The Final Breakdown

The Rubber Match in the Georgia Dome, better known as the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic, will pit No. 25 Auburn against No. 14 Clemson.

WHAT: No. 14 Clemson vs. No. 25 Auburn
WHERE: The Georgia Dome (73,00) - Atlanta, Ga.
WHEN: Saturday, Sept. 1 (7:05 p.m.)
SPREAD: Clemson -3.5
TV: ESPN

En route to their national title run in 2010, Gene Chizik's Auburn squad knocked off Clemson 27-24 in an overtime thriller. Clemson returned the favor in 2011 and beat Auburn 38-24 in Death Valley.

Plenty has changed for both teams since meeting No. 2.

Dabo Swinney parted ways with Kevin Steele and brought on Brent Venables to run the Clemson defense in 2012.

Auburn lost offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to the head job at Arkansas State and brought in Scot Loeffler from Temple. Plus, defensive coordinator Ted Roof was moved out in favor of Brian VanGorder, the former defensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons.

Each team will be without a key player on the offensive side of the ball this weekend, too. All-American wide receiver Sammy Watkins was suspended by Swinney before camp began. Chizik announced that he would sit down All-American center Reese Dismukes after he was arrested last weekend.

Auburn owns the all-time series lead with a record of 34-12-2. Saturday's meeting will be the third-time the two Tigers have met in the Georgia Dome. Auburn won 21-17 in 1998 to claim the Peach Bowl and again in 2007, a 23-20 overtime victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Can Clemson clinch the three-game series and take beat Auburn for the first-time in the Dome?

Let's take one final look at Saturday night's showdown in the Georgia Dome:

AUBURN RUN GAME VS. CLEMSON FRONT SEVEN
Earlier this week, Loeffler called his offensive line "very talented, but very young."

Redshirt sophomore Tunde Fariyike will start at center in place of Dismukes. Fariyike played in all 13 games last season as a special teamer. His only snaps on the offensive side of the ball came against Ole Miss.


Onterio McCalebb was recruited by Clemson and will be a major factor in Auburn's rushing attack Saturday evening. (Getty Images)
To the immediate right of Fariyike, Auburn will start Chad Slade, who started at both right guard and right tackle last season. Five-star recruit Avery Young will get the nod at right tackle.

On the left of Fariyike will be senior John Sullen, who could also slide over to center. Redshirt freshman Greg Robinson is slated to start on the outside at left tackle.

Chizik opted to flank Fariyike with a pair of experienced veterans to help him handle the load. But here's the deal: Fariyike will have some big shoes to fill.

Dismukes started every game last season and was named a Freshman All-American by the Football Writers of America. He was also voted to the Coaches All-SEC Freshman team. As a senior at Spanish Fort High School, Dismukes was a four-star prospect and the No. 5 center in the class of 2011.

Like the Auburn offensive line, Clemson's defensive line is relatively young and inexperienced. Malliciah Goodman has more career snaps than the rest of the starters listed on the two-deep defensive line depth chart do combined.

The defensive tackle trio of Grady Jarrett, DeShawn Williams and Josh Watson has impressed Clemson coaches. Highly recruited freshmen D.J. Reader and Carlos Watkins will fill the next two spots in the rotation. It's a group, as a whole, that the staff believes has a bright future.

Like the defensive line, the threesome at strong-side linebacker/nickel back is a promising. Quandon Christian, Travis Blanks and Lateek Townsend are listed at the strong-side linebacker/nickel back. The Auburn personnel will likely to dictate how the hybrid position is packaged.

Stephone Anthony is a highly talented, but relatively unproven commodity at middle linebacker. He's not necessarily a downhill thumper, but is as talented a linebacker that will play in the Georgia Dome this weekend.

Over on the weak-side are seniors Jonathan Willard and Corico Wright. Both have played a ton of snaps. They're backed by another supremely talented sophomore in Tony Steward.

Auburn has plenty of skill to use on the run out of the backfield.

Kiehl Frazier, who was named the starting quarterback last week, rushed 76 times for 327 yards and three scores in 2011.

Last season's leading rusher, Michael Dyer, ran for 1,242 yards, but he's no longer on the team. Auburn's top returning rusher from 2011 is Onterio McCalebb, who carried for 641 yards and five scores.

