2012 Fearless Predictions
Week 1 - Clemson vs. Auburn
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Clemson (0-0) vs. Auburn (0-0)
Sept. 1, 7:00, ESPN
Here's The Deal: Twice the Tigers. Double the drama.
Clemson and Auburn have met 47 times throughout history, with the latter dominating the series. However, Clemson flipped the script last September, becoming streak-busters in the process. With a rousing 38-24 win in Death Valley, it snapped Auburn's 14-game winning streak in the head-to-head battle, and handed the defending national champs their first loss in the last 17 games. The annual Chick-fil-A Kickoff at the Georgia Dome promises to be one of the marquee match ups of the opening weekend, a game that could serve as a harbinger of things to come for both schools.
When last seen on a grand stage, Clemson was getting humiliated, 70-33, by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. The fallout was swift, as former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was replaced with Brent Venables, who'd built his reputation as a key member of Bob Stoops' staff at Oklahoma. Venables directive is clear—transform the program's considerable talent so that the offense doesn't have to carry the team all alone. The Tigers are ranked No. 14 in both major preseason polls, and are expected to go toe-to-toe with Florida State in the ACC Atlantic Division. This is a particularly crucial contest for head coach Dabo Swinney, who can ill-afford another defeat in a game that's going to attract a national audience.
Auburn's Gene Chizik will be taking a reshuffled staff into Atlanta as well. In fact, these Tigers will feature a pair of new coordinators, Scot Loeffler on offense and Brian VanGorder on D. Both assistants are eager to put their imprint on a program that wants to prove that 2010 was no fleeting occurrence on the Plains. The team hit a predictable snag in the year after Cam Newton left for the NFL, going 8-5 and slipping in the SEC West pecking order. Chizik has recruited exceedingly well since arriving three years ago, but just how ready is this youthful squad to contend in the deepest division in America? Auburn fans are hoping that history is on their side; the last three times that the Tigers lost five regular season games, they rebounded the following year with a perfect mark.
Why Clemson Might Win: Yeah, the Tigers are going to miss suspended WR Sammy Watkins, who torched the Auburn secondary a year ago, but they still harbor plenty of weapons on offense.
The best news of all is that QB Tajh Boyd is back to build on a scintillating debut running Chad Morris' up-tempo attack. He has a better grasp on the system, which means fewer mistakes and poor decisions. Balance will come from RB Andre Ellington, a speedy playmaker who'll be quicker operating on a fast Georgia Dome surface. On the outside, DeAndre Hopkins may not be Watkins, but he's a big-play guy nonetheless. And following a terrific offseason, he's ready to perform like a go-to guy in the passing game. Clemson is going to throw a lot of speed at an Auburn defense that's transitioning to a new staff, and is vulnerable in the back seven.
While Clemson boasts Boyd at the most important position on the field, Auburn has handed the reins to second-year sophomore Kiehl Frazier. While the former five-star recruit is a fantastic all-around athlete, with obvious upside, he still has plenty to prove as a passer. If Venables' kids are able to stack the box with LB Stephone Anthony and S Rashard Hall, Frazier will be forced to play outside of his comfort zone.
Why Auburn Might Win: The Tigers believe they can disrupt Clemson's offensive rhythm with one of the fiercest D-lines in the SEC.
For VanGorder and the defense, it'll all begin up front, where Auburn welcomes back all of last year's regulars. On the outside, Dee Ford and particularly Corey Lemonier will cause fits for a Clemson blocking unit still adapting to the insertion of three new starters. Pass protection is already a concern for Swinney, but it's liable to become a four-alarm crisis on Saturday night. On the inside, tackles Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright are quick enough to shoot the gaps, and make the Tigers pay for giving extra attention to Lemonier.
Venables was lured out of Norman in the winter for good reason—Clemson is vulnerable defensively. The Tigers gave up too many big plays in 2011, and remain soft on the interior. Yeah, Frazier is a wild card who won't be asked to shoulder the load. However, he'll be fine if he can manage the game by handing the ball to RB Onterio McCalebb, and connecting with WR Emory Blake and TE Philip Lutzenkirchen. Blake has returned to full strength and Lutzenkirchen is one of the best in the game at his position.
What To Watch Out For: With Watkins scratched, who steps up and takes some of the pressure off Hopkins in the receiving game?
While Hopkins is going to make his plays, he'll also have a tough time routinely shaking Auburn's top pass defender, senior CB T'Sharvan Bell. As those two battle throughout the night, it'll be up to Boyd's other targets to take advantage of a pass defense that remains somewhat vulnerable over the top. All-star TE Dwayne Allen is now with the Indianapolis Colts, so Clemson loses a reliable target on the intermediate routes. Martavis Bryant, Jaron Brown and Charone Peake possess the physical traits for success, but need to smooth out some of the wrinkles in their game in order to keep the aerial attack humming.
What Will Happen: In a pivotal game involving a couple of similar programs, the team with the better quarterback usually survives. At least that'll be the case in the latest ACC-SEC hook-up in the Georgia Dome.
Clemson and Auburn might as well be looking in a mirror. New assistants under a microscope. Defenses with an identity crisis. Promising O-lines that lack experience. Next level-type running backs. Quality special teams units. Loads of really good athletes on both sides of the ball. What will tip the scales in favor of the Tigers from South Carolina is that Boyd is noticeably more advanced than Frazier is at this embryonic stage of his career.
The offenses will be a step ahead of the defenses in Atlanta, which will favor Clemson. Watkins leaves a void, but Ellington and Hopkins will provide the Tigers with the juice they need to stretch out the Auburn defense. Frazier is walking into a very difficult situation, facing an opponent that will hasten the tempo, and force the young hurler to try and keep pace all night. He won't quite have enough answers versus a Clemson D that will play fast and inspired in Venables' debut as its leader.
CFN Prediction: Clemson 34 … Auburn 28
ATS Consultants Line (Click for more lines and picks) Clemson -3.5; O/U: 56
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