CFB GAME PREVIEW: (11) Texas A&M @ (1) Clemson
By Joshua Edwards
An early season heavyweight clash with the 11 ranked Aggies travelling to South Carolina to face the defending champion, no.1 ranked Clemson Tigers. Josh Edwards previews the action from Death Valley here:
THE TWO TEAMS:
Texas A&M went 9-4 last season in head coach Jimbo Fisher’s first season in charge. The highlight win was a record breaking, 74-72 overtime victory over LSU in late November, their first against the Tigers in 8 games. They closed out the season with 4 straight wins including a blowout Gator Bowl victory over NC State (53-13). This season began with a dismantling of Texas State in which junior QB Kellen Mond impressed with a 160.0 passer rating and 3 touchdowns (1 pick). The Aggies get Clemson early in the schedule and an opportunity to shock the college football world. If they could pull it off, expect them to shoot up the AP poll next week.
Clemson won the College Football Playoffs in 2018 with a remarkable, blowout win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff which avenged their semi-final loss to the Crimson Tide from the previous year. The 44-16 win as 5.5pt underdogs was the icing on the cake of a perfect, unprecedented 15-0 season for the Tigers, and they opened up 2019 as the 1st ranked team in the country.
Despite losing 4 starters on the defensive line to the NFL (Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence, and Austin Bryant), Clemson’s 2019 team is being touted as one of the best college football teams in history. The offense is loaded – QB Trevor Lawrence and RB Travis Etienne are considered two of the best at their respective positions. ESPN has Clemson with an 88% chance of winning the ACC and to most that seems conservative. Expectations for the season are championship or bust for Sweeny and co. In the opener the Tigers unceremoniously dispatched Georgia Tech 52-14.
A&M and Clemson have played 5 times with the Aggies holding a 3-2 advantage in the series. Clemson have won the past 2 games though, and the last time that A&M beat the Tigers was back in 2004. Last season Clemson escaped College Station with a 28-26 win in a game that the Aggies, a 12.5pt underdog on the night, couldn’t believe they lost.
It’s year two of Jimbo Fisher, OC Darrell Dickey and DC Mike Elko for Texas A&M. Before Fisher joined the Aggies he was in charge at Florida State, where he presided over an impressive 83-23 record in 8 seasons. Fisher and co have installed a pro-style offense with an ‘establish the run’ philosophy for the Aggies. He is no stranger to the SEC either, having been on the staff at LSU and Auburn for a combined 13 seasons before landing the HC job at FSU. Fisher’s recruitment on both sides of the ball has focused on finding strong, big prospects who can dominate the line of scrimmage and compete physically with anyone. The SEC-ification of the Aggies will take time but there is optimism at College Station that Fisher can start to improve their uninspiring 30-26 SEC record since joining the conference in 2012.
This is Clemson HC Dabo Swinney’s 11th full season in charge of the Tigers. He is the highest paid coach in the history of college sports for a reason: the ex-Alabama walk-on wide receiver is seeking his third national title as Tigers head coach this season. He has built a dynasty at Clemson to rival the Crimson Tide and employs a relationship based coaching philosophy which is centred on personal development and ‘doing things the right way’.
‘Clemson-family’ is a much touted term in and around the facility, and has a literal meaning on Wednesdays when all the coaches and their respective families join the players for dinner. This kind of clichéd, wishy-washy approach would not fly on teams with worse records but Swinney is the second winningest coach in Clemson history behind only Frank Howard. When this sort of thing works so well, no-one critiques. This season Swinney will look to continue to benefit from the development of Trevor Lawrence, who is considered one of the best QB prospects in a long time.
THE KEY MATCHUP: Clemson wr CORPS VS. A&M SECONDARY
Last year the Aggies held Travis Etienne to just 44 yards on 8 carries and their defensive front, led by Justin Madubuike and Bobby Brown, will hope for similar this season. The real battle is in the passing game though, where the Aggies secondary faces off against an incredibly talented Clemson wide receiver corps. Tee Higgins is a day one 2020 draft lock. The Tigers also have Diondre Overton and freshmen Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata to worry the Aggies.