Throw in Tre Mason and Mike Blakely, the Auburn backfield has plenty of upside behind McCalebb, who is an electric player. And keep an eye on wide receiver Quan Bray. We're not calling him a Watkins clone, but he has a lot of the same skills that Watkins brings to the table. Bray should have a few touches, via the handoff.

Plus, Auburn has a solid fullback in Illinois transfer Jay Prosch -- think Chad Diehl.

If there was a little more experience on the Clemson line, the nod would go towards the ACC's Tigers. But Frazier/McCalebb, plus the other threats carrying the ball, it's Auburn with the advantage.

ADVANTAGE:

AUBURN PASS ATTACK VS. CLEMSON SECONDARY/PASS RUSH
Just how good of a passer is Kiehl?

That's a big question for Auburn as the Tigers head into 2012. Coming out of high school as a five-star prospect, accuracy/consistency was listed as an area for improvement while arm strength was down as an area of strength.

Frazier may be able to throw the ball downfield, but if he's unable to consistently hit on the short to intermediate passes, that could present a problem for Auburn.


Kiehl Frazier will have to demonstrate his ability in the downfield passing game Saturday night against No. 14 Clemson. (Getty Images)
Philip Lutzenkirchen will be there as a nice safety blanket for Frazier to turn to in times of need. The All-American tight end is backed by a pair of talented sophomores in Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah. The Auburn running backs are all threats to catch the ball out of the backfield, too.

Despite Frazier's question marks as a thrower in the short to intermediate game, he'll have several good targets to pick from. A few early hookups could help out his confidence and lead to good things for Auburn.

His wide receivers, Bray and Emory Blake, are quality players, too. And both are vertical threats. Blake finished 24th in the country with 17.1 yards per reception last season and scored on a 36-yard touchdown on fourth down against Clemson.

Aside from a handful of games in 2011, the Clemson secondary wasn't necessarily as bad as the final rankings would indicate. The Tigers gave up at least 270 yards four times. Clemson went 3-1 in those games.

That includes the Orange Bowl against West Virginia when the Mountaineers threw for 407 yards and six touchdowns. A number of those yards and touchdowns were true downfield passes, but quick sweep-like tosses out of the back field that count as passes.

Regardless of last season's numbers, the Clemson secondary has undergone a considerable makeover with the change of coordinators. Steele and Venables offer different concepts when it comes to coverage. Steele is married to man-to-man with plenty of press while Venables tends to use more zone.

Given the amount of experience returning to the Tigers' secondary, there is plenty of room for optimism, if you're a Clemson fan.

Venables feels he has four safeties that he can win with in Rashard Hall, Jonathan Meeks, Xavier Brewer and Robert Smith. The first three will rotate to find the right combination. Plus, Brewer could play cornerback and dime back.

Cornerbacks Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland are talented. One can't help but assume they've made some pretty big improvements over the offseason, going up against Watkins, Peake, Bryant and Hopkins all summer.

Depth at cornerback is a concern for Venables, but in a one game setting, that probably won't be much of an issue. But it is something worth monitoring over the course of the season.

We like the starters in the Clemson secondary, so the nod goes their way.

ADVANTAGE:

CLEMSON RUN GAME VS. AUBURN FRONT SEVEN
Former Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier once referred to the 2011 departure of offensive linemen a "mass exodus." There are a ton of key bodies gone from last season's offensive line, which includes three starters and several reserves with starting experience.


Andre Ellington has been deemed as "healthy as he's ever been" by the Clemson coaching staff entering Saturday's game. (Roy Philpott)
You know the drill by now. Left behind are Dalton Freeman and Brandon Thomas and a whole bunch of inexperienced freshmen and sophomores. There's also former defensive tackle Tyler Shatley. He'll start at right guard.

Clemson will start a redshirt freshman at left guard and either a redshirt sophomore or a redshirt freshman at right tackle.

Swinney admitted that the amount of inexperienced personnel along the offensive line is a question. Some might call it a concern. Given what Auburn will counter with up front on defense, it absolutely is a concern.

Auburn will lineup Angelo Blackson earning and Jeff Whitaker as the starters at defensive tackle, but there are others behind them that are capable of pushing for playing time. Gabe Wright, a former Clemson target on the recruiting trail, and Kenneth Carter will also see significant playing time.

