followed up the battlefield victory against LSU with the pratfall against Arkansas. That Capital One Bowl? Wisconsin flattened us.
So I’m guarded. I think Auburn has the better team here; I like our chances of running the ball against their front seven much better than theirs against ours, I like our ability to extend drives with tough runs and short passes better than theirs, I like our ability to avoid a killer mistake better with the game at our place. It’s time to make those advantages pay off.
In the end, I think Auburn will. But that guarded feeling makes me think they’re not going to pay off the way we want. Not yet. It’ll happen, that much I still believe. But I don’t think it’s going to happen until we don’t see it coming.
And so, in one final attempt to look spectacularly wrong …
Auburn 31, Clemson 27.