Welcome to this year’s first edition of Special Guest Enemy, where I send an opponent’s blogger (or bloggers) questions about their team and they answer them, and they send me questions about Auburn which I answer at their place. This week we’re talking to Zach and Stephen, the Clemson writers for excellent the ACC blog ACCRivals.com. Zach’s got one preview up from the Clemson perspective already which you can check out. My questions for them are in bold, their answers in quotes:
1. With no C.J. Spiller or Jacoby Ford around, we know the Clemson offense starts with Kyle Parker (right?). How’s he looked against North Texas and Presbyterian? What’s he done well? Any weaknesses shown?
Zach: “I must address the first assumption in your question first. Because of Clemson fans’ recent experience over the last 3 seasons (our drubbing at the hands of your rival, Bama, is key to this) we have come to respect the power of the offensive line as the heart of our offense. Don’t get me wrong, Clemson fans were ready to lower expectations for 2010 if Parker left for the MLB, but now that he is back he is considered a shot in the arm for the offense instead of its backbone. In 2008, when Clemson was overrated as a preseason top-10 ranked team, we had supposedly all the skill position talent in the world. We had an All-ACC QB, two amazing running backs, a stable of talented and tested receivers; basically everything we could ask for at the skill positions. But what that game taught a lot of Clemson fans was that skill is worthless if nobody is blocking for it. So I think most of the confidence from Clemson people about the offense rests in the fact that we have a tested and solid offensive line.
Moving on to Kyle Parker, it is hard to say. Clemson fans are aware that the team simply has not been tested yet. Kyle Parker has looked mostly solid, though he threw a terrible interception in the endzone against North Texas. But he was very limited in the second game against Div 1-AA doormat Presyterian. I would say his biggest weaknesses are consistency with his accuracy (he can throw an amazing long bomb right on the money but then throw it behind a WR on a 6 yard slant) and he is still prone to making a bad decision about once a game. Obviously Auburn’s home field advantage may be a factor in the last one. Overall, I would say Kyle Parker is a good QB who has the potential of being a hero on any given night. He is a natural leader and has a great mind for sports, but he has yet to show himself as a consistent field general who can always be counted on to help his team. Maybe he becomes one this year, and Clemson fans are hoping that is exactly what happens this Saturday.”
2. As for the other end of the passing game, Clemson’s lost a lot in the receiving corps from 2009. Who are CU’s key playmakers there, how did they fare in Weeks 1 and 2, and do you think this is an area where Auburn might have an advantage?
Zach: “Wide receiver is a tricky position to analyze with Clemson. Jacoby Ford was essentially our only real WR that was used on a regular basis last year. But Clemson has a ton of talent that just simply hasn’t broken out yet. As much as I hate to mention ‘stars’, we are talking about a handful of ‘4-star’ athletes who all have the tools to play anywhere in the country. But nobody has emerged as a leader yet. The best receiver on the team is a former UGA commit Dwayne Allen, but he’s a tight end. So, Clemson is still looking for separation at the WR position and, even according to Clemson folks, nobody has separated from the pack. I would summarize our receiving corps as a group of similaraly successful, (thus far) fast and tall athletes who are on the verge of becoming solid college WR’s. Again, Clemson people are hoping they break out on the national scene this Thursday.”
3. Sure, no Spiller, but running backs Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper both made some huge plays against North Texas. What do they bring to the table, and do you think they’ll be able to keep it up against stronger competition?
Zach: “One thing many people do not realize yet, (but they will eventually) is that Clemson is better at the RB position this year than it was last year. Many people are shocked by this or just doubt that its true. While Clemson simply doesn’t have the home-run threat of CJ Spiller in the backfield anymore, Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper, as a group, are an offensive coordinator’s dream. Jamie Harper is a Mack truck and can run over tackles while Andre Ellington hits a hole harder and faster than CJ Spiller did most of the time. Andre, while a smaller guy, seems to fall forward nearly every time he goes down. He is a master at maximizing whatever the O-line gives him. And since our O-line stands to be better this year and it wasn’t bad last year, Clemson should have a better rushing attack than last year. CJ Spiller’s loss will be felt on special teams, which will impact starting field position and quick touchdowns, more than anything else. Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper are what Auburn fans may call, ‘every-down, SEC backs.’ Especially Andre Ellington. If the passing game is working at all and the line can open holes, Auburn fans will see exactly what I mean.”
4. Turning to the other side of the ball, North Texas wound up with 462 yards of offense and even overmatched Presbyterian scored 21 points (albeit all in the final 20 minutes of the game after falling behind 52-0). I’m assuming Clemson fans aren’t all that happy about that. What’s been the defense’s biggest problem? How do you think they’ll try to fix it against Auburn?
Stephen: “The biggest problems for the defense have been undisciplined play on the line and a lack of experience and depth in the linebacking corps. All too often in the North Texas game, a defensive lineman was over-pursuing or out of position and the ball-carrier scooted through the resulting hole and ran through an arm-tackle by a too-late LB. This kind of effort against Auburn would be a disaster. We did look sharper in this regard against Presbyterian, but then I’d look like a champion kick-boxer in a bout against Verne Troyer.
As for fixing these problems, it’s hard to get anyone to admit that there are any problems. According to Clemson DC Kevin Steele, the gaudy North Texas stats were due to many inexplicable, minor errors. More practically, Clemson will play a lot of nickel and other DB-heavy defenses to both combat spread looks and to cover our deficiencies at LB. Having active and experienced Alabama native Brandon Maye back this week should help our play here as well. Expect fun stuff that we’ve been hiding like zone blitzes, troublemaking DE Andre Branch at linebacker, and coaches begging and pleading for linemen to mind their gaps. If I’m the defensive staff, I’m taping the D-line’s eyelids open and showing them Cam Newton scrambling highlights, ‘A Clockwork Orange’-style.”
