Saturday, December 29

Chic Fil-A Bowl: Tigers and Tigers and Tigers, oh my

The Peach – wait, Chick-fil-A – Bowl is pretty well established. It’s held the spot of “Last Bowl of the Year” for at least a few years now; not only is it on the 31st of December, it also starts the latest. While it’s supposed to match up some of the upper-divisional finishers in both the ACC and SEC, the games have been total blowouts more often than not. Witness Maryland’s dismantling of Tennessee back in ’02 and Matt Flynn leading a LSU team to complete annihilation of Miami three years later. (You can also look at 2003, 2004, 2000, 1999, etc.) Of course, there was also the Virginia Tech / Georgia game last year, which looked like a blowout for a while until the Bulldogs woke up.

This year is shaping up like so many years past, which is surprising given the current state of the ACC (largely crappy, with the obvious exception of Virginia Tech and the possible exceptions of Boston College, Virginia, and Clemson). Fortunately, one of the debatably good ACC teams is playing in this game against what’s likely the SEC’s ugliest team. Auburn plays a nasty game on offense highlighted by an ineffective and often-injured QB and a two-pronged rushing attack. On the other side, Clemson has once again fielded an excellent offense but the defense – and the effort – has been questionable at times. Still, it should at least be an interesting game, but it’d be better if it was called the Peach Bowl. Damn sponsors.

Clemson (by Coach Pendley)

With the graduation of QB Will Proctor last year, everyone was figuring on the Clemson offense turning to a ground-based assault. However, that was definitely not the case – new QB Cullen Harper has been more effective than his predecessors. He’s more of a pocket passer than either Proctor or Charlie Whitehurst, but that’s not a mark against him at all. Considering he has both James Davis and CJ Spiller in the backfield with him, he doesn’t need to do much else other than serve as a pocket passer. When he does pass, he’ll get the ball to Aaron Kelly, who was the only ACC receiver over 1,000 yards on the season – and the only one with more than 10 receiving TDs. Tyler Grisham is the #2 after Jacoby Ford’s injury; Grisham is solidly in the “just good enough to make you think twice about doubling Kelly” category.

Still, it’s not as much fun to talk about the passing game, because I have a thing for two-back backfields – and this one is arguably the second-best in the country behind Arkansas. Davis is the bruising, every-down back and CJ Spiller is the super-duper change of pace back. I hate comparing them to the McFadden / Jones combo, but if you haven’t seen these guys, Davis is about 85% McFadden and Spiller is about 90% Jones. Considering the headaches those guys cause, this isn’t a totally unflattering comparison, as Clemson’s offense would probably be effective with a Weeblie under center. (Arkansas has tried that, with semi-effective results.)

But what about the other side of the ball? They have a solid rush D, allowing only 112 yards per game, including no teams rushing for over 100 yards in the second half of the year. Their pass defense is 13th in the country – tops in the ACC – allowing only 185 yards per game through the air and an 11/15 ratio. Heck, they’re +12 in turnover margin, too.

So how the hell did they lose three games? Well, they played ranked teams – and apparently seeing a number next to a team’s name kills the running game. They only averaged 1.03 yards per carry in their losses… and those teams were not coincidentally the three best rushing defenses in the ACC. Pass production is down (28/2 ratio in wins, 2/4 in losses), turnover margin dies (+15 in wins, -3 in losses); in other words, they just don’t do anything right.

Keys to Victory:
1: D-line run penetration. Auburn’s pass blocking and passing game aren’t stellar, so I expect Clemson to be able to put pressure on the Tigers’ O-line when QB Brandon Cox drops back to pass. However, it’ll be critical for them to marginalize either RB Ben Tate or RB Brad Lester; neither guy is a true #1 at this point in time yet, but they’re both 1.5-type backs, meaning they can be effective but they’ll likely need help to reach their true potential. Penetration begins at the defensive line, and forcing the backs to make decisions before reaching the line of scrimmage will reap benefits both early and late.

