A Daunting Trip to Clemson (Previewing the Auburn vs. Clemson Game)
Ray Ray McCloud can fly!
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for the first Auburn road-game preview of the year! On September 9th, Auburn travels to Clemson, South Carolina for a tilt with the defending national champion in the stadium known as Death Valley. TV time has yet to be set, but this has to be one of the biggest matchups in the nation on this particular Saturday and should get a prime spot on the TV dial.
Conventional wisdom says that Clemson lost a great quarterback and a lot of talent to graduation from last year’s championship team, and that it will be down this season as it rebuilds. Reality is likely to be a bit different. In recent years, Clemson has been able to weather losses to the NFL just fine. Clemson lost 5 players to the NFL draft after the 2014 season but won the ACC and made it to within 5 points of Alabama in the national championship game the next season. The 2015 team then lost 9 (nine!) players to the NFL draft. It didn’t hurt the 2016 team as it went coast-to-coast undefeated and knocked off Alabama for the national championship. Folks, write off the 2017 Clemson team at your peril.
After watching a good chunk of Clemson’s spring game, I was shaking my head. Folks, this is a different sort of team. While Auburn was carefully holding guys out, and blowing protected quarterbacks dead at the line of scrimmage, Clemson had all of its quarterbacks live. There were no quick whistles. Clemson did not practice ones against twos, hoping to pump the score up. Ones battled ones for a good bit of the day. Clemson’s presumed starting quarterback Kelly Bryant tore a finger tendon in his throwing hand on the first play. There was no “holding out.” Bryant had his finger taped and was back out there immediately. This was a team that practiced fearlessly. And there’s an old saying, you play like you practice…
While much of the Clemson hand-wringing centers on NFL-bound quarterback Deshaun Watson, folks overlook that Clemson will be pretty nasty on defense in 2017. Clemson has a deep front seven that can run and overpower folks. Last season, Auburn tried to surprise the Clemson defense with the single-wing offense. Auburn was also experimenting with moving offensive linemen around, and this was a disaster up front because the offense went nowhere till near the end of the game. The Clemson secondary looked pretty tight in the spring game, even the second unit. I did not see Clemson receivers running around wide open.
Much like Auburn, Clemson is trying to piece together a new starting offensive line. Three starters return, but depth may be a little more suspect than usual here. Both teams have similar issues at this spot. None of the 4 quarterback candidates to replace Deshaun Watson distinguished themselves in the spring game, although Kelly Bryant led all rushers. Only a few long throws connected, 3 balls were picked off and a couple more could have been. Most completions were of the short variety.
Clemson was decent on special teams last season and should be again. Coverage was pretty good on both units, and kickers were adequate. The only real issue was a few punt muffs. In those instances, a great defense was able to bail out the team. I think that there was some shaky fielding in the spring game this year, too.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Clemson offensive line: Auburn brings back a big, athletic defensive line. Likely starters at tackle are junior Dontavius Russell and sophomore Derrick Brown. Sophomore strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side will likely be manned by a combination of junior Jeffery Holland and senior transfer Paul James III. Auburn has a good bit of depth behind the starters as well. From left to right, Clemson projects to start junior Mitch Hyatt, junior Taylor Hearn, junior Justin Falcinelli, senior Tyrone Crowder, and sophomore Sean Pollard on the offensive line. The left couple of guys are returning starters as is right tackle Sean Pollard. The starting line looks pretty good for Clemson as long as everyone stays healthy. On the other hand, Auburn has a handful up front that will be matchup problems. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Clemson backs: The Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Junior Deshaun Davis, senior Tré Williams, junior Darrell Williams and junior Montravious Atkinson can play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Clemson returns 3 backs with experience. The most explosive returnee is sophomore Tavien Feaster, but expect juniors C. J. Fuller and Adam Choice to play. Fuller is probably the best all-around back and will likely be in the game on obvious passing situations. I felt like Auburn did a good job last season at containing Clemson backs and should again be successful. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Clemson receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in junior Carlton Davis and sophomore Javaris Davis. The Tigers are hoping that Jamel Dean will be healthy this fall as he is one of the fastest players on the team. Sophomore Jeremiah Dinson could move over from nickel back, if needed. Clemson will likely start juniors Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud, but there are several tall, big-time talented true freshmen coming in that could make some noise this fall. Backups Trevion Thompson and Cornell Powell both caught double-digit passes last season as well. Deon Cain is one of those long-striding sideline guys who can go up and get the deep ball, while McCloud is more of an elusive small guy. Clemson will line him up at flanker and throw screen after screen to him, and he gives cornerbacks fits, trying to chase him down. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Clemson secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety and sophomore Jeremiah Dinson at nickel back. There’s not much depth here beyond senior Nick Ruffin, who’ll probably see as much playing time as the starters. The Tigers are solid here as long as no one gets hurt. Junior Hunter Renfrow will start in the slot, and junior Milan Richard has the upper hand at tight end. Richard is a big 260-pound guy with good hands. Renfrow returns after catching 44 balls last season. Head Coach Dabo Swinney says that if the season opened tomorrow, junior quarterback Kelly Bryant would be the starter. After watching the spring game, I would have to agree. It’s hard to judge Bryant’s accuracy, playing with a taped up finger, but no one behind him did anything to take advantage. Bryant is more mobile than the two guys behind him, and while folks say that true freshman Hunter Johnson is already the best passer on the team, I can’t see a true freshman starting in week 2 against Auburn. Johnson was only 5 of 13 for 48 yards and a pick, in the spring game. