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Friday Preview: Clemson

Tigers vs. Tigers, Part II

The Good Guys: So far in 2011, the Auburn Tigers have simply been carry-overs from 2010.

Auburn’s only existence has been as the “defending national champions,” and as momentary holders of the soon-to-be-ended nation’s longest winning streak. So far, the entirety of 2011 has been hidden in the shadows of 2010.

That could all change on Saturday if Auburn can win in Death Valley against Clemson, in which case the 2011 Auburn Tigers can begin to make a name for themselves. Suddenly, the rhetoric surrounding Auburn will be less about “17 in a row,” and more about the possibility of 4-0, after FAU and going into South Carolina.

So far, Auburn hasn’t done much to be confident in themselves, besides late-game heroics and an intangible will to win. With a win on the road in a tough environment tomorrow, Auburn will be able to prove to the world, and to themselves, that they are here in 2011 and they are here to compete.

A loss, meanwhile, could send the Tigers back to the drawing board before October’s tough slate.

A win on the road would be impressive. But if they lose on the road at Clemson, how does Auburn expect to have a chance at winning in Columbia, Fayetteville, Baton Rouge, and Athens later this year?

The Bad Guys: Last year’s overtime game between Auburn and Clemson sent both teams hurdling into different directions.

While Auburn rocketed to the national championship and beyond, Clemson ended 2010 with the Meineke Car Care Bowl and a 6-7 record — its first losing season in 12 years.

To say that Clemson has had Auburn “circled on their calendar” has already become a tired cliche, and it’s only the third week of the season. But to say that Clemson hasn’t been looking forward to this game in the early stages of this season would be a severe understatement.

Last year, the city of Auburn was electric the week that the purple Tigers came to town; the Clemson game seemed more hyped and anticipated than the South Carolina game the very next week (which was much more significant from a conference standpoint). You can expect the same, and perhaps more, from the folks at Clemson this Saturday.

For Clemson, this is the type of out-of-conference game that can propel them to great things within their conference this year — just as the overtime victory did for Auburn in 2010.

On the flip side, Clemson definitely doesn’t want to lose and have their sails deflated just a week before two of their biggest games of the year; Florida State and Virginia Tech.

When Clemson has the ball: They’re going to look a lot like Auburn, as I’m sure you’ve heard.

Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris picked the brain of Gus Malzahn in the high school ranks years ago.

When Malzahn left Tulsa for Auburn in 2009, he suggested they hire Morris to replace him. They didn’t, and the Golden Hurricanes went 5-7. In 2010 they heeded the advice, and Morris helped Tulsa to a 10-3 record, before being hired away by Clemson this offseason. Malzahn is the guy that recommended Morris to Dabo Swinney.

Morris’s offense is very similar to Malzahn’s; The misdirection, the bubble screens, the reverses, the hurry-up no-huddle — all of it. They’re similar, but they’re not exactly the same. Morris has put in his own wrinkles, as has the rest of the Clemson assistants, and despite everything, Malzahn and Morris have never been on the same coaching staff at the same time together.

But Chad Morris’s offense is a very effective one, and on Saturday it will be run by some very talented players.

At quarterback, Clemson starts redshirt sophomore Tajh Boyd. After starting the season slow during the first half against Troy two weeks ago, Boyd has played lights out in the past 6 quarters, and has amassed 525 yards and 6 touchdowns so far this season.

Boyd is an athletic player and has escapability, but he isn’t going to be a bruising runner this Saturday like Chris Relf was last week against Auburn. Boyd was eased in to playing time last season, taking 139 snaps behind Kyle Parker his redshirt freshman year. However, this is (obviously) his first season in Chad Morris’s system, and Saturday’s game against Auburn will be his first real test of the year.

Boyd has a lot of weapons around him. It begins with his runningback, junior Andre Ellington. Ellington is Clemson’s feature back, and they like to get him the ball at least 20 times a game. He’ll provide a tough matchup for the Auburn front seven, that was absolutely gashed by Vick Ballard and the Mississippi State rushing attack a week ago.

A big surprise for Clemson has been freshman, five-star recruit wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who is already making an impact with two touchdowns in two games. Another playmaker at the receiver position is sophomore DeAndre Hopkins — an outstanding athlete that also suits up for Clemson basketball.

This Clemson offense isn’t the best matchup for the Auburn defense, but Auburn does have a chance at making some stops. Clemson sports a great rushing attack, but if Auburn can find a way to key in and slow down Ellington, then it will be up to Boyd to beat them himself.

If Auburn can pressure Boyd and get in his face before he can to get the ball out to his playmakers at receiver, you have to expect Auburn has a chance to log one of its better defensive performances of the young season.

Auburn’s goal on Saturday: Make as many stops as possible, and find ways to get its defense off the field. Against a no-huddle attack and against a Clemson team that finished 5-for-16 on third downs against Troy in the season opener, the Auburn defense will have its chances to earn some rest.

When Auburn has the ball: It’s all about that Clemson front seven when Barrett Trotter and the offense are on the field.

That front seven will be led by redhsirt senior defensive end Andre Branch. Branch is Clemson’s returning sack leader — finishing second on the team in sacks last season to a guy named Da’Quan Bowers.

Branch will be lining up opposite Auburn left tackle A.J. Greene, who was thrust into a starting spot on the left side after the line shake-up and Brandon Mosley’s move to right tackle following the Utah State game. It will be interesting to see what Auburn does to help Greene out in his second start of the year, and after missing most of last season with an injury (suffered in the game against Clemson), against an end as talented as Branch.