And there's plenty of experience at end after starters Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford -- Craig Sanders and Nosa Eguae have played a bunch, too. Earlier this week, Swinney said the Auburn defensive ends are as good as any they'll face all season. Pretty heady stuff, considering what Florida State and South Carolina will have later this season.

Chad Morris took his staff out west to Nevada to learn the foundation of the pistol offense run by the Wolfpack. The Tigers used the formation last season and could make it more of a staple this year, but maybe not with the same regularity as the folks in Reno do. The pistol should help mask some of the potential short comings on the offensive line.

Andre Ellington is an All-ACC caliber running back, but how much help he gets from the offensive line remains to be seen. Behind Ellington, is a trio of backups that hasn't shown much in the way of consistency.

Tajh Boyd, who trimmed down over the offenses, will be counted on to provide a running threat. He showed flashes as a dual threat in 2012, but that aspect of his game continues to be a work in progress.

The suspension of Watkins will also leave Clemson without its second-biggest threat as a ball carrier.

Ellington is enough of a game breaker to have a positive impact for Clemson. But the questions on the Clemson's offensive front, combined with the strength of Auburn's defensive front, are enough to push this in favor of Chizik's Tigers.

ADVANTAGE:

CLEMSON PASS ATTACK VS. AUBURN SECONDARY/PASS RUSH
The tale of Clemson's 2011 season was a Jekyll and Hyde-type story and much of it centered around quarterback play.

Boyd started the season hot. He threw for 2,379 yards with 24 touchdowns and three interceptions in the first eight games. Over the final six, he threw for 1,449 yards with nine touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Just which side of Boyd Clemson will get remains to be seen.


Tajh Boyd was a first-team All-ACC quarterback in his first year as a starter in 2011. (Roy Philpott)
One thing is for sure, he'll be without one of his favorite targets from last season -- Watkins, who'll be stuck back home in Clemson on suspension. But there are still plenty of targets for him to pick out.

The trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant and Charone Peake is pretty darn good, maybe as talented as any wide receiver threesome in the country. When you throw in Jaron Brown and Brandon Ford, Boyd still has plenty of options, sans Watkins.

The Auburn secondary struggled last season. Their pass efficiency defense rating of 137.43 was 86th in the country.

Chris Davis is listed as a starter at cornerback, but can slide inside and play the nickel. T'Sharvan Bell or Jonathon Mincy would fill in behind him at cornerback.

Jermaine Whitehead and Ryan Smith will hold down the safety spots while Ryan White will occupy the other cornerback. Whitehead played cornerback last season.

According to Morris, VanGorder does a good job of disguising his coverages. That could potentially present problems for Boyd, so could the Auburn pass rush.

Lemonier is one of the premier pass rushers in the country. Last season, he was tied for fourth in the SEC with 9.5 sacks. Linebacker Daren Bates, who led Auburn with 104 tackles last season, is the second-leading sack man with 2.5.

Although the Clemson offensive line is young at three positions, Auburn's pass rushers aren't too scary, outside of Lemonier. Combine that with the struggles the secondary has had in the past, Clemson gets the nod.

ADVANTAGE:

SPECIAL TEAMS
Auburn brings back both kicking specialists with the return of place kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark. Parke connected on 13 of 18 field goal attempts while Clark averaged 40.8 yards per punt.


Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro could be depended on heavily in Saturday night's game. (Roy Philpott)
Clark is on the Ray Guy Award watch list and Parkey is on the Lou Groza Award watch list.

Clemson graduated punter Dawson Zimmerman but place kicker Chandler Catanzaro is back. Catanzaro made 22 of 27 field goals in 2011. Spencer Benton is scheduled to handle punting duties against Auburn.

Like Parker, Catanzaro is also on the Groza Award watch list.

With the suspension of Watkins, Clemson is missing its top threat in the return game. Meanwhile, Auburn has all of its weapons. Mason, McCalebb and Bray are all legitimate threats on special teams. Both Mason and McCalebb returned a kickoff for touchdown in 2011.

New changes to the NCAA kickoff rules could potentially limit the impact kick returners will have on a game. Kickoffs were moved up five yards and touchbacks have been moved from the 20 to 25.

Because Auburn has better threats in the return game and both specialists back, those Tigers get the nod.

ADVANTAGE:

PREDICTION: Auburn 31 Clemson 30

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