Before us lies another marquee non-conference matchup against a non-Alabama or South Carolina SEC team. This can only mean one thing: it’s Week 2 for the Clemson Tigers. Finally rid of our Alabamian twin on the rotation, we pay a visit to another sister school in the Texas A&M Aggies. Like we saw in Auburn, in College Station we will again find a familiar face who just can’t seem to let us move on with our lives.
Have you ever had an ex with whom your breakup was an absolute nightmare, and you rationalized the fallout as the ultimate Godsend? Who then turned out to be not so bad and your respect for this ex is no longer the begrudging sort? That was Kevin Steele.
Thematically, Jimbo Fisher is a different sort of ex; one far worse than the Ex Who Doesn’t Actually Suck As Much As You Once Thought. Jimbo Fisher is the ex you met at work, who consistently competed with you for the highest quota in the same sales territory. Your relationship was founded in your shared passion for competition, not so much any sort of actual affection, but together you were a power couple which quite literally carried an entire office that was interested in nonsensical pursuits like throwing paper balls in a waste bin and calling it “shootyhoops.”
Fisher is the ex who climbed the corporate ladder with you, bringing unprecedented acclaim and attention to your shootyhoops-beleaguered office, but eventually grew stale with her pessimism and toxic blame-shifting; making quite plain her belief she was entitled to more, for whatever reason. You thought it was all talk; sure, her performance fell off a bit but you weren’t exactly unhappy about it, you were picking up her slack at work and were the clear #1 now. Why would she leave what anyone their right mind considers a dream job?
Yet before you knew it, she hoodwinked one of your competitors — you know that one with the corporate culture universally agreed to be more like an actual cult — into a fat contract and moved halfway across the country, sending you snap after snap of her living her new “best life” with all its perks, her unencumbered and “boujee” lifestyle. She’s even gone full on horse girl:
Yes, Jimbo Fisher is That Ex Who Wants To Stay Friends To Make You Jealous Of Her Best Life. You want to forget and focus on yourself; there’s no competition in your territory anymore and your rise to the top of the ladder is unchallenged, your power consolidated. But she keeps inviting you over and all of a sudden you’re at her expensive and expansive new mansion. She has the air conditioning off, it’s 100 degrees, and she’s swaying around the house with her strange new work friends, muttering nonsense about sawing something off.
You think to yourself, “by God, this has gotten Aggie Weird,” and it’s time to show just how dominant you remain in her absence. But in your epiphany you are finally aware your own success is what sent her halfway across the country looking for an unattainable sense of fulfillment and validation; the knowledge she could no longer compete with you sent her packing and left a poor new hire floundering with the accounts she left behind.
The only validation you can provide any longer is that her fear she couldn’t compete with you any longer was correct. Even if this new gig turns out well, your mere presence is the most powerful of reminders why she left: she couldn’t stand the idea of you looking better than her.
One of the many reasons Jimbo Fisher wore out his welcome in Tallahassee was his stubborn refusal to shake up his coaching staff, particularly his embattled defensive coordinator Charles Kelly (whom I profiled before our 2016 and 2017 contests against FSU). Loyalty is to be admired, but in this profession it is usually self-defeating. This time around at A&M, I don’t foresee the need to be so combatively protective, with an acclaimed hire and coup in former Notre Dame and Wake Forest coordinator Mike Elko.
Elko brings to A&M a defensive philosophy similar to what Brent Venables employs here at Clemson and I have been immensely impressed with his work since he leapt on our radar by bringing respectability to the Wake defense. It’s uncanny how Elko’s defense resembles Venables’ and it shouldn’t surprise you to learn each coordinator likes to attack offenses in similar ways: create havoc to take away the run and pressure the quarterback, but remain flexible in the back end with a 4-3/4-2-5 formation utilizing a hybrid Sam, known in Elko’s scheme as the rover.
A&M’s rover position is essentially how Venables deploys Isaiah Simmons this year: a safety/linebacker who lines up in the box like a true Sam against heavier personnel, is split out on the slot receiver like a nickel corner against spread looks, or splits the difference and aligns in a zone look between the tackle or slot.
The rover is the most important position on the field in terms of flexibility against different formations (meaning not having to substitute based on offensive personnel), and again much like Venables, competency at the position allows Elko to play aggressively with his safeties; in turn, Elko can employ a variety of looks and coverages all from the same base defensive package. This is the ideal philosophy and reality we’ve enjoyed at Clemson since Venables’ blessed arrival, and with A&M’s talent I think Aggie fans are justified in their high hopes for this unit.
While both Venables and Elko rely heavily on safeties in run support, Venables is more aggressive with his linebacker blitzes and cover 3 fire zone coverages when generating pressure, whereas Elko likes to show and send pressure with one of his safeties more often. We didn’t get many exotic calls against Northwestern State in week 1, but sure enough, the same staple from Elko’s Wake defenses made a few appearances: a safety blitz disguised behind the usual pre-snap alignment closer to the box.
