Clemson started off the season with a predictable blowout of the FCS Furman Paladins. I’ll get to the QB play in a minute, but I wanted to first say how impressed I was with the crop of true and redshirt freshmen who saw action last week. The talent was oozing out of the television and the future is definitely bright...as is the present. Furman tried a little harder than Kent State last year, but only just so as they were mostly content to keep the clock moving with over 50 rushing attempts. Clemson played a predictably vanilla game on both sides of the ball and the Aggie staff will have to check out last year’s film for the standard BV defensive looks. The Tigers never had to go nickle or dime from what I could see and the substitutions were frequent nearly from the start of the game. The stakes are going way, way up this weekend with what could be the most difficult test of the season. Boston College or somebody else could end up being a better team than A@M, but as far as raw talent goes, the Aggies trump everyone else outside of Florida State (despite the Noles stinking it up Monday night). The Aggies certainly have enough players on both sides to win this game, especially if Clemson makes enough critical mistakes. As always, the chance to face the “mighty” SEC West is always a great opportunity for the program to show that it can handle anybody, anywhere no matter how the rest of the ACC might look.
Clemson defense vs. Texas A@M offense: The Aggies piled up a ridiculous 500+ yards rushing on hapless Northwestern State in the opener. Jimbo Fisher showed a blend of his customary pro-style attack with elements of the spread offense the Aggies had been using during the Kevin Sumlin era. Job #1 is always stopping the run and forcing the QB to make plays, so getting running back Trayveon Williams stopped will be a focus. Williams broke several long runs in game 1 on the way to 240 yards. QB Kellen Mond was a highly rated guy coming out of high school and is a very good athlete, but he struggled mightily at times last year with his accuracy and lost time to Nick Starkel. Clemson may very well see both quarterbacks depending on how much passing needs to be done, but for now it appears Mond is the guy. The Tigers will need to show discipline in the rush and not allow Mond to hurt the team with scrambles. Clemson had a few moments of getting too eager in the rush last week and that could be exploited by Mond potentially.
Tight end Jace Sternberger looked like a real weapon last week and ranks as my biggest concern in the passing game. Tight ends have given the Tiger defense some problems in past games (like O.J. Howard and Cole Hikutini), and Nick O’Leary caused some problems under Jimbo at Florida State. This will provide a real test for the Tiger safeties and new SAM Isaiah Simmons after not seeing much action at all vs. Furman in the passing game. Jimbo had a mess of an offensive line at the end of his FSU run, but he’s got a pretty talented group to work with now. If the Tigers can force the Aggies to use the TE to pass protect more often than not, that will be a big key. Jimbo has certainly shown he’s willing to let his quarterback get pounded and send more guys out on routes, and the Tigers put a serious beating on Sean McGuire, Deondre Francois, and James Blackman in the last three years as a result. Dorian O’Daniel helped the Tigers virtually eliminate tight end threats last season, so we will see how Coach Venables chooses to deal with Sternberger this time.
I think the Aggies will have a hard time winning matchups on the outside with their WR’s vs. the primary corners for Clemson. The Aggies are young at the position and don’t look like they have a Mike Evans or Christian Kirk type game breaker out there at the moment. They will most likely lean heavily on the run game, screen game, and tight end and hope their defense can hold serve enough for them to gain some traction or pop a big play for an easy score. The SEC Network crew doing their game last week tried hard to push the “Jimbo has improved Mond a ton” narrative, but we will see how big his eyes get when the Power Rangers are lined up across from him. Oh, Jimbo loves zone running schemes and Christian Wilkins is a zone scheme wrecking crew. Just check highlights of Wilkins vs. FSU the last three seasons.
Clemson offense vs. Texas A@M defense: Aggie fans have been watching some pretty bad defense over the last five years despite having a #1 overall draft pick come through during that time. Even the highly respected (and current Arkansas DC) John Chavis couldn’t get things right in College Station. This defense let Perry Orth from USCjr look competent a couple of years back! Jimbo got a huge payday from the Aggies to take over and they also were able to get Mike Elko to come run the defense. Elko took Notre Dame’s dumpster fire left by Brian Vangorder and made it pretty decent last season. Before that, he had Wake Forest playing some strong defense when they were one of the worst offensive teams in the FBS. He was a big part of THIS classic moment...
