Preview: Auburn at Clemson


Looking back on the dream season of 2010 and the current 17-game winning streak, it’s pretty accurate to say that the ride really took off last year in Week 3 against Clemson. The offense looked good against Arkansas State, and the defense stood up in a close win at Mississippi State, but entering the Clemson game, no one really knew how good Auburn could be. Cam Newton didn’t dominate the game like he would against teams later in the year, but he showed that he was a real weapon on the ground. The Tigers fell to a 17-3 halftime deficit but dug themselves out of the hole like they would so many times in the future. Clemson put itself in position to win, but Auburn made just enough plays on both sides of the ball to pull out a victory that, earlier in the game, had seemed so unlikely. Those plotlines would be the major themes to Auburn’s title-winning season. Frantic rallies, timely big plays and Cam Newton domination was what Auburn fans were accustomed to by the end of the year. The Clemson game set the tone for the season.

Unfortunately for Clemson, the 2010 Auburn game set the tone for the Palmetto Tigers’ season, too. Like Auburn, Clemson was 2-0, but Cousin Clem was even more of an unknown than the orange and blue Tigers. Clemson’s first two games were against North Texas and Presbyterian, both of which were won with relative ease. While Clemson looked great in the first half against Auburn, the second half was a different story. Auburn came back for a thrilling overtime win, and, in the process, beat up on quarterback Kyle Parker. Parker never really seemed to recover from his abuse in the Auburn game, and that loss was the first of three in a row for Clemson en route to a disappointing 6-7 season. Aside from a blowout against rival South Carolina, each loss could have been a Clemson win — just like the Auburn game.

So, it’s a new year, and we’re in a similar position as this point of last season. Auburn is 2-0 with a win over a cupcake and Mississippi State. Only this time, it took a frantic rally and onside kick to beat that cupcake and the Mississippi State game was more of a shootout than a defensive slug fest. Clemson, too, is 2-0 with wins over Troy and Wofford, neither of which came easy. Clemson trailed in the second half against both the Trojans and the Terriers, which can’t sit well with fans in Death Valley. Of course, with a new, up-tempo offense, head coach Dabo Swinney could have been looking ahead to the Auburn game, not wanting to give away any secrets. Swinney is an Alabama alum and, especially after the heartbreak on the Plains in 2010, would love nothing more than to end the defending national champions’ winning streak. Auburn is averaging 41.5 points per game, so we know the Tigers offense is going to be good. The big question is on defense. Right now, Auburn can’t stop anyone. The defense faces a tough test in Clemson’s new spread offense. If it can stand up to the challenge, Auburn should be in good shape for the rest of the season. If not, it will just be more proof that Auburn isn’t going to be able to hold any offense down this season.

Like Auburn, Clemson is a young and inexperienced on defense. The Tigers lost six starters from the 2010 team, including stud linemen Da’Quan Bowers and Jarvis Jenkins. Unlike Auburn, Clemson returns a solid core of nine starters on offense. Running back Andre Ellington is back and has rushed for 261 yards in two games this season. But the player that really has Clemson fans excited is quarterback Tajh Boyd. Boyd is a shifty with a good arm and checks in at six-foot-one, 230 pounds and has thrown for 525 yards, six touchdowns and one interception so far in 2011. New offensive coordinator Chad Morris has held Boyd back from running the ball against inferior competition, so it’s uncertain how dangerous he can be on the ground.

Both Auburn and Clemson should be good this year. Auburn fans hope their Tigers are good enough to follow up a national title with another strong season. Clemson fans are hoping their Tigers are good enough to finally break through to win a conference title and play in a BCS game. After Saturday’s game, both sides will know how far they have to go to achieve their goals.


Auburn’s ability to move the ball will all come down to whether or not the offensive line can handle its first test in a hostile environment. Clemson is allowing 411 yards, including 218 rushing, per game this season. As long as the O-line holds up, Mike Dyer, Onterio McCalebb and maybe even Tre Mason will have ample running room, and the offense should be a be able sustain long enough drives to keep the Auburn defense off the field. Like Auburn, Clemson hasn’t been forcing many turnovers, grabbing just two interceptions. With the way Barrett Trotter has been making smart throws (aside from one against Mississippi State) and the backs and receivers have been protecting the ball, turnovers shouldn’t be a big worry against Clemson.

The offensive line’s biggest challenge, aside from dealing with crowd noise, will be keeping Clemson defensive tackle Brandon Thompson out of the backfield. Thompson’s numbers so far this year aren’t all that impressive — 11 tackles, one tackle for loss, one quarterback hurry — but the 6-2, 310 pound senior has the size and talent to cause big problems for Auburn’s offensive line. Swinney has excitedly talked up Thompson this year, and Auburn coaches made it known earlier this week that stopping him from busting plays would be a big challenge. Last season, Thompson compiled 56 tackles, one sack, six and a half tackles for loss and 15 quarterback hurries. If Auburn’s re-shuffled offensive line can neutralize Thompson, the Tigers will be able to move the ball with ease.

The biggest question mark for Auburn’s offense could be on third and short. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is the best in the business, but sometimes he can be too creative for his own good. Malzahn tried to get tricky in third and short against Mississippi State, calling for the Dyer Cat multiple times and a throw-back screen late in the game. All that trickeration blew up in Auburn’s face and kept the Tigers from making easy conversions to keep drives going. Against Clemson, Malzahn needs to simplify the offense on third and short. With the Dyer Cat, every defender knows who is going to carry the ball. Trotter should be taking the snap and either give Dyer the feed inside, toss to McCalebb for the speed sweep or throw a short pass. Those plays will keep Clemson’s defense off balance and make short-yardage third downs much easier to convert.