This is the same free safety blitz Elko has used since his days at Wake, duly used to aggressively fill a run gap or collapse the pocket against a dropback:
Thanks to the rover’s flexibility, Elko can afford to play creatively and aggressively with his safeties in run support and even work in some pressure in passing situations. Elko can then call everything from man cover 1 with LB bullets before flipping the script to soft 2-deep (like Venables it’s usually cover 4) with a few fire zones thrown in for good measure.
With A&M’s talented defensive line, Elko can afford to keep an offense guessing; you know they want to send pressure, but don’t need to. Sound familiar?
If this felt almost redundant with similarities to Clemson’s own defense, it should. The underlying philosophy and personnel deployments are nearly identical. The only glaring difference I saw against Northwestern State was an over-reliance on man coverage relative to Venables’ preference for pattern match zone. A&M isn’t on Clemson’s level — not in talent, experience, or staff familiarity — but I still expect a strong showing from the Aggie defense and I’m glad Clemson faces them early in the year. Fortunately for the Tigers, they have an experienced O-line to slow down A&M’s strong front, and superior playmakers out wide to expose an aggressive (in week 1, at least) Aggie secondary.
Clemson vs Texas A&M is probably my dream series. I cannot begin to articulate how jealous I am South Carolina visits College Station every two years and how unfortunate it is the Aggies have to visit Columbia in between. I spent most of elementary and middle school in south Texas and the most of my dad’s family resides in the Houston area, so this is something of a homecoming game for me.
Kyle Field is the only atmosphere I’d put even with (or ahead of) Death Valley on fall Saturdays and this is certainly a bucket list trip. Clemson may make more raw, chaotic noise in our biggest moments, but nowhere outside of European soccer is there such unique and coordinated noise like at A&M. Those who remember the 2004-2005 series will also remember the rave reviews these fan bases gave one another, and I couldn’t be more thrilled this home and home is finally here.
It’s easy to vilify A&M now that they’re in the SEC and they have Jimbo Fisher roaming their sideline, but in my years around each alumni base, there are not many schools and fan bases in major college football more alike than Clemson and A&M. The only one which comes close is Virginia Tech, but I argue Clemson and A&M share far more culturally than either school does with VT. A&M fans will be the first to admit they’re something of a cult, but gosh y’all, we built a literal alter in our stadium for a rock and then decided to follow a man called Dabo. Who else could understand this better than a school with its own list of “you’d understand if you went here” traditions?
A week ago, my comfort heading into this game blurred the line between dismissive confidence and smug arrogance. I felt the Aggies were in a race to the bottom of the SEC West with Ole Miss and Arkansas, and they didn’t have a chance against this Clemson defense considering Fisher runs not only one of the most difficult offenses in the country, but also the slowest. Throw a new quarterback into a new system early in the year (a system Clemson knows well and has dominated recently) against this defense and it would get ugly. I figured in the worst case scenario, Clemson could escape Kyle Field by simply scoring a couple of touchdowns, leaning on its defense like it did a year ago.
Then I watched the Northwestern State film. I was already relatively high on the A&M defense due simply to Elko’s track record, but Kellen Mond looked comfortable in the pocket to go along with his excellent mobility and tight delivery. Trayveon Williams looked powerful and quick behind a far better offensive line than Fisher had at FSU post-2013. A&M suddenly had a tight end in Jace Sternberger to give Clemson’s safeties pause. This no longer seems the lopsided meeting I expected all spring and summer.
But Clemson is still superior across the board. One of the main hopes in the A&M camp is that Fisher’s familiarity with Clemson gives them an edge, but this sword cuts both ways; plus Clemson faced Elko from 2014-2016 and runs a similar defense themselves. It’s run the ball or bust for an A&M offense lacking a deep receiving unit to help out its young quarterback, and imagining anyone running up the middle on Clemson from the I-form is unfathomable. Fisher, as usual, will run plenty of misdirection and stretch constraints to try and create a few cutback lanes against a quick and aggressive Clemson front, but I think it’s unlikely A&M will find an approach which Clemson won’t eventually shut down unless Mond became Jameis Winston this offseason.
A&M will play aggressively against Kelly Bryant and take away the run, daring him to beat them out wide. With Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers (not to mention Justyn Ross off the bench) at his disposal, he has the explosive weapons and clear talent edge to take advantage of aggressive coverage far better than he did a year ago, and if nothing else, Bryant has proven capable of methodically taking what a defense gives (in fact it’s his greatest strength). When Trevor Lawrence steps in I expect Elko will crank up the pressure looks even further in an effort to confuse the freshman, whose arm will be counted on to make the Aggies pay for their aggression against the run and to take advantage of a superior Clemson offensive skill unit compared to the A&M defensive skill.
Strategy and scheming will matter little, however, if Clemson does establish the run; it’s paramount Clemson does so to take pressure off both quarterbacks if they want to turn this into a rout. Despite the Tigers’ experienced line and stable of running backs, it’s the downfield passing game which almost certainly will have to push A&M’s safeties back and ultimately open up the run. With Clemson’s balance on offense and unquestionably elite defense, I think Clemson still does enough to outlast a better than expected A&M squad.