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Sophomore Ian Shannon will likely get the nod as Auburn’s starting punter after a couple of years waiting in the wings. Shannon looked good on A-Day a year ago in warmups. The Tigers gave up only 19 punt-return yards last season on 6 punts for a stifling 3.2 yards per return. The Tigers are still auditioning for the punt returner job. It’s thought that senior Stephen Roberts has the inside track after returning 6 punts last season for 100 yards. Clemson must replace departing punter Andy Teasdall, but it appears that redshirt freshman Will Spiers will be pretty impressive, this fall with a big leg. Clemson gave up 5.2 yards per punt return last season. Ray Ray McCloud will likely return punts, this season again. When he wasn’t making mistakes, he picked up a pretty decent 8.4 yards per return on 21 returns. Slight advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Daniel Carlson was very good kicking off last season, notching 57 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs. When Auburn did allow returns, opponents averaged only 18.0 yards per return. Junior Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s most experienced return man returning, and he averaged 22.2 yards per return last season. Junior Greg Heugel last season kicked off 97 times with 37 touchbacks. Clemson gave up 19.7 yards per return. Tavien Feaster and Ray Ray McCloud are likely at the top as kick returners. Feaster averaged 20.1 yards per return last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn sophomore Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. Carlson was 28 of 32 on field goals and perfect on extra points. One of Carlson’s misses was a block by Vanderbilt. Greg Heugel will kick for Clemson. Heugel hit on 14 of 19 field goal attempts, and missed 2 extra points, last season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Clemson defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked pretty good on A-Day. It seems that the tackle spots are set with seniors Darius James and Braden Smith. Senior Austin Golson will likely start at center, although Auburn is bringing in senior transfer center Casey Dunn from Jax State. If Dunn starts, Golson could move to guard. Also transferring in this fall is former Florida State starting guard Wilson Bell. Bell is expected to start at one of the guard spots. If Dunn does not beat Golson out, the other likely starting guard would be sophomore Mike Horton. Auburn had better have the interior really tightened up by this game because Clemson might have the best pair of tackles in college football. Sophomore Dexter Lawrence and junior Christian Wilkins combine for about 650 pounds of big-time muscle, and both are athletic as well. Sophomore Clelin Ferrell and junior Austin Bryant will start at the end spots, and there is a lot of talented depth behind them. Advantage: Clemson.
Auburn backs vs. Clemson linebackers: Auburn features junior H-back Chandler Cox blowing open holes. Running behind the big H-back will be massive junior Kamryn Pettway with the shifty junior, Kerryon Johnson, in reserve. Much like Auburn, Clemson has a handful of linebackers that can play multiple positions, from stand-up rushers on the line to nickel-like coverage roles. Right now, we’ll pencil in junior Kendall Joseph, sophomore Tre Lamar and senior Dorian O’Daniel as starters. There is plenty of depth and talent behind those guys. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. Clemson corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were sophomore Nate Craig-Myers and sophomore Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, have good height, and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had a great A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside as well. Clemson will start veteran senior Ryan Carter on the field side. The boundary side is a bit of a battle between junior Mark Fields and sophomore Trayvon Mullen. Fields has more experience but fell behind due to injury this spring. Of these three, Carter is likely to move to nickel back in long yardage situations. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Clemson safeties: Auburn has potential threats here, starting with wickedly fast junior slot receiver Will Hastings. Sophomore Eli Stove can also fly. Tight ends Jalen Harris and Sal Cannella are also expected to be a big part of the passing game. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is likely the starter in the opener. In 6 games as a freshman at Baylor, Stidham was electric. That trend continued during A-Day this spring as Stidham was deadly accurate and showed great mobility. Clemson has a deep safety corps, led by junior Van Smith and sophomore Tanner Muse. Advantage: Even.
I think Clemson’s offense will take a few steps backward, but the defense will be tough enough to keep them in any game. Normally, I’d think that the Auburn strategy would be to play good defense and try to wear Clemson’s defense out by pounding with Pettway. Unfortunately, Clemson is not easily worn out on defense. Having a simple game plan will play right into Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ hands.
As usual, Clemson will crowd the box, try to stifle Auburn’s run game and get after the quarterback. Instead of pulling everyone in to run the wing-T like last season’s disaster, Auburn HAS to try and get the ball out to the perimeter and make some plays in space.
The way these two defenses play, I’d expect another low-scoring game. The team that turns it over less will most likely win.
Prediction: Judging from the Clemson spring game, the new quarterbacks like to chuck the ball up for grabs from time to time. I was much more impressed with Auburn’s ball security this spring. Clemson looks a bit stronger and is playing at home. A few key mistakes turn this game. Auburn escapes, 17–16.