The idea of Boyd leading an up-tempo spread offense against Auburn’s soft defense is pretty scary. Thinking of Ellington running the ball in that offense is downright terrifying. Ellington is averaging 127 yards per game and 6.4 yards per carry this season and should give Auburn fits all afternoon. It seems like, year after year, Clemson has a running back that can tear off an 80-yard touchdown run at any moment, and Ellington is that back this season. He rushed for 686 yards and a team-leading 10 touchdowns last season, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. Last year, Ellington had 17 runs of 10 yards or more and six runs of 20 yards or more. This year, he already has seven runs of 10 yards or more and two runs of 20 yards or more. Basically, looking at how Auburn’s run defense has performed in the first two games of the season, Ellington has an opportunity to put up 200-plus yards and multiple scores. The Tigers won’t be able to control Ellington, they just have to hope to be able to contain his damage.

Boyd, a true sophomore, is making his first start against big-time competition. Normally, one would think that would play to Auburn’s advantage, but everyone remembers what Utah State true freshman quarterback Chuckie Keeton did to the Tigers on opening day. Boyd has completed 64 percent of his passes and done a good job spreading the ball around. His favorite target has been 6-1, 200 pound true freshman Sammy Watkins, who has 137 receiving yards and two touchdowns. We should see plenty of quick passes and option reads from Boyd, both of which have confounded the Auburn defense this year.

Like so many games this season, the key for Auburn’s defense against Clemson will be to stop the run. The linebackers and defensive backs are going to have to do a good job of containing rushes to the edge, and the line must force enough pressure inside to throw Clemson’s timing off and get to Boyd on passing plays. And when Auburn forces Clemson into third-down situations, the good Tigers MUST get stops and get off the field. Auburn has been God awful at stopping third- and fourth-down opportunities this year, allowing opponents to convert at a 61-percent clip. If the Tigers can’t stop Clemson in those situations and get off the field, the Auburn offense won’t be on the field long enough to make a difference.


The kickoff return game is where Auburn has a big advantage and can possibly turn the game in its favor. Across the board, Auburn is in better position to succeed in any special teams situation. Mason is an absolute terror returning kicks, and Clemson kickoff specialist Spencer Benton has only been able to force three touchbacks in two games. In a high-scoring game that should have plenty of kickoffs, Mason will give Auburn favorable field position after almost every Clemson score. The orange and purple Tigers, on the other hand, haven’t been able to do much with their return opportunities. Clemson has 10 returns for an average of 19.6 yards. Cody Parkey should force plenty of touchbacks, but even when he doesn’t, the Auburn coverage unit, which is holding opponents to 18 yards per return, should be able to keep Clemson around its own 20.

Parkey proved against Mississippi State that he can hit a clutch field goal. If the game is close and Auburn needs a late field goal to preserve victory, Parkey will come through. Clemson kicker Chandler Catanzaro hasn’t been too bad, either, hitting on three of four attempts this year. Catanzaro is the same kicker that missed from 32 yards in overtime at Jordan-Hare last season, so he’ll likely have something to prove. If he’s thinking about that kick too much, it could mess with his head enough to bring on another miss in a pressure-packed situation.


For Auburn, it’s pretty simple. The good Tigers are looking to extend their nation’s-best winning streak to 18 games and silence the doubters that are again predicting a loss. It’s Auburn’s first road game of the year, and with a tough conference road schedule coming up in October and November, Chizik needs to use this opportunity to teach his inexperienced players how to handle a hostile environment. If Auburn wins on Saturday, it should be 4-0 going into Week 5 at South Carolina with a chance to equal the school-record winning streak of 20 games. If Auburn can pull out a somewhat unexpected win at a tough place like Clemson, the Tigers’ confidence is just going to keep building, making the team all that more dangerous in important conference tilts later in the year.

Clemson is looking to finally get over the hump and put together a memorable season. It seems like every year brings hype of how good the Tigers are going to be and how an ACC title is in the cards. For one reason or another, Clemson hasn’t been able to live up to that hype, averaging a 7-5 regular season over the past five years. The Auburn game is the first of a three-game stretch that will determine whether or not Clemson is ready to make that leap to the next level. A win over the defending champs could kickstart a run against Florida State and Virginia Tech and put the Tigers back on the national map. A loss could send the team spiraling to a three-game losing streak and all but end any hopes of competing for a conference title in 2011. This matchup is also an opportunity for the ACC to make a statement. The conference hasn’t been given much respect lately, and a win over the defending national champions, even if they are rebuilding, would go a long way toward regaining that lost respect.


With not much in the way of defense for either side, Auburn-Clemson is going to be another shootout. Trotter, for the most part, will play game manager, dishing out bubble screens and underneath passes and letting Dyer and McCalebb pick up big chunks of yards on the ground. After the Auburn running game and short passing game has lulled Clemson to sleep, Gus Malzahn will call up a few tricky plays and deep passes that will go for big touchdowns. When faced with third-and-short situations, Malzahn will abandon the Dyer Cat and go with the always successful McCalebb sweep to keep the ball moving and keep the Auburn D off the field. Clemson will be able to move the ball but not as easily as it would like. While Ellington will get his yards, especially later in the game, Ted Roof will draw up a gameplan to focus on the run and force Boyd to beat Auburn through the air. Boyd will be able to make some plays passing and running, but an improving Auburn secondary will keep Boyd from hitting any home runs. Auburn will win the turnover and field position battles and put together some easy scoring drives thanks to playing with a short field. Clemson will face the longer field all afternoon and the Auburn D will make enough plays to keep the bad Tigers from running wild and give the good Tigers an impressive road win. Auburn 45, Clemson 34.