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Keys to the Game: Auburn vs. Clemson

By Jerry Hinnen | College Football Writer
Tajh Boyd has plenty of weapons at his disposal, even without the suspended Sammy Watkins. (Getty Images)

CLEMSON WILL WIN IF: Brent Venables has done what he's been paid so handsomely to do: wash away the memory of 70-33 with a defense that can do more than just go along for offensive coordinator Chad Morris's wild ride. Auburn comes to Atlanta with a true sophomore making his first start under center, a highly unsettled, young offensive line, and zero proven playmakers aside from wideout Emory Blake, tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, and tailback Onterio McCalebb (a potentially poor fit for Scot Loeffler's new between-the-tackles I-formation running game). With the ample experience available to Venables in the back seven -- where only one starter is lost and major sophomore talents like linebacker Stephone Anthony and corner Bashaud Breeland appear ready for full-blown stardom -- this should be a golden opportunity for the Tigers to prove how far they've come since, well, 70-33.

That doesn't mean it will be easy; the losses along the defensive line are major, and if Auburn's offense is green, it's certainly not untalented. But if Venables' new-look unit can even approximate the play of Brian Van Gorder's new-look Auburn unit, the gap between the two offenses should carry Clemson to victory.

AUBURN WILL WIN IF: its defensive line dominates the Clemson offensive front.

Even with Sammy Watkins suspended, there's no shortage of skill position experience and talent for the Palmetto State Tigers: Tajh Boyd at quarterback, Deandre Hopkins and Jaron Brown at receiver, Andre Ellington at running back. Auburn will be substantially better defensively in 2011--in addition to adding Van Gorder (and bidding good-bye to defense-addling Gus Malzahn), it boasts veteran linebackers and an overhauled, high-ceiling secondary. But it's still going to have a hard time corralling that many weapons if it doesn't own the line of scrimmage.

The good news for Auburn is that it just might be capable of it. Pass-rushing terror Corey Lemonier is likely the best defensive player on either team, tackle Jeffrey Whitaker has been plenty stout in practice, and the entire 2011 defensive line two-deep returned intact. Meanwhile, Clemson said good-bye to three offensive starters, including both tackles. If Lemonier and Co. can push the line of scrimmage back and get in Boyd's face, all that skill talent could find itself nullified.

If not, look out.

THE X-FACTOR: What, exactly, are we going to see from Auburn's offense after its revamping under Loeffler? We know it will huddle, feature a fullback (former Illinois All-American Jay Prosch), and do far more straight-ahead running than Malzahn's attack did. But that's about it. Loeffler enjoyed a good bit of success at Temple, but his personnel is dramatically different on the Plains, and that quarterback Kiehl Frazier spent precious little on-field time operating as an actual QB as a freshman lends another layer of mystery. What Auburn's attack will look like -- and what kind of success is might be -- are in many way's anyone's guess.

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