A&M only got 7 picks in all of 2018 but looked better in week one, albeit against lowly opposition, registering 4 picks. Junior cornerback Myles Jones had two of the interceptions. If Kellen Mond repeats his offensive performance of a year ago there’s no reason that the Aggies can’t score on Clemson – it remains to be seen however whether or not the secondary can keep Clemson’s wide receivers quiet. By doing so they can potentially force Trevor Lawrence into making mistakes which keep them close on the scoreboard.
THE DRAFT PROSPECTS:
Kellen Mond, QB: Mond returns for his junior year in 2019. His development from freshman to sophomore was very impressive. The 6’2, 217lb QB improved his completion percentage by 6 (51.5% to 57.3%) and posted a passer rating of 135.0 compared to 108.8 the previous year. Nevertheless, Mond would be brave to declare for a draft stacked with talented quarterbacks, and would need a stellar year of further development to rise up draft boards.
Quartney Davis, WR: What a way to spell Quartney. Davis has had his injury issues for the Aggies but, when healthy, has put up some impressive numbers. He had 12.5 yards per catch last year and 7 touchdowns, and in the opener this year he started well, with 6 catches for 85 yards and a score. Davis could opt to return for his senior year or declare early, depending on his season and health.
Kendrick Rogers, WR: Though Rogers’ numbers last season weren’t as impressive as the aforementioned Davis, he has solid potential as a draft prospect this year. Rogers has drawn Mike Evans comparisons and will look to get a bigger role this season in the Aggies offense.
Braden Mann, P: Honourable mention to Mann, who won last year’s Ray Guy award for the best punter in College Football. Mann was a unanimous All-American and averaged a record 51.5 yards per punt in 2018. If an NFL team takes a punter in 2020, he’ll be the first off the board and the 10th taken in the past 5 drafts combined.
Travis Etienne, RB: Last year’s ACC player of the year rushed for 1600 yards and 24 touchdowns, with an average of 6.5 yards per carry. Etienne has exceptional speed and can hurt any defense with his home run ability. He’s also patient enough to understand when to use that burst. To increase his potential as a first rounder the back will need to show more consistency as a pass catcher – he only caught 12 balls last year.
Isaiah Simmons, S/LB: Simmons, a linebacker-safety hybrid, is a big, strong tackling run defender who, at 6’3 and 230lbs has an impressive physical skillset. He had 88 tackles last year, 9 of which came in the opponent’s backfield. NFL teams will keep an eye on his coverage abilities this season and start making decisions about his suitability for both positions.
Tee Higgins, WR: Higgins is as close to a first round lock in 2020 as you will get at the wide receiver position. He is a complete WR, standing at 6’4 and with excellent speed for that size. If he matches or eclipses his 12 touchdowns of 2018 he is a shoe in for one of the first receivers drafted in the spring. His only issue might be ensuring enough of a share of the Clemson offense to continue to post big numbers.
AJ Terrell, CB: Terrell had 3 picks last season and emerges this season as Clemson’s standout corner after the departure of Trayvon Mullen to the NFL. He also had 54 tackles and quarterbacks were reluctant to throw the ball in his direction. Now entering his junior year, has the potential to develop further and stake a claim for being drafted in 2020.
I think this will be the first time in 12 games that Clemson doesn’t win by 20 or more points. However, even though Lawrence might continue to struggle to find his groove given the quality of A&M’s defense, the Tigers are too good to pick against in any game this year, barring multiple serious injuries. Mond was really impressive in this game last season (430 yards and 3 touchdowns) and he’ll be fired up to repeat but this one’s in Death Valley. Sorry Aggies fans, you might keep it closer than Vegas expects, and you might be the best team that the Tigers face until the playoffs, but you’re not beating Clemson.
Score prediction: Texas A&M 13-21 Clemson