Branch leads a Clemson starting defensive line featuring three seniors, and junior defensive tackle Brandon Thompson.

Behind those front four, Clemson plays their linebackers pretty aggressively. Trotter will have to utilize some quick passes, and perhaps some draw runs to McCalebb, in order to find ways to exploit that. Clemson’s linebacking corps is held together by junior middle linebacker Corico Hawkins.

Clemson also presents a seasoned set of defensive backs, but Auburn had no problem dicing a very veteran Mississippi State secondary last week through the air. Clemson’s corners and safeties are going to have to play an excellent game and prove that they can make some plays if they’re going to shut down Barrett Trotter and Auburn’s receivers. Leading the charge is in the Clemson secondary is junior safety Jonathan Meeks, a returning starter who flies to the ball and leads the team in tackles this season.

Unlike most weeks, the nuances Gus Malzahn’s of offense isn’t going to surprise anyone on the opposite side of the ball, as the Clemson defense has worked against a similar scheme all offseason. Auburn’s offense is going to have to show some versatility, some new stuff, and dig deep into its bag of tricks if it’s going to have consistent success against Clemson on Saturday.

Auburn’s greatest asset on offense is its passing attack, but if that isn’t there for them, they’re going to have to find ways to run the ball against this stout front seven. And if Clemson wants to play their strengths defensively, and rely on that front seven to shut down the Auburn run, Trotter and company are going to have to consistently find a way to make plays through the air.

Clemson has its talent on defense, but Auburn will attack it in different ways until they find success. And at the end of the day, while Clemson quite possibly present the best raw talent that Auburn has lined up against thus far, I think the Auburn offense will find it.

Special Teams: Clemson is hoping its special teams doesn’t lose them the game this time around.

It’s not just on redshirt sophomore kicker Chandler Catanzaro, who missed the second kick in overtime last year, but on long snapper Matt Skinner and the rest of the special teams unit that was flagged for an illegal snap — intentionally in order to draw an offsides or not — when Catanzaro knocked the first one through.

Catanzaro is 3-for-4 on the year, while Auburn’s Cody Parkey is 2-for-2.

Meanwhile, Parkey will try to render Mike Bellamy and Sammy Watkins irrelevant on kickoff returns, and see if he can’t blast some kicks through the end zone away from Jordan-Hare. On punts, Clemson sends both DeAndre Hopkins and Watkins back to return.

Clemson’s senior punter Dawson Zimmerman is averaging 42.1 yards-per-punt, while Auburn’s Steven Clark is averaging 44.3.

Reason for Worry: Every streak inevitably comes to an end, including Auburn’s current 17-game overall winning streak and its 14-game winning streak against Clemson, dating back to 1954. Clemson has come close to ending their drought against Auburn, taking the orange and blue Tigers to overtime these past two games, and Saturday is as good a day for that streak, and the 17-straight-games streak, to come to an end.

Reason for Confidence: The coaching chess match on Saturday, featuring two near-mirror image offenses, will be interesting, but Auburn has to have the advantage… if there’s one to be had. Auburn has known all about the misdirections, the reverses, and the no-huddle for three years now, while this is Clemson’s first season in Chad Morris’s system. Say what you will about Ted Roof — and there’s a lot being said after his defense’s performance these first two games — but he makes excellent adjustments during games once he figures out what he’s going up against. Hopefully, on Saturday, he’ll already have it figured out.

Three Wishes

1. Make plays defensively. Auburn has forced just one turnover through two games, that being Demetruce McNeal’s pick-six early in the Mississippi State game. If Auburn’s defense is going to get off the field tomorrow, which will be a major key to the team’s success, they’re going to have to find a way to make quick stops. Clemson has a formidable rushing attack that matches up well against Auburn’s front seven, so the defense is going to have to force some turnovers and make some Clemson drives just as short as others are long.

2. Run the ball. Barrett Trotter and the receivers have proven themselves, both to us and to the Clemson defense on tape. If Clemson drops back and tries to stop Auburn’s most potent weapon, Auburn’s going to need to have other options. The running game needs to become a more viable and more consistent weapon this game.

3. Win the battle on third downs. On both sides of the ball, the offense is going to need to convert on third downs, and the defense is going to need to make some stops. This essentially boils down that key to the game that I’ve already harped on several times; Keeping Auburn’s defense off the field, and keeping Auburn’s offense on the field. Defensively, if Auburn can start making some stands on third downs, combined with Clemson’s no-huddle approach (which, as we all know, can backfire and end drives very quickly), they’ll give the offense plenty of chances to put some points up on the board.

The Prediction

Clemson isn’t the easiest matchup for Auburn to go up against, but there could be much more difficult ones as well. Clemson certainly has a lot of talent on their sideline, but they’re also lacking in some spots to make them a complete and perfect team.

Clemson won’t go down without a fight, however, as many have during some of Auburn’s comeback wins in the past two seasons. This year, the purple and orange Tigers trailed Troy 16-13 at halftime in the season opener before winning 43-19, and they went into the locker room tied with Wofford 21-21 last week before finishing the game with a 35-27 victory — indicating that Clemson knows how to finish strong.

It will be a tough game, on the road, that will last for all 60 minutes, and is a game that, if you don’t recall, was one of the most physical and hardest-hitting games Auburn played last season.

But Auburn has had opportunities to learn these first two games, and is one of the most battle-tested teams in the country so far in this young season.

If Auburn has used those opportunities, and has learned as much from these first two games as they should have, along with all of spring and fall camp, then they should be fully prepared to win this game.

The Prediction

Auburn 31, Clemson 20

Photo via.

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