Sammy Watkins' Heisman hopes take a huge hit with his unavailability in week one
Only a handful of players in NCAA history have earned All-American honors in their freshmen seasons. College greats like Herschel Walker, Adrian Peterson, and current Clemson sophomore Sammy Watkins are a few that can claim to be a part of this club.
After a freshman campaign in which he gained 1,219 receiving yards and notched 12 touchdowns, Watkins enters the 2012 college football season as the ACC preseason player of the year favorite and a Heisman candidate as well.
The running back/wide receiver hybrid is a threat to take the ball the distance at any time, as he led NCAA rookies in receiving yards per game, all purpose yards, and touchdowns. An integral part of the special teams, Watkins is a dynamic returner and one of the most elite all-around playmaking talents college football has seen since Reggie Bush was at USC.
A drug suspension, however, will keep Watkins from playing in a huge Week 1 matchup for preseason No. 14 Clemson against the No. 25 Auburn Tigers. Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney plans to keep Watkins out of their Week 2 matchup as well, but if the Clemson offense struggles as it did against NC State last season without their most dynamic playmaker, Swinney may need to go against his disciplinary commandments and allow Watkins to play.
Though neither team will receive the aid of their overwhelming home stadium advantages, facing a Watkins-less offense is a huge boost for Auburn. This, along with a few other interesting matchups and storylines, make this Week 1 ACC and SEC clash at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA a pivotal game for both teams and a difficult job for odds makers in Las Vegas. Here are a few of those matchups the College GameDay crew will likely analyze when they gear up for this game between two national championship hopefuls.
Tajh Boyd was a Heisman hopeful last season when Clemson started out 8-0, but his Heisman status faded with Clemson's end of year difficulties
A fumble on the goal line to close out the first half in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia and the subsequent 70-33 loss was a fitting cap to Clemson's poor finish to the 2011-2012 season. After an 8-0 start in which quarterback Tajh Boyd earned his way onto the Heisman scene, Clemson dropped four of their next six games as inconsistent play from Boyd was one of the primary sources of blame for this end of year skid. Now in his second year as the starter, Boyd will look to quiet his critics and affirm his position as one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC.
Having to start the year without Watkins, his favorite target from a year ago, will be difficult. Boyd will turn to running back Andre Ellington, a 1,000 yard rusher last year, as well as receiver DeAndre Hopkins who missed the 1,000 yard receiving mark by only 22 yards. Even so, Hopkins will not be enough to keep a talented Auburn front seven from stacking the box, and forcing Boyd to go over the top to beat them. Depth was another concern with Clemson's late year struggles, and though they are strong at the skill positions, it is in the trenches where this team will face its biggest challenges.
Clemson's Offensive Line will need to exceed expectations for their offense to perform at its best
Without Sammy Watkins to worry about, a strong Auburn defense led by first team SEC defensive end Corey Lemonier will look to control the game. Lemonier recorded 9.5 sacks as a sophomore, and the junior will look to improve on his impressive sophomore campaign. Brandon Miller of Rantsports.com reported that the junior "recently had 'Pepa' shaved into the side of his head" to coincide with fellow defensive end Craig Sanders' shaving of "Salt" into his own hairline. This salt and pepa duo will look to wreak havoc on a Clemson offensive line looking to replace four starters from a year ago.
With depth along the offensive line being a primary concern in Death Valley, the Clemson coaching staff has converted several former defensive linemen to the other side of the ball. Travis Sawchik of the Post and Courier projects the O-line as follows: Brandon Thomas (left tackle), Kalon Davis (left guard), Gifford Timothy (right tackle) and Tyler Shatley (right guard) as the new starters with senior center Dalton Freeman returning to anchor the line. The five combine for 48 career starts, with the majority of those belonging to Freeman, and one of those starters, Shatley, played defense for the Tigers a year ago. If they are unable to control the terrorizing Auburn pass rush, this game could become less about Clemson's offensive stars and more about the offensive talent Auburn has of its own.
Emory Blake will be playing on Sundays sooner rather than later
The Auburn offense is chalk full of playmakers as well.
Quarterback Kiehl Frazier is in his first year at the helm for Auburn, but with a plethora of receiving talent led by NFL hopeful Emory Blake, Frazier should perform well while running the show. Onterio McCaleb remains from the Cam Newton days, as the Auburn coaching staff will look to use Frazier similarly to Newton in hopes of duplicating that season's success with a dual threat quarterback system. McCaleb is familiar with the option style running attack Auburn has used in the past, and with speed and size on the outside, Auburn should be able to take advantage of a Clemson defense that also has questions about depth.
Unless Tajh Boyd can carry the Clemson offense, they will have a hard time keeping up with Auburn's young and explosive offensive firepower. Auburn's other receivers, namely Sammie Coates and Deangelo Benton, will be matchup problems for plenty of defensive backs as the season progresses, and Auburn could have as strong an offense as any team in the SEC.
Auburn will begin a successful 2012 campaign with a statement in week one
Given the many questions facing Clemson as the season begins, and the struggles their offense will face without their best player Sammy Watkins, it is hard to believe they will be able to compete with Auburn in Week 1. Odds makers should favor Auburn heavily to the tune of a six or seven point favorite.
I see "Salt and Pepa" getting after Boyd, and rattling the elusive but occasionally erratic quarterback into several ill-advised throws. Emory Blake will continue his success from the year before, and Onterio McCaleb will establish himself as a more than capable lead back for Auburn.
Auburn will get a huge win to start off their season, and move up in the rankings with a 34-19 dismantling of the Clemson Tigers.