At long last, football has arrived. After months of buildup, weeks of speculation and days of endlessly searching channels and YouTube, the college season is finally upon us. When the first games kick off, realignment and scandal will take a back seat to Heisman talk and the spread offense, and all will again be right with the world.
Every Thursday this season, the Weekly Spotlight will take an in-depth look at a game, player, trend or other interesting tidbit worth watching. That begins with a closer examination of one of Week 1's most intriguing matchups: Clemson vs. Auburn.
Both of these teams could be BCS contenders by season's end. Or, both could go 7-5 and end up in the Music City Bowl. And though it's just Week 1, Clemson's clash with Auburn in Atlanta will likely set our expectations for both squads for the remainder of 2012.
For Clemson, the game is a chance to officially turn the page from last season's Orange Bowl debacle, a 70-33 drubbing at the hands of West Virginia. The Tigers surrendered a whopping 595 yards in that loss to the Mountaineers, and new defensive coordinator Brent Venables has worked extensively to strengthen the unit during the offseason. He implemented a zone-based scheme -- a stark contrast from Kevin Steele's pro-style system -- and looked into creative ways to bolster the group's flexibility. "We're not real deep," said Venables, "so we had to develop depth by training a few guys at a couple of different spots."
Clemson's offense also enters as a question mark. Electrifying wideout Sammy Watkins, a first-team All-America as a freshman, will miss the first two games of the year after being suspended for an offseason drug arrest. That places an added onus on quarterback Tahj Boyd and tailback Andre Ellington. The former threw for 3,828 yards and 33 touchdowns last season, while the latter put off the NFL draft (he was a projected third-round pick) to return for his senior year.
All things considered, the Tigers' performance should provide an early indication of which Clemson team to expect: the one that raced to an 8-0 start, or the one that limped to a 2-4 finish.
For Auburn, the contest is an opportunity to begin its climb back into the BCS discussion after a rebuilding campaign in 2011. But these Tigers are also beset by uncertainty. Kiehl Frazier will make his first career start after winning the job over Clint Moseley in camp, while Onterrio McCalebb will get the nod in the backfield following the dismissal of incumbent starter Michael Dyer. Gene Chizik will also look to shore up his D, a unit that finished a lackluster 81st in the FBS in total defense last season, a far cry from typically stifling SEC standards.
Both teams feature plenty of promise, but both are also riddled with doubt. Saturday's showdown at the Georgia Dome will offer the first glimpse of which stands the best shot of fulfilling its fringe BCS potential in 2012.
How will Kiehl Frazier fare in his first career start?
It's a bit premature to forecast Frazier's entire season, and Saturday's game has zero impact on the SEC standings. But entering Auburn's much-anticipated season-opener against Clemson, Frazier will feel the full weight of War Eagle expectations. After being tabbed the starter just one week ago, he's already being hailed as the solution to all of the Tigers' woes.
For those unfamiliar with Frazier, some background: A former blue-chip recruit out of Shiloh Christian (Ark.) Academy, Frazier was courted by Arkansas, Florida and Notre Dame, among others. He enamored scouts with both his arm and his legs, and he led the Saints to three consecutive Class 4A state titles. Frazier even earned USA Today National Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior, and for good reason. His stats over his final three years, listed below, were nothing short of remarkable.
Look at that chart again. Now do the math. Over a three-year span, Frazier racked up 11,147 all-purpose yards and 158 touchdowns.
Of course, he won't finish anywhere in the realm of those numbers in 2012. As with most young players, he'll experience a learning curve. Though he shined in last year's Chick-fil-A Bowl -- he rushed for 55 yards and two scores during Auburn's 43-24 victory over Virginia -- he's completed just five career collegiate passes, and he was used primarily out of Wildcat sets in 2011.
But his effort should be telling. If Frazier can thrive against a nationally ranked Clemson side, he could start to elicit comparisons to a recent, more accomplished Auburn dual-threat quarterback.
• Clemson's offensive line: Though most national attention will home in on Dabo Swinney's stable of playmakers, Clemson's offensive line is also worth monitoring. Rimington Award finalist Dalton Freeman returns at center, but three new starters will be counted on to protect the pocket. That could spell trouble against Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier. The 6-foot-4, 246-pound junior registered 9.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hurries in 2011.
• Auburn's attack: Following Gus Malzahn's departure to Arkansas State, Auburn brought in Scot Loeffler to serve as offensive coordinator. Now the former quarterbacks coach for Tim Tebow at Florida will look to work similar wonders with Frazier -- and successfully utilize McCalebb and wideout Emory Blake -- while expediting the transition to his diverse, multiple-look playbook. It's just one game, but Saturday's contest will provide a preliminary view into his progress.
• WR Charone Peake: A 6-3, 205-pound sophomore, Peake will start in place of the suspended Watkins. He caught four passes for 71 yards as a freshman, and could play a pivotal role lining up opposite sure-handed junior DeAndre Hopkins. Peake amassed 1,266 receiving yards and 18 touchdowns throughout his career at Dorman (S.C.) High. Expect him to be targeted with at least one crucial pass Saturday.
SI.com caught up with defensive coordinator Brent Venables as he prepares for his first game with Clemson.
SI: Your defense is set to start five sophomore and two juniors. What are you emphasizing to your young players?
BV: Don't try to do too much. It's really pretty simple. Do your job, and know what the guys around you are doing. When guys start trying to do too much, in end they do nothing but hurt you.
SI: Beyond Malliciah Goodman, who started all 14 games last season, how is the rest of the defensive line shaping up?
BV: They have a great understanding of what we do, but they're untested. They haven't been battle proven yet. They'll get hit in the mouth, that'll help 'em grow. It'll be a great challenge for us on Saturday night. For us to play well, they'll have to play beyond their years.
SI: What are you expecting from Auburn's offense?
BV: They're gonna use McCalebb on the outside; he'll probably run some wheel routes. They're gonna find all kinds of ways to use [Philip] Lutzenkirchen; he's a really nice utility guy. At the same time, it's their quarterback's first game as a starter. They're gonna give him opportunities to have early success and not make him do things that won't allow him to get into any kind of rhythm. Whether they're moving the pocket or running or throwing some timing routes, those kinds of things.
SI: What's the key to the game?
BV: I really believe it's gonna come down to who wins the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. That's who's gonna win this game.
SI: The last time the nation saw Clemson, it allowed 70 points in an Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia. How fresh is that in the players' minds?
BV: I think you'd be lying if you said it wasn't on their minds. Until we do something about it, we're not real highly thought of. This is an opportunity to redeem ourselves. You're only as good as your last game, and let's face it, we've been made fun of for the past six months since that game took place. I think our guys feel like they got a lot to prove.
For those in search of a prediction, here you go: Clemson 31, Auburn 24. Even without Watkins' game-breaking explosiveness, Swinney's squad should have enough firepower to outlast Auburn in a shootout. Frazier and McCalebb will have their moments, but the combination of Boyd, Ellington and Hopkins will prove too much to overcome.
But this is more important: Outside of Alabama-Michigan and Boise State-Michigan State, this is the most compelling matchup of the weekend. It features two high-profile programs, a bundle of potential awards candidates (Boyd, Ellington, Hopkins, Lemonier and defensive tackle Nosa Eguae) and a bevy of young players primed to break out. After an eight-month hiatus, that's enough.
Football is finally back, people. Let the games begin.