There is no question that when looking at Dabo Swinney's club you first jump to the offensive side of the ball where second-year coordinator Chad Morris has put together a juggernaut tweaking Gus Malzahn's Hurry Up/No Huddle to fit the talent on the Clemson roster. Averaging 440 yards and 33 points per game, Clemson was held under 400 yards just four times last season with 399 in one of those games.
As always the quarterback is the key to the offensive attack and Clemson features a good one in junior Tahj Boyd. A 6-1, 225-pounder, Boyd has dropped some weight since last season and enters the 2012 year in much better shape physically.
That could be bad news for opponents considering Boyd had one of the best seasons in college football last year. Starting all 14 games last season in leading Clemson to the ACC Championship, Boyd completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns with 12 interceptions. One of his biggest games came in the win over Auburn last season when he completed 30-42 passes for 386 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Much of the reason for that was the emergence of super freshman receiver Sammie Watkins. Catching 10 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn, Watkins finished the year with 82 grabs for 1,219 yards and 12 touchdowns. The good news for Auburn is that he won't be on the field after being suspended for the season opener. The bad news is that Clemson has plenty of other weapons at Boyd's disposal.
At 6-2, 205 with good speed and exceptional quickness, junior DeAndre Hopkins would be the first option on just about every other team in the country. As a sophomore he caught 72 passes for 978 yards and five touchdowns for the Clemson offense and showed plenty of big play ability for the Tigers. Veteran Jaron Brown (6-2, 205, Sr.) is also back after catching 31 passes for 406 yards and four touchdowns in 2011. Taking Watkins' place is talented sophomore Charone Peake, a 6-3, 200 wide receiver that was a four-star prospect coming out of high school.
It's not just the passing game that is dangerous for Clemson however as running back Andre Ellington is one of the best kept secrets in college football. Carrying the ball 223 times for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, Ellington had five 100-yard games including 212 yards in a win over Maryland. For his career Ellington has 2,355 career rushing yards and has scored 25 rushing touchdowns, both first among active ACC players. Backing him up is onetime Auburn commitment D.J. Howard from Lincoln. The sophomore had 41 carries for 230 yards and a touchdown last season with 86 of those yards coming in the win over Auburn.
Anchoring the offensive line is senior center Dalton Freeman. The 6-5, 285 graduate is on the watch list for the Rimington Award as the nation's top center, the Outland Trophy for the nation's top lineman, and the Lombardi Award also given to the top lineman. In his career he has played in 40 games with 36 career starts for Clemson. He's on pace to become Clemson's first four-year starter at center since 1943-1946.
Around him Clemson's offensive line is a bit shaky with natural guard Brandon Thomas (6-3, 305, Jr.) at left tackle and likely starter Giff Timothy (6-6, 310, So.) at right tackle recovering from a knee injury. At the guard positions David Beasley (6-4, 315, So.) is the starter on the left side while former defensive lineman Tyler Shatley (6-3, 295, Jr.) gets the start in his first season on the offensive line.
Defensively Clemson will be looking for rapid improvement after allowing 29.3 points and 394.4 yards per game in 2011. To put those numbers into perspective Auburn's defense, which allowed more than 34 points seven times last season, gave up 28.9 points per game for the season and 408 yards per game. It will be the job of former Oklahoma co-coordinator Venables to turn things around for a group that gave up 70 points in its final game, a loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Up front the leader of the group is senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman. The 6-4, 270-pounder started all 14 games for Clemson in 2011, recording 59 total tackles with four tackles for a loss and two sacks. He's the only returning starter up front on defense however as a group of talented sophomores will look to fill the big shoes of Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson for Clemson. At the other end position Corey Crawford (6-5, 270) and Vic Beasley (6-3, 225) are expected to share the duties for the Tigers with Grady Jarrett (6-1, 290), Josh Watson (6-4, 285) and DeShawn Williams (6-1, 285) the top three interior players.
At linebacker the player to watch is sophomore middle backer Stephone Anthony. Making 32 tackles with three starts as a freshman last season, the 6-3, 235 Anthony is a physical player that had six tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks in 2011. On the outside Jonathan Willard (6-2, 225, Sr.) or Corico Wright (5-11, 230, Sr.) will man the weak side. Last season the two combined for 155 tackles and 22 starts for Clemson's defense. On the strong side junior Quandon Christian (6-2, 225) will get the start with freshman Travis Blanks (6-1, 190) entering the game in nickel situations for the Tigers.
In the secondary senior Rashard Hall (6-2, 210) is expected to start at one of the safety spots for Clemson and is perhaps the top playmaker for the Tigers' defense. Also working at safety will be seniors Jonathan Meeks (6-1, 210, Sr.) and Xavier Brewer (5-11, 190). At cornerback the Clemson defense is thin with junior Darius Robinson (5-10, 175) and Bashaud Breeland (6-0, 195, So.) the two experienced players for the Tigers.
On special teams kicker Chandler Catanzaro (6-2, 195, Jr.) is one of the most consistent performers in the country after connecting on 22-27 field goals with a long of 47 yards. Also back is senior punter Spencer Benton (6-1, 195, Sr.). He averaged 41.8 yards per punt in 2011 with 20 downed inside the 20-yard line.
In the end this game will come down to a pair of keys for the Auburn Tigers in order to start the season off with a win over a Top 25 opponent in Clemson. The first order of business is running the football. Auburn must establish the running game to set up the play-action passing game and take the pressure off Kiehl Frazier throwing the football. Do that and coach Scot Loeffler's offense could take off quickly in the Georgia Dome. Without that running threat it could be tough sledding for Auburn on offense.
Defensively Auburn must get off the field on third down. Last season Clemson converted on 14-18 third-down opportunities in the win over Auburn in Death Valley, something that proved to be a sign for both teams. Auburn struggled in that department for much of the year, allowing opponents to put up big numbers in key games. For Clemson when they succeed on third down in their fast-paced offense it means big trouble for the defense. When they don't it's a much different story.
In Clemson's 10 wins last season they converted on 78-160 third-down opportunities, almost 50 percent of the time. In the four losses Morris' offense hit on just 16-57 third-down chances. That's the key for Auburn. Quick non-productive possessions spell big trouble for Clemson's offense, something Auburn will need to accomplish Saturday night.