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#1 Clemson Hosts Texas A&M: A Game Preview

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NCAA Football: Georgia Tech at Clemson
There goes that man again.
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

I’m feeling pretty good having just barely missed my prediction on the GT game. I must say I was more than a little surprised to see the Jackets play so much 2 deep because Clemson is always going to choose to pound the run game above all else. Since GT invited it, the Tigers happily ran for over 400 yards as a team with Travis Etienne putting up a stat line similar to what I used to do with Bo Jackson on Super Tecmo Bowl. Meanwhile, GT brought a gameplan on offense similar to what Boston College did in 2017 and what Georgia Southern did last year. They happily ran the ball nearly every play until the score was out of hand and the third team QB entered before they threw to try and appear respectable. This week will be an entirely different story.

Clemson offense vs. Texas A&M defense: I had the “assess the threat” article for this game, and I noted then that there was a lot of talk about what Clemson had to replace on the defense. While a valid storyline, we should not overlook that Mike Elko is having to replace a great deal of his front seven from last year as well. Elko brings a similar approach as Brent Venables, employing a lot of quarters coverage but mixing fronts and pressures behind some pure man and cover 3. What we likely WON’T see much of is that cover 2 shell GT used the majority of the night. Clemson is much more equipped to handle the Aggie defense this time than in 2018 when both Lawrence and Kelly Bryant were splitting time. The Clemson OL is perhaps stronger than it has ever been and Lawrence is far beyond where he was this time last year. While it isn’t impossible to fool or confuse him, as we saw GT pull the trick last week, it is also unlikely to get him uncomfortable the way the Aggies managed to do last year before Bryant guided the ship the majority of the second half.

What the Aggies do have are some high level athletes which gives them the notion of trying to match up on the perimeter against Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, and Diondre Overton. Elko has to know that giving Etienne space is a recipe for disaster and will very likely employ a safety in heavy run support. The Aggies have to think their offense is good enough to hang and can afford to take some chances defensively in hopes of getting the Tigers off schedule or creating a big mistake/turnover. At the same time, they need to hope their relatively green front seven stays assignment sound and adjusts quickly to the exponential jump in talent they are seeing this week vs. their opener with Texas State. The Aggies are big on defense, sporting 300+ pounders at DT and a secondary of guys all 6’1” or taller. If they can somehow hold up on the Clemson run game with six in the box, their chances of an upset win go way up.

I see Clemson’s edge being it has a proven star at RB and an OL who can plow the road, as well as an all world talent at QB and stud WR’s. The Aggies have a lot of very good ingredients as well, but are not proven at RB and haven’t proven it can handle this big of a game just yet, especially on the road. The Aggies won one true road game last year, which was a 3 point squeaker over a very mediocre U of SC. They lost badly to Alabama, Mississippi State, and were one of Auburn’s 3 league wins last year. Last year isn’t this year, but you have to note things like that when judging a program’s progression before a big game.

Another interesting note is that Cordarrian Richardson will get to play in Death Valley after all. He’s listed as a potential starter though last week shows he is more like fourth team currently. Jimbo has some serious transfer portal fear with some of his depth chart listings it seems to me.

Clemson defense vs. Texas A&M offense: This is the place where things are most interesting. If you are going to beat Clemson, can you get to 28 points or more? Because that is what it is going to take. Nobody could do it last year except U of SC who gave up nearly 800 yards and 56 points on the other side of the ball. The Clemson offense is just on a level that holding it under 28 is very unrealistic for nearly every team in the nation. As crazy as Kellen Mond went in last year’s game, the Aggies still ended up with just 26 points. This was with at least three dropped interceptions and about six missed holding calls vs. the Aggie OL.

The Aggies have to find a way to run the ball to a 4 yard per carry clip or better because as good as Mond and the Aggie WR are, if Clemson knows the pass is coming, they will be in trouble and forced into turnovers. The last two non Alabama losses had that run element. Pitt in 2016 and Syracuse in 2017 were able to run the ball well enough to keep the Tigers off balance defensively while the Tiger offense turned over the ball. The Aggies do have a massive OL and a dual threat QB to make this a possibility, especially since the Tigers no longer have the Power Rangers up front. We will see just how ready Tyler Davis, Nyles Pinckney, and Jordan Williams are this week.

The Clemson starting linebackers were extremely impressive in week one in terms of positioning. There were some missed tackles, mainly from Skalski, but that is less worrisome than poor gap control or looking slow. Isaiah Simmons looked the part of the next level stud we are expecting him to be and presents the type of player who can wreck 11 personnel packages designed to abuse a mismatch with the strong side LB or nickel back. The heavy dose of zone read and QB run game Clemson saw last week was a benefit for prepping for this week’s showdown. Jimbo Fisher has never wanted to feature his QB in the run game and has been willing to expose his quarterbacks with lighter protections during his days in Tallahassee and now in College Station. Mond is a threat more as a scrambler than a zone read runner, though he will do that on occasion like Trevor Lawrence. If Fisher can find a run game, this will become a shootout. The gameplan has to be to make Mond throw to win and make their WR’s win contested balls to win. If they do that, tip your cap to them.

Special Teams: A game like this one could very well come down to some special teams play or plays like Louisville 2016 or even Syracuse last year when a muffed punt nearly doomed the Tigers. B.T. Potter looked amazing on kickoffs and that 51 yard FG that felt like 31 coming off his foot. Spiers was better, though I’m not totally behind the effusive praise Dabo sent his way, but hitting 40 yarders with big hang time is actually better in my mind than a longer punt that is lower. That first Spiers punt fit the bill perfectly and the GT returner helped the cause by muffing it. Ngata certainly looked dangerous on kick return as he adds an added element of physicality to the normal speed/elusiveness you expect from a return guy. Justin Miller was that way and Tiger fans will remember how electric he could be in that department. The looming question is how soon will Amari Rodgers return to the fold? He was left off the depth chart but that doesn’t mean #3 won’t trot out there at some point Saturday. I doubt we see him on punt return just yet as he returns to action, meaning Kendrick is still the man. He got a butt chewing last week for not returning the one punt that GT’s punter didn’t crush. Maybe he atones this week with a big time return, but the Aggies bring back Braden Mann who didn’t just become Ray Guy for one week against Clemson like we see so often, he actually and won the Ray Guy award. We can only hope he has an off night or at least an off punt or two after crushing 60+ yarders over our heads last year.

Overall: You can make a strong argument that this Clemson team is on par with last year’s overall. While the defensive line is clearly inferior, the offense is a notch better, the back four are definitely better, and the special teams may be significantly better. That begs the question how much better is Texas A&M? Look at that punting clip from last year and you can see how much Mann probably saved the Aggies from going down three or four scores before halftime. There is no question in my mind that this is best QB/WR combination the Tigers will see pre-playoffs, but they will need to play a very clean game and turn this into a shootout. I see them hanging for a while but eventually buckling under the weight of Death Valley and the Tiger offense. Trevor Lawrence won’t play his C- game two in a row.

Clemson 44 Texas A&M 21