The only times Clemson’s offense has been shut down, most notably in last year’s Sugar Bowl, the run game/screen game has not been able to get the Tigers on schedule. Kelly Bryant is a very good quarterback (yes, I said it), but his game is predicated on being on schedule where the RPO threat is at its maximum. Straight drop back football is not his strength even though he has had some great moments when he’s on, like Syracuse before he got hurt and against Miami. Clemson fans were spoiled during the Watson era because there really wasn’t a third down the offense couldn’t get with #4 back there. The Tigers, albeit against Furman, were actually pretty good on the OL in the run game upon further review of the film. The few failed runs and TFL/Sack situations were almost entirely on a running back or tight end screwing up. This is very bad news for the Aggies if this continues. Seeing Garrett Williams back was everything I had hoped for. We need to get him involved in the passing game, but Williams was making his presence FELT in the blocking department and will open up things we haven’t seen in a while. Lyn-J Dixon burst onto the scene last week so opposing coaches can see yet another guy who can hit a home run play along with Etienne, Feaster, Bryant, and the WRU corps. I also can’t imagine having to deal with Tee Higgins, then getting a dose of Overton, and then maybe getting some Justyn Ross (who is a full grown man already). We only got a small taste of what the weaponized 9 position is going to bring from week one.
Elko is an aggressive coach who employs a lot of the same tactics as our own Brent Venables. At its best, it will create TFL’s and force opposing quarterbacks to execute difficult throws under duress. The Aggies have some firepower in their front seven and a couple of veteran safeties to execute some of those cover 4 concepts, but much of that depends on the outside corners being able to hold up vs. fade/go routes, back shoulder fades, and comebacks. Past monsters at the 9 spot put a hurting on secondaries in big games like Hopkins and Williams against LSU and Auburn, respectively. Clemson was missing a bit of this last year with an undersized 9 in Deon Cain who was much better taking the top off of defenses than winning physical jump balls. We also know how tough things can be on safeties in a scheme like this vs. wheel concepts, fake screen and go, etc. Clemson will no doubt test the discipline of that Aggie back 4. It goes without saying that if Clemson gets the run game going, the Aggies are going to lose (and lose big, most likely).
Once again fans will be watching to see how the quarterback rotation goes. Kelly Bryant got off to a slow start last week and Trevor Lawrence produced 3 touchdown passes, but Bryant was much sharper in the third quarter and is a proven commodity for a road game like this one. Perhaps a scenario will arise where the team underwhelms early with Bryant, scores on Lawrence’s first drive or two, and the coaches have a real decision to make, but a 60/40 split is probably more likely. If one gets hot, it is hard to see the coaches not riding that wave until a comfortable lead is established.
Special Teams: I was most excited about the play of the freshmen last week, but a close second was seeing special teams. Amari Rodgers explosive punt returns? Yes, please! B.T. Potter launching kickoffs like a howitzer? Can I have seconds? Cornell Powell popping a good kickoff return? Order up! Greg Heugel nailing a 50 yard FG? Be still my heart! I know a lot of fans are already watching Alabama and thinking about how to beat them if another showdown comes to fruition, but other than the kick return that set off “the drive”, Clemson has lost the special teams phase to Alabama every single time. The 2015 team would have won it all if not for that. Some of this improvement is due to an overall upgrade in program talent. Alabama can be great on special teams thanks in part of a ridiculous 70%+ blue chip ratio. Clemson now has more talent among the backups in order to stock the special teams without overusing starters or just getting by with average players. That SHOULD lead to better blocking for the return game and better coverage (which has been improving the last couple of years). I’m still in wait and see mode with the punting game, but everything else looked terrific. This is a phase Clemson can look to dominate in this game potentially.
Overall: If you look at the last three years, it really has taken a “above the rim” performance from the opposing quarterback to beat Clemson if your name isn’t Alabama. Syracuse got some great play from Dungey last year; Pitt had Nathan Peterman have the game of his life the year before that. I have a hard time seeing Kellen Mond pulling that rabbit out of his hat. Clemson should stuff the run game for the Aggies for the most part and Mond is going to have to make plays. The Aggies were poor in pass protection last season and I’m not sure how much better they are going to be now. I respect their talent and Elko will probably have them able to hang in there for a while, but the dam will break eventually thanks to the superior depth at the skill positions and up front for the Tigers.
Clemson 34-Texas A@M 17