Auburn: Did Clemson Loss Really Expose the Defense?

Shashin PatelContributor ISeptember 5, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31:  Head coach Gene Chizik of the Auburn Tigers against the Virginia Cavaliers during the 2011 Chick Fil-A Bowl at Georgia Dome on December 31, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

So the first week of college football is in the books.  Half the teams lost.  Players and fans have experienced the exhilaration of victory or heartbreaks of a defeat.  Auburn is among the latter, but first games are not often an indication of where things are headed.  This holds especially true if a team has a new scheme on offense and defense to complement a new signal-caller.

All that Auburn fans heard during pre-season was how deep, talented and physical this Auburn defensive line was. And for the most part they proved that in the opening game through racking up four sacks and continuous pressure on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd.  So how did they end up giving 320 yards on the ground against an inexperienced OL?  Well, it was not as much about being physically man-handled as it was about improper communication in face of a high-tempo, no-huddle offense and very poor tackling by the back seven.  Boyd was pressured and continually flushed out of the pocket. In a nickel defense (which is what Auburn used for much of the game), the safeties and corners are responsible for tackling the ball-carrier for minimal gains, but that did not happen.  Minimal gains eventually turned into points on the board for Clemson.

You have to give credit to Clemson RB Andre Ellington. He was fast, physical, and slippery and will no doubt be playing on Sundays in the future.  But again, the missed tackles led to him having a game of a lifetime.  This has been a problem that has carried over from last year.  That has to change if Auburn does not want a five-win season again.  

While tackling was the reason for the loss, some of the "glass half-empty" fans also questioned the effectiveness of Brian VanGorder's scheme.  First, this Clemson offense is not what VanGorder is used to seeing since it is constantly evolving.  This year, Boyd was much more mobile.  New formations such as the pistol were added.  Its sort of a mix-and-match offense.  

I am sure BVG has seen a few films of the offense, and his strategy was sound as well.  It would have won the game too if not for, as mentioned earlier, tackling.  Communication was a constant problem, and the tempo did not make it any easy.  Such offenses are rhythm-based, so the best way to counter then, is 3-and-outs (then again, that works for any offense), which did not happen often.  The front seven was gassed by the middle of the 4th quarter, and Ellington took full advantage.  

Obviously the next time around VanGorder encounters such an offense, he will be more prepared.  But there is no team on the schedule who has that type of offense with the combination Clemson has at QB, RB and WR.  He is at his best against more pro-style and NFL-spread type offenses which is what he will encounter from now on.  

Mississippi State will attempt to run their offense at a high-tempo, but their scheme is not even close to Clemson.  They have experienced, physical receivers and a strong O-line, but this Auburn defense will be better in all facets in that game (caveat: obviously, as long as they tackle better).  Its how Kiehl Frazier and the offense responds to all that noise in the stadium, along with an impressive Bulldog secondary, that will determine the game.

This is still a new scheme for this Auburn defense, and the opinion on how good it is will have to be put on hold until at least after the LSU game.  

I have wrote on other articles before, and I will say it again.  if the tackling remains like it was against Clemson, I see Mississippi State winning the game in Starkville.  If it improves over last week, Auburn will pull it off.  If that happens and if the offense holds steady, it will be a big win.

The pre-season articles have had fans set their expectations sky-high when it came to this defense.  We have all read articles about how some sophomore has developed into a beast in practice.  We have read about how a certain OL is ready to hold his own ground. Or how a quarterback has finally developed into a leader.  

But practice reports are just that: practice reports.  Reality is that with a new starter at quarterback, inexperience at the offensive line and new schemes on both side of the ball makes it very hard to win 11-12 games, especially playing in the SEC West.  Players will go through some growing pains this season before becoming dominant, on offense and defense.