5. On the other hand, what has Clemson’s defense done well through two weeks? How do you see that aspect of the defense matching up against Auburn?
Stephen: “Clemson’s secondary is a talented collection of athletic ball hawks and if Clemson’s front seven (or six, or five) can force the ballgame their way, it’s probably the best thing we could hope for. That, of course, is one very big “if”. A more likely scenario is that our talented D-line is aggressive but disciplined, holds their own against a tough Auburn front, makes you guys earn every yard and creates a handful of big plays. But with all our lingering questions and with our D having its poker face on thus far, Clemson fans will be getting our first glimpses of how we match up along with everyone else, as it happens in the game.”
6. Special teams was a huge part of Clemson’s success last season. With Spiller gone, do you expect that to change at all? Give us a quick breakdown of the Tigers’ strengths and weaknesses from a special teams standpoint.
Zach: “The loss on special teams is massive for Clemson. Clemson still features talented returners, especially Marcus Gilchrist, who are capable of going the distance, but CJ Spiller is one of the best returners in recent college football history. Clemson may never replace the kind of field position and special teams asset that CJ Spiller represented. With that said, the special teams have not been tested too much thus far. It is very hard to say. Clemson fans are not disappointed at this point, but are still very curious and anxious to see how the special teams play against solid competition like Auburn.”
7. What’s at stake for Clemson Saturday? It’s not a conference game, but it is a nationally televised matchup against a ranked team with a lot of shared history. And we know the ACC could really use a big nonconference victory. So how big a game is this for Clemson, really?
Zach: “Clemson fans, for the most part, don’t give a crap about the ACC. [HA HA HA HA HA!–ed.] Many more Clemson fans have outright dislike for the conference. The number one thing Clemson Nation wants is regional (the south) and national respect for itself. Because Clemson is basically an SEC school stuck in the ACC there is a bit of an inferiority complex. Beating South Carolina nearly every year helps a little (Clemson has won 10 of the last 13), but for the most part Clemson has something to prove to the better teams of the SEC. Clemson has a football tradition (The Hill, The Rock, All Orange, etc) that is second to none, but because of conference alignment and nearly two decades of mediocrity on the field, respect for Clemson has evaporated. Clemson fans feel like they have been sitting on the verge of a breakout for ten years now. (Sad, I know.) Every time a big game is coming up that Clemson fans feel like could be their chance to break out, Clemson either wins the game and screws up later in the season or just loses the game. Both scenarios leave Clemson fans almost perpetually frustrated.
But this is an odd time in Clemson history right now. Clemson has a coach who fans feel may possess Danny Ford-type guts. There is a feeling that Clemson actually has a leader now, after all these years since the 80’s. Clemson folks feel like they have the facilities and the talent to do more damage than has been done in the past. And believe me, there is as much passion behind Clemson football as you are going to find at your average SEC school. All this frustration and hope is being held up behind a dam, and the players and the coaches know it. So many Clemson fans are coming into this game with a hopeful pessimism. No matter what message boards are saying, most Clemson fans probably foresee a relatively close loss to Auburn. But Clemson fans are very, very hungry for a win that gains them respect. This game is in the spotlight and is being interpreted as a great opportunity. I would imagine that this game means more to Clemson folks than most Auburn folks realize.”
8. Looking over Auburn’s early results and roster, what stands out to you as something Clemson could exploit? What stands out as something Auburn could exploit about Clemson?
Stephen: “I think the one aspect of this game where Clemson holds an unmistakable advantage is mascots. Our Tiger looks robust and muscular with keen eyes that pierce its victims’ empty bravado. Aubie looks like he’s been through a couple of decades of cheap whiskey, crazy women and failed rehab stints. Game, set, match on that one. [Hooooooo boy, are we going to have to agree to disagree on that one.–ed.]
More seriously, and sadly from The Clemson perspective, I don’t see any glaring advantages that Clemson has in this game (possible exception: this is not Kyle Parker’s first rodeo). So I don’t think a potential Clemson victory is going to be a case of us finding a particular matchup to exploit but rather fighting hard in the trenches and getting our playmakers to make plays. Ellington and Harper are stars in the making and I think our best offensive and defensive strategy is to give them the ball as much as possible. Clemson’s RB duo might not be ripping off the 60 yard bursts they had in the North Texas game, but if that translates to 4 or 5 yard runs, then that’ll be just fine. If Clemson can maintain a strong rushing game along with some effective use of TE Dwayne Allen, they have a great chance to win this game.
On the other side, it’s no big secret that Clemson must be a better rush defense team than it has been for a while to slow down Auburn’s stable of game-breakers. With Auburn’s frenetic misdirection game, I can easily imagine the middle of Clemson’s D turning into Keystone Kops.”
9. Give us the one key factor that you feel is going to do more than any other in deciding Saturday’s game, and lastly, why not give us a prediction.
Stephen: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: To win “The Cam Newton Heisman Showcase Brought to You by Home Depot and ESPN”, the Clemson rushing defense will have to be better than it has been since the beginning of last season. If Auburn can dominate even one aspect of the rushing game, it will open up everything else as Clemson overcompensates to plug the leaks. And scenarios like that are why I’m going to pick Auburn to win this game. I’d love to make a great homer pick here and I do think Clemson can win, but the tally goes in favor of an Auburn team with too many weapons, too many advantages against a Clemson team with too many unknowns. Auburn 33-24.”
Many, many thanks to Zach and Stephen for their responses–even the Aubie one–and do visit ACCRivals for anything Clemson or ACC-related.