2: Offensive balance. I don’t know if this is Tommy Bowden’s fault or if it rests with the OC, but Clemson has turned into more of a pass-happy team than they probably should given their personnel. Auburn will be perfectly content to milk every second of clock they can on the offensive side of the ball, so if Clemson can keep the ball out of their hands and in the hands of Davis and Spiller, it’ll work in their favor. Spiller and Davis are both better than Auburn’s backs, so it’ll be critical for them to be effective when they get the ball – and they should be getting the ball a lot. I’d like to see a 60% run / 40% pass split; anything on the wrong side of 50/50 should be avoided. (They’ve averaged 45% run / 55% pass on the season.) Another reason to run the ball more: Auburn only allows 5.8 yards per attempt and has only given up 11 TD passes to 14 INTs on the season.

3: Exploit the two-back sets. Auburn will have seen them before, but they’ve also seen Arkansas’s setup, not Clemson’s. Using both Davis and Spiller in the same formation should create results, even if it’s Bowden decides not to use them in running situations, keeping Davis in and sending Spiller out should cause some results. They both require their own gameplan, so the more complex they make Auburn’s defense, the more likely someone will miss their assignment. It’ll also help if they ignore Auburn’s run defense, which only allows 119 yards per game – and 3.48 yards per carry.

Auburn (by Coach Lawrence)

From 2004-06, the Auburn Tigers compiled a 33-5 record including 2-1 in January bowl games. The Tigers have always featured a tough defense, but since losing a trio of offensive stars from their unbeaten team in the first round of the NFL draft in 2005 they have been inconsistent on that side of the ball (13.2 ppg in 5 losses).

The 2007 season began with a disastrous start – losing back to back home games against South Florida and Mississippi State. The Tigers responded winning four in a row and six of their final eight, losing only to a pair of BCS teams, LSU and Georgia. While the Georgia game was a blowout, Aubie came within seconds of beating LSU, who won it on their last pass of the game in a back and forth 4th quarter.

Statistically, Auburn is not a terribly impressive team. Behind tailback duo Brad Lester and Ben Tate, the Tigers rack up 154 ypg rushing but give up 119. Brandon Cox’s QB rating is a mere 117... 173 yards per game through the air and a ghastly 9:12 TD:INT ratio. If the offense did a little better, they’d be in better position to take advantage of a defense that holds opposing QBs to 179 yards and a 107 rating (11 TD, 14 INT).

While Lester and Tate are a pretty solid backfield (and Cox may be underrated), the receiver position is in trouble. Only Rodgeriqus Smith (4.0 cpg, 55.0 ypg) averages over 30 ypg in receptions! This has allowed teams to stack 8 or 9 in the box and just blitz without hesitation in holding the Tigers to under 4 yards a carry.

Powers and Lee anchor the secondary with 4 INTs apiece; the defensive back four are a scary group who have allowed more passing TDs than INTs in just three games – two of those being LSU and Georgia. In fact LSU is the only team who’s thrown 3 TD passes against this group. This forces teams to look to the ground, and remember that this defense also held Arkansas to 67 yards rushing. Again it was LSU and Georgia who had success, as balance is clearly needed to best this group.

Keys to Victory:
1. Frustrate the Clemson rushing attack. The other Tigers have this really strange offensive play that they like to run a lot. I call it “giving the ball to someone other than James Davis or CJ Spiller.” I don’t know why they do it, but they do it a lot, and they lose games because of it... let me tell you a story called “56 touches combined in their three losses” that includes stunning chapters like “12 rushes for Davis & Spiller, 11 rushes for Harper to get killed by Va Tech.” It’s a tragic tale of human stupidity that would leave Mack Brown wondering what they were thinking. Seems like if you stuff the big two for the first 10 minutes, Clemson kinda forgets that they exist.

2. Keep running. Not only does this get the ball out of Cox’s hands, but the key stat against Clemson seems to be rushing attempts, not yards per carry (which is exactly the same for their defense in wins and in losses). Auburn’s offensive stats and Clemson’s defensive averages make it look like yards will come slowly, but if Tate and Lester can get about 20 carries each they should be in good shape.

That’s really what Auburn needs to win. If Harper’s throwing against this secondary, I like their chances of giving up 17 points or less. Tate and Lester should be able to pound out 20 points, assuming Byrum makes his field goals (76% accuracy).