Welcome back Jimbo Fisher to the unfriendly confines for the 10th annual ‘BO BOWL. Though I once compared Jimbo to a metaphorical and totally made up ex in what eventually became a Mike Elko article, I have decided to bury the hatchet. This is perhaps the last of Jimbo’s semiannual return trips to Death Valley, dating back to his first season on the FSU staff in 2007, and I am determined to be a gracious host. By gracious I mean SCREAM HOWDY AT ANYTHING IN MAROON/GARNET/BLOODY STOOL COLOR because I understand HOWDY is the only appropriate way to greet an Aggie.
Last year I thought myself a witty jokester, smug with overconfidence before a chance to humiliate Jimbo — whom Clemson perceives the least scrupulous coaching villain of all coaching villains, now that Bobby Petrino is no more — yet I almost witnessed a mind-numbing defeat snatched from victory’s jaws at Kyle Field. I am angry Texas A&M came so close, angry a close loss sustains their hope, and angry they were so nice even in defeat.
How dare they. Over the top hospitality for visitors at tailgates is a Clemson thing, not an SEC thing. They go to Columbia every other year; should they not have known this by now?
I wanted to be ridiculed and besmirched in Aggieland, not treated politely and cordially. I wanted nothing but pure fuel for my rage before the reciprocal visit this weekend, not to look back and think, wow y’all were cool. Alas.
Jared Hocker is confident that the Aggies will defeat Clemson on Saturday. “There will be an upset.” pic.twitter.com/tqbVqYlAe6— TexAgs (@TexAgs) September 2, 2019
OH THANK GOD THIS HARMLESS AND CLICKBAITED QUOTE LED ME BACK TO TEXAGS DOT COM, WHERE I REDISCOVERED THE RAGE TO HELP DEATH VALLEY ERUPT.
A&M receiver Jhamon Ausbon: “We’re not coming out with a loss in the game.” pic.twitter.com/4gTdaLJwsp— TexAgs (@TexAgs) September 2, 2019
*Author’s note: I do not hate Texas A&M. Quite the opposite; I spent four years in South Texas growing up, have plenty of childhood friend alumni, and even consider myself half-Texan thanks to Craft roots in and around Houston combined with my time spent there. A&M remains my second favorite school/team even with SEC and Jimbo villainy, but I don’t hold the obvious no-brainer self-interest in conference and coaching moves against them. This is the home-and-home I’ve always wanted, and Kyle Field last year lived up to its bucket list status. A&M is awesome, as only somewhat cultish fanbases can be.
Every few years, Death Valley enjoys an epic game where the crowd is different than any others; even the rare early season night games like against Georgia Tech last week lack the feel this week’s 3:30 kickoff brings. Not since Louisville 2016 have I felt this level of hype (whether real or imagined) before a home game. Only an undefeated meeting with NC State came close last year in terms of buzz around the opponent, but it was just NC State so we didn’t really care as much as we tried, and were rewarded with the best sort of lazy, boring game: a blowout!
Auburn and FSU were in that second tier for potentially intense home games in 2017, but Auburn had grown stale around here despite being an early season night game, and FSU (under Jimbo!) was reeling in terminal cultural rot. Louisville 2016 and Notre Dame then FSU in 2015 were the last times I felt this nervous sort of anticipation/excitement and even uncertainty in the outcome before a home game.
The outcome’s uncertainty and the opponent’s pedigree elevates 2019 Texas A&M to a home game status not felt here in three full years. It truly takes these two ingredients: the opponent must be a powerful or at least respected program, and Clemson must not be the easily presumed winner. The aforementioned last three times such teams descended into the Valley with bad intentions, the Valley met them with interest. Our intentions must remain worse than theirs.
Think Brian Kelly walking out to 84,000 people losing their minds in a hurricane before that Notre Dame game in 2015. Picture his face. Now imagine it’s Jimbo’s.
There. The obligatory long winded opening rant is out of the way and we can focus on this column’s real purpose: the Texas A&M defense.
First, A refresher on Mike Elko, the lauded coordinator who would be my first choice in an external replacement for Brent Venables, should he ever decide to step into a head coaching role with the right opportunity. From last year’s Elko primer:
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.
Elko will not change what he does despite personnel turnover no more than Venables will. He will confuse your protections with various pressures but especially confuse your pre-snap reads; the main element in any Elko defense is late safety movement designed not simply to disguise his coverage but to subvert it.
Last Thursday against Texas State, we saw Elko’s frequent safety movement, often showing two high before a late rotation or movement into a single high coverage just before or even after the snap. Only once A&M built a lead, did Elko pull back and call more man cover 2, which leads me to think he will treat Trevor Lawrence the same way he did a year ago: pressure the young QB by confusing his protection and clogging lanes, disguise coverages and make him miss the right read, and trust big corners to match up in a lot of one on one situations.
