The Clemson Tigers make the four-hour trip down I-85 Saturday to face their first real challenge of the season, the Auburn Tigers. ESPN College GameDay will be at the game, and the atmosphere should be nothing short of electric. Let's dissect the game.
Clemson offense vs. Auburn defense
Clemson has been successful on offense thus far against two inferior opponents, but will likely see more resistance from Auburn's defense. Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper have looked good so far in limited action, and the offensive line hasn't had much trouble opening running lanes for the "New Storm". Kyle Parker will need to be the quarterback he was in a win at Miami last year as he will face an even tougher crowd in this game. Clemson still hasn't answered their questions at receiver yet, and somebody (or somebodies) will need to step up in this game if Clemson is going to have a chance. Parker will need tight end Dwayne Allen and at least one other target to stretch the field and open up the running game. Auburn's defense is very experienced. The Tigers start eight seniors, including both defensive ends and both safeties. Their defense is led by middle linebacker Josh Bynes, one of the top linebackers in the country. For having so many veterans, Auburn's defense has looked suspect at times, but they are only allowing 80 yards per game on the ground. This means Harper and Ellington, as well as the offensive line, will have to work hard to pound out yardage and keep Gus Malzahn's offense off the field.
Key Matchup: Clemson wide receivers vs. Auburn secondary
Clemson hoped they would have this wide receiver thing figured out by now, but I'm not really sure if they do. Plenty of guys have shown flashes, but Billy Napier isn't going to be able to run eight different receivers out there like he has the past two games. This coaching staff will have to decide who the top four or five guys are and commit to playing them, and they will have to make plays to take pressure off the Clemson running game.
Auburn offense vs. Clemson defense
Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton is a beast at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. Even at that size, Newton is a true dual-threat quarterback that can cause some big problems for Clemson's defense. Junior Darvin Adams has been Newton's best target in the passing game so far, but Newton has only attempted 33 passes in the first two games combined. Newton's legs are the big concern for the Clemson defense, but Auburn's running backs could be problematic too. True freshman Michael Dyer is quickly becoming this team's top backfield option, but sophomore Ontario McCalebb and senior Mario Fannin are solid as well. Auburn Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn encourages his team to play at a break-neck pace with hardly any time lost between plays. This keeps the defense on their heels and allows minimal time for substitutions and adjustments. Clemson's defense was unimpressive in the opener against North Texas, despite only giving up 10 points. The first and second string looked better against PC, but that isn't much of a gauge for a team like Auburn. We'll have to see if Clemson can keep up with the pace of the Auburn's hurry-up offense.
Key Matchup: Newton vs. Clemson linebackers
Clemson's linebacking corps hasn't done much to ease the preseason concerns about their inexperience. Brandon Maye will play for the first time this year, and hopefully that will help. He, Corico Hawkins, Quandon Christian, and whoever else may play will have to contain Newton and not allow him to get to the second level of the defense. The defensive line is partially responsible for this also, but they aren't as much of a concern. Clemson has to turn Newton into a passer and rely on their experienced secondary to make him pay.
Clemson has been very good on special teams in their first two games. Punter Dawson Zimmerman was ACC specialist of the week against North Texas, and Marcus Gilchrist has looked explosive in the return game. Walk-on kicker Chandler Catanzaro has done what has been asked of him, and we will see how he performs in front of 80,000 people who are rooting against him. Auburn has solid kick returners in senior cornerback Demond Washington and junior receiver Quindarius Carr. Punter Ryan Shoemaker and kicker Wes Byrum (the one who gator chomped at Florida fans after making a game-winning field goal as a freshman) are both experienced seniors.
I expect this to be a close game. Auburn will be jacked up with the nation's focus on their team and stadium, so Clemson will have to weather the storm early. Clemson needs to run the ball successfully to keep Auburn's offense off the field, because Cameron Newton is going to be tough to stop when he gets out there. I think it will be a one-score game, and, since Auburn has the home field, I have to go with the blue and orange Tigers.
Auburn 24 Clemson 17