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Assessing the Threat: Texas A&M at Clemson

The Aggies Come Calling on September 7th.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Gator Bowl-Texas A&M vs North Carolina State Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

To be honest, assessing the threats to the upcoming 2019 Clemson Football Team requires a lot of reaching on most every opponent. The Tigers are at least 17 point favorites in every game line as of June, but the Aggies were one of two teams not blown out by last year’s unbeaten (greatest ever) squad and bring perhaps the most talented roster Clemson will see in the regular season.

The last time we got to see Texas A&M, they were doing the Lord’s work by hammering North Carolina State in the Gator Bowl 52-13. Jimbo Fisher’s splashy hire and strong first season has momentum building in College Station as the Aggies hope they will rise to challenge Alabama for SEC West supremacy. However, they join the University of SC in having to face Clemson, Alabama, and Georgia all in the same season (two on the road). Getting to 10 wins will mean they will have at least one major league win on their resume.

Offense: While the Aggies return the dangerous dual threat QB Kellen Mond who enjoyed a career day throwing jump balls and getting interceptions dropped in last year’s meeting, they are having to replace workhorse back Trayveon Williams and tight end Jake Sternberger. One of their biggest advantages last season was the lack of film pairing Jimbo’s offensive system with the Aggie personnel left over from Kevin Sumlin’s spread system.

The Aggies return WRs Quartney Davis (redshirt junior, 6-2, 200), Jhamon Ausbon (junior, 6-2, 220), Kendrick Rogers (redshirt junior, 6-4, 210), and Camron Buckley (junior, 6-2, 190). Rogers in particular was a problem for the Clemson secondary last year and this unit figures to be a big strength for the Aggies in 2019.

Clemson, of course, returns the majority of its 2 deep in the secondary and figure to have one of the strongest back ends in the nation. It will be interesting to see how Fisher is able to replace Sternberger who was one of the most dangerous pass catching tight ends in the nation last year. They signed a top rated TE Baylor Cupp, but that’s replacing a junior with a true freshman.

It should be noted that Fisher has been one of the few offensive minds to consistently find production against the Brent Venables defense over the last six years. Of course, he had one of the most talented rosters in college football at Florida State and also has a very good roster at Texas A&M. He has often found adjustments that have worked in the second halves and Clemson has often found itself in a dogfight with Fisher’s teams. We can certainly criticize Fisher’s program management skills and, shall we say, morally casual attitude towards player behavior, but the man is an excellent offensive mind.

The Tigers did an excellent job forcing Texas A&M to throw to win last year, and while it is true that the Aggie offensive line was allowed to hold at an alarming rate, the Aggies were nearly able to do it. Clemson is no doubt taking a step back up front having lost three first round draft picks and a fourth rounder from the DL. Last year’s Alabama game was one of the only games I can remember Venables willingly allowing the run game to produce in order to protect against the pass, but he will no doubt be back to his stop the run at all cost mode for this one. If the Aggies can find a steady running game, Fisher is one of the best at creating big play action opportunities and he has the weapons to make them work. In my estimation, the Aggies have the most dangerous offense the Tigers will face in the regular season and the early season date means the young Tiger defensive front will have to grow up quickly. Much is riding on the back of Kellen Mond as there is no proven backup with the departure of Nick Starkel, but a fully healthy Aggie roster I would give a threat level grade of 8/10.

Defense: Fisher went and got Mike Elko from Notre Dame to lead his defense and has perhaps his best DC since Jeremy Pruitt led his 2013 FSU National Title squad. Like Clemson, the Aggies have to replace the majority of their front seven on defense though. Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott also now have a full season of tape on Elko’s system with Aggie personnel. Clemson was still using both Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence when it went to College Station last year, and this year’s offense is poised to be way better than it was at the same point in 2018 when Bryant delivered his best performance of 2018 before his decision to transfer. Although Lawrence had that big time TD to Tee Higgins early, the Aggie defense caused him issues as he wasn’t quite ready for prime time. Now, of course, he is fresh off shredding Alabama. So many of Elko’s advantages for last year (including being at home) are null and void this time.

The issue for the Aggies, as well as all other Clemson opponents, is how you deal with a veteran OL and the most explosive running back in the nation without leaving your secondary on an island to face #WRU. Clemson has an issue at tight end with the suspension of Braden Galloway. While I’m excited at the prospect of more 4 wide sets where Overton or Ngata or Ladson or Powell join Higgins and Ross, a large portion of Clemson’s run game is built around 11 personnel with the tight end. Perhaps Garrett Williams will postpone his military service for one more season, but as of this writing I cannot count on that.

The Aggies, like Clemson, will no doubt sell out to stop the running game even with the threat of Lawrence and the outside skill. They know they don’t stand a chance if Clemson can get Etienne and Dixon going consistently. Lawrence will no doubt have even more freedom at the line of scrimmage to move in and out of plays, and Elko will have a much more challenging task trying to cause confusion. The Aggies will need to hope that Jackson Carman or Tremayne Anchrum struggle on the edges and allow A&M to play more coverage on third downs rather than blitzing. The Tigers didn’t even really use the terrifying Justyn Ross in last year’s meeting while Higgins ripped them for well over 100 yards.

NCAA Football: Clemson at Texas A&M Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

On a personal note, it would be nice to see Ross, Higgins, or one of the other #WRU weapons embarrass Leon O’Neal just for his online pettiness towards his Clemson recruitment and Brent Venables. Overall, I give the Aggie defense a threat level of 5/10.

Closing: Even though this game didn’t draw a primetime kick, the 3:30 kick still leaves ample time for the Tiger fans to get fully prepped for this matchup. Clemson fans revel in the opportunity to play SEC teams and further debunk the SEC superiority claims. Texas A&M features one of the best fanbases and I fondly recall their last visit in 2005. Who knows when these two teams will meet again after this one, but it will likely require a playoff matchup or bowl game in the next 20 years. Many rank this as Clemson’s toughest regular season test, and it very well may be, but the Tigers being at home and fully loaded on offense still has me rate this game as just a 6/10 threat level.