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What—These Guys Again?? The Wishbone previews Clemson

So we meet again, my orange-and-purple drug fiend…

An outside observer might well be excused for assuming Clemson is now an SEC school.  This will, after all, mark the fourth time in six seasons that they have faced Auburn on the football field.  (By way of contrast, under the current scheduling format, Auburn will only face actual SEC member Missouri in Jordan-Hare Stadium one time in the next twelve years!)

Last season Clemson accomplished something they hadn’t previously done since the height of the Korean War and the dawn of the Eisenhower administration.  No, not “come up with an original tradition.”  More amazing than that: They actually defeated Auburn at football.  No, seriously—and yes, it was astonishing to us, too.

With the recent home-and-home series thus tied at one win each, the tiebreaker game with those other Tigers is appropriately enough scheduled for the Georgia Dome (scene of the 2007 game as well), with a 50-50 ticket split.   And this time Clemson is actually the defending ACC Champion—their first conference title since 1991, the year Florida State first joined the league.  (The Seminoles were not eligible for the conference title that year.)

In an effort to get the Clemson faithful fired up for the game (one must assume this was the motive, at least, rather than “provide Auburn fans with something else to make fun of about Clemson”), the Carolina clan of Tigers dispatched an erudite and creative correspondent to the sacred grounds of Jordan-Hare (perhaps he was not aware the game will be played in Atlanta) to file this little gem:

It’s good to know it’s not just the mascots at Clemson that enjoy their recreational pharmaceuticals.

In any case, on to the analysis:  Clemson.

2011 Record: The other Tigers managed a 10-3 finish to the regular season, winning the ACC before getting absolutely, positively shellacked by West Virginia, 70-33, in the Orange Bowl, in one of the most amazing beatdowns of a good team in modern football history.  (Clemson fans will be having nightmares about that game for a long time.  For them, “Tavon Austin” will be what “Fred Talley” was for years to Auburn fans.)   The Tigers’ only other losses were on the road at Georgia Tech, at NC State and at South Carolina.

Starters returning:  Offense 7, Defense 7. (This includes receiver Sammy Watkins and the injured offensive tackle.)

The Clemson offense carried the team to its ACC championship last year behind new coordinator Chad Morris, quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Andre Ellington, star freshman receiver Sammy Watkins and tight end Dwayne Allen.   Now Allen is in the NFL and Watkins is suspended for the first two games of the season.

Clemson’s offense was so good it hid a defense that was almost as bad as Auburn’s last year.  In the second half of the season the floodgates opened and opponents averaged 37 points per game.  So, like Auburn, Clemson went out and found a new defensive coordinator.  They hired a man whose name sounds like he should be managing Derby County in the English Premiership:  Brent Venables.  Venables had been the defensive coordinator or co-coordinator at Oklahoma for years but was pushed out when Bob Stoops’ brother Mike lost his job at Arizona after the season and went running home to Norman.  Venables had been at Oklahoma since 1999 and has been a head coaching candidate before.  While some Oklahoma fans were fine with his departure, many Oklahoma players and former players were upset when he left.  Venables coaches a 4-3 defense but will be more aggressive than Clemson’s former DC, Kevin Steele.  (If you ever hear a newly-hired defensive coordinator say, “our old DC was way too aggressive and I am going to back off a little bit,” let us know.)

In last year’s matchup, Auburn led 21-7 and looked dominant before Clemson turned the tables, rolling off ten straight third down conversions to take the lead for good.  The difference in the game was simple: Clemson converted on third down and Auburn did not.  Clemson threw the ball well and Auburn did not.  To win in Atlanta, Auburn needs to execute better on third down, on both sides of the ball.

Questions:  Without Watkins (199 yards total offense, 2 TDs) and Dwayne Allen (80 yards receiving and a touchdown), who will make plays for Clemson in the passing game?  Running back Andre Ellington is very good; how will he do behind the rebuilt line?

With Clemson replacing four starters on the offensive line (and the tight end), can Auburn’s experience and depth on the defensive line take control of the game?

In the noise of the Georgia Dome with new starters on that offensive line, we think Auburn’s defensive line can take over the game as it goes along.  Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier should be able to use the noise in the dome and the inexperience of the Clemson offensive line to disrupt things, especially if Auburn can repeatedly force them into third and long situations.

How much success will Auburn have passing the ball and converting on third downs?  We expect Clemson to sell out to stop the run and force Auburn to beat them passing.  Can Auburn do it?  Can Kiehl Frazier come through in his (likely) first start?  We think yes.

The suspension of Reese Dismukes will hurt Auburn’s offensive line in this game.  His replacement is smaller and has no experience playing in this kind of game.  Will Clemson try and take advantage of the new starters on the offensive line with stunts and blitzing?  Yes – and how Auburn’s newly revamped line handles those will be a key to the game on Saturday night.

(A personal note: Van will in all likelihood be in attendance for most of the game.  He will be in downtown Atlanta already for the four-day mayhem that the massive pop-culture convention called DragonCon, and has thus nicknamed this clash in the Dome the “DragonBowl.”  If you see him there and buy him a beer, he will graciously allow you to buy him a second beer.)

Questions from around the SEC:

Tennessee vs. NC State in Atlanta:  This is the Friday night game before the Saturday night Auburn – Clemson game.  Since it is also sponsored by Chick-Fil-A, does this make this game the Nugget Bowl?   This should be an entertaining and evenly matched game.  Watch for the UT receivers matched up against David Amerson of NC State, who led the nation in interceptions last season.  Tyler Bray has been busy preparing for this game by throwing beer cans off his apartment balcony.

Alabama vs. Michigan in Dallas:  What can Denard Robinson do against the rebuilding Alabama defense? Will his running keep the Tide off-balance or will it just expose him to a great deal of punishment?  Michigan finished 11-2 last year and was 17th in the nation in total defense.  This is not the same old Big 10/11/12 team.  And with former Auburn OC Al Borges calling the plays, it should be fun to watch.

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns are waiting for you here.

Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.

Keep Reading:

* A complete set of 1988 Phil Neel’s Auburn pinback buttons
* Cam Newton on the cover of GQ
* Pat Dye would have killed Jerry Sandusky
* Toomer’s Corner Before and After shot
* Auburn-educated astronaut wanted ‘War Eagle’ to be first words on the moon
* Show Some Pigskin: An Illustrated Guide to Auburn’s Playboy All-Americans

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About Van Allen Plexico and John Ringer

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