Predictably, this approach comes with booms and busts, and mitigating those busts is directly related to a talent advantage for your cornerbacks versus opponents’ wide receivers. At a talent advantage, there’s plenty of boom; when equal or even lacking, far greater chances for bust. It was bust on Lawrence’s first snap year ago, a long touchdown to Tee Higgins:
...Yet plenty of boom afterward where Elko proved the unseasoned Lawrence’s match, forcing Lawrence out of the game after two drives in the second half:
Elko will defend Clemson this same way Saturday. Better to have numbers against the run to protect a new front 7, and trust your big corners to win enough 50-50 balls downfield to keep playing aggressively, than to sit back and let Clemson (mainly Etienne) do what they want and amass long drives. A&M has the secondary talent to make it work, and the philosophy to create havoc and confusion like Clemson’s own defense does.
I was also impressed how well A&M covers base calls like cover 4 without any disguises. This is exactly how cover 4 should look, and comparing it to the underneath coverage Clemson suffered through in recent years — almost costing them in last year’s A&M game — leaves me wanting. Keeping things simple when an offense expects subversion is subversion in a sense:
It’s also easy to assume that safety movement and blitzes all occur in front of cover 3 or single high man cover 1. This is not necessarily true, and Elko will run plenty of cover 4 even with a blitz in front of it.
Personnel wise, A&M mirrors Clemson defensively; Elko has to replace 7 starters, particularly 6 of his front 7. Sound familiar? The depth chart lists 4-3 personnel, but against Texas State we saw nickel personnel early mainly due to their offense, but in part questionable A&M linebacker depth. I’m interested to see if Elko opts for a nickel on standard downs when faced with Etienne in the backfield. It will tell us much about his game plan; personally I don’t think Overton in the slot requires a nickel corner over a Sam linebacker in a vacuum, much less when run defense is at a premium.
What was an embattled secondary a year ago is the strength of this defense by default after the losses up front (again, sound familiar?), but Charles Oliver replaces the suspended Debione Renfro at corner and opens a potential weakness. Renfro is A&M’s top corner and we know from experience that suspending a crucial starter for a big game was not Jimbo’s call. There is still plenty of length at corner and experience at safety, and it’s why I think A&M is more likely to take its chances against Lawrence and his receivers downfield (like we thought Georgia Tech would) than let Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon run free as long they don’t give up deep passes (like Georgia Tech actually did).
Given Clemson’s offense literally runs through Etienne, this is the only prudent course. Better to try and pressure/confuse Lawrence, and hope your corners are up to the task if Lawrence does get a clean read and release; if Etienne is free, Clemson is unstoppable. A&M has the secondary to pull this off, but not linebacker depth to contain Etienne and get through a borderline elite Clemson offensive line without aggressively attacking it.
NC State loaded the box a year ago and limited Etienne more than anyone ever has, but Lawrence ate away at the soft man coverage outside for nearly 400 effortless yards. A&M has the corners to match up, physically at least, against the Clemson receivers in tight coverage and a coordinator who will aggressively count on them if there’s the slightest chance they’re up for it. Even without Renfro, this is the best secondary Clemson will face; A&M will challenge Lawrence, Higgins, and Ross in an attempt to put the game in their hands instead of Etienne’s.
Elko attacked Lawrence at the line of scrimmage effectively a year ago and it’s their best hope this year. It’s paramount for Clemson’s offensive line to do enough to make A&M’s thin linebacker corps keep their focus on the run to find space underneath, especially if A&M corners prove a match for Higgins and Ross (normally a fool’s hope but A&M’s size can’t be discounted). And when Clemson is forced to pass, more crucial than ever the line protects Lawrence like they did over the back half of last season, where they kept him upright and he blistered everyone.
The A&M offense will be even better at QB and WR this year, but their chances of victory dropped a full 20% without Jace Sternberger or Baylor Cupp at tight end. If Venables has shown consistent vulnerability to any play caller, it’s Jimbo Fisher; to any position, it’s tight ends in the middle of the field. Jimbo plus tight end equals nightmare. Texas A&M has talented but unproven backs, and an offensive line which looked mighty vulnerable against Texas State. Nonetheless will be the biggest test for Clemson’s rebuilt front until December.
The void sans Sternberger and Cupp puts A&M’s chances almost completely in Kellen Mond’s hands. Sure, this year Clemson has film on him, plus the dropped interceptions and tipped-passes-turned-completions-and-crazy-touchdowns trend can’t pick up where it left off, can it? Mond and his receivers are that good, it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
A year ago, A&M benefited from some insane luck to get back in the game. But once back in it, Clemson benefited from some insane luck to escape with the win. Naturally both sides find equal motivation from these opposing factors. It’s an extra ingredient in a bubbling dish of HYPE.
It’s beyond cliche, but whichever team has a better run game will create space for their respective outstanding QBs and WRs, and eventually outlast the other. It is strength versus strength and weakness versus weakness in just about every positional match-up in this game, but Clemson has at least slightly better players at most positions. The one phase where there’s an expected strength versus a perceived weakness is Clemson’s offensive line and running backs versus the lesser inexperienced A&M defensive front.
For all their dazzling skill players, Clemson should win behind its best offensive line in memory finding enough space for Lawrence and Etienne to complement one another. Mond and those receivers will keep A&M in it, and should a consistent run threat emerge for A&M, so will a shootout. But Clemson has more proven pieces where to capitalize where A&M lacks, and has the superstars to match A&M where they’re strong.