WHAT WE ARE HEARING: #2 CLEMSON vs TEXAS A&M PREVIEW AND PREDICTION
- 2018-09-07 11:13:47
Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
The second-ranked Tigers could not have hoped for a much better debut than their season opener against Furman last week. They were sharp in all three phases in their 48-7 win and emptied their bench early. The freshmen and redshirt freshmen were outstanding, starting with Trevor Lawrence, who led the Tigers to points on all five of his drives, including four touchdowns—two of which went over 90 yards.
It was an auspicious performance and just the tune-up the Tigers needed because they will face a stern road test on Saturday at Texas A&M. This is the matchup I ranked as the most dangerous game on the schedule for the Tigers, and watching the Aggies’ opener last week did nothing to dispel that assessment. Granted, the Aggies’ opponent was about as bad as could be, but A&M has some play-makers on offense, and the defense looks to be improved already. Beyond that, A&M boasts the fourth-largest stadium in the nation at almost 103,000, and you can bet it will be bursting at the seams on Saturday night. The Aggies expanded their stadium just a few years ago, so this could be a new attendance record. Needless to say, it will be a level of noise the Tigers have never heard before. The closest thing they have faced was South Carolina last year or Florida State and Auburn the year before, but this will be even louder than any of those. As a Clemson grad, I made the trip to College Station for the last meeting between the two schools in 2004, and I was blown away by the noise and intensity of Kyle Field—and that was when the stadium held 20,000 less people! A game there is the football equivalent of Cameron Indoor Field, but the Aggies’ student section is about ten times bigger than the one at Duke! One of the Aggies’ many traditions is their Midnight Yell Practice the night before home games, and their choreographed cheers can easily get inside the heads of opponents. We all know A&M is home of the 12th man, which means the students stand at the ready throughout the entire game. There is also, of course, the presence of the A&M Corps of Cadets in the stands, which adds somewhat of a unique intimidation factor absent at other schools. This is about as it gets this early in the season, so we will find out a lot about this Clemson team that so many have predicted to win it all and is practically a unanimous pick to return to the College Football Playoff.
Clemson won the last meeting on a last-second field goal in 2005, but Texas A&M leads the all-time series 3-1…Clemson has played 11 games in the state of Texas with a 5-6 record, last winning in the 1959 Bluebonnet Bowl…This will be the Tigers’ 18th appearance on ESPN College GameDay, and they are 10-7 in such games…This is the Tigers appeared on GameDay 3 times in each of the last 2 seasons, winning all 6 of those games…The Tigers have won 3 straight road openers. A win Saturday would make the senior class the first Tigers to win all 4 of their road openers since the 1989 senior class….Tigers are looking for their 4th straight true road win against the SEC, which would be a program record…Tigers are 14-1 in their last 15 true road games…Clemson has won 16 straight regular season non-conference games, dating to 2104, a program record….Clemson is looking to win the turnover margin in consecutive games for the first time since the Fiesta Bowl win over Ohio State….Kelly Bryant needs just 2 completions to pass Steve Fuller for 11th on the all-time Clemson completion list and 9 completions to pass his coach, Brandon Streeter, for 10th….Texas A&M has been ranked in the AP Poll 436 times compared to 420 times for Clemson, but the Tigers lead the Aggies 10-6 in AP No. 1 rankings. A&M has 732 all-time wins, 3 more than Clemson. However, the Tigers have a higher win percentage: .609 to .601….Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 45 weeks. Next is Wisconsin at 25 weeks, followed by Georgia at 14….Dabo Swinney has met or exceeded his team’s preseason ranking in both the AP and Coaches Polls each of the last 7 years, including 2016 when the Tigers were No.2 preseason and finished No.1. No other coach has done that more than 5 straight years….
TEXAS A&M SYNOPSIS
Obviously, A&M let go Kevin Sumlin and hired Jimbo Fisher last December—a coach with whom Dabo Swinney and the Tigers are all too familiar. The ACC Atlantic rivalry between the Tigers and Seminoles has been one of the best in college football during Fisher’s tenure at FSU, with the winner of the game winning the ACC Title for the last 8 straight years. Dabo is 4-4 against Jimbo all-time, so this will be quite a rubber match!
In addition to Jimbo, the Tigers are familiar with Defensive Coordinator Mike Elko. He coached at Wake Forest from 2014-16 before moving to Notre Dame last year. When he was at Wake, they had one of the best defenses in the country, and he completely revitalized the Notre Dame defense in just one year. Elko is tasked with doing the same at A&M, which has struggled defensively—especially against the run—under longtime SEC defensive coordinator John Chavis, who is now working with Chad Morris at Arkansas.
So the Tigers have a little familiarity to go on as far as the coaches go, but there is none from a personnel standpoint. Dabo said that will be one of the big challenges in preparing for this game. I asked Venables how he thought the Aggies’ personnel fit in with Jimbo Fisher’s offensive scheme, and he was very impressed with their quarterback, running back and tight end. The tight end, Sternberger, transferred in this year, and he stood out to me when I watched their spring game last April. I knew he would be a good one, and sure enough, he scored two touchdowns in their opener. You can bet that he will be a factor and a matchup problem for the Tigers on Saturday. The tight end figures prominently in Jimbo Fisher’s offensive philosophy, which is pro style to an extent but is also very diverse. In fact, the Aggies’ tight ends caught just 7 passes all season last year, and the 6’4, 250-pound Sternberger caught 5 passes with 2 touchdowns last week!
The Aggies also have a good one at the running back position in Trayveon Williams. The 5’9, 200-pound junior put on a show in the opener, rushing for 240 yards on 20 carries with 3 touchdowns. The compact back has great burst and will be a challenge for the Tigers’ front seven. Williams only rushed for 800 yards and 8 touchdowns last year, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Senior RB Kwami Etwi also rushed 8 times for 83 yards.
At quarterback, the Aggies had their own competition going on in August just like the Tigers. Nick Starkel started the Aggies’ last 6 games of last season, including their bowl loss to Wake Forest, and many thought he would be the starter again this year. However, true sophomore Kellen Mond won the competition and allayed any controversy there might be with his play in the opener. The 6’2, 210-pounder was 17-25 for 184 yards with 2 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for a touchdown. Mond started 8 games last season as a true freshman after coming into the opener against UCLA when Starkel suffered an ankle injury. Mond’s completion percentage last season was just 51.5%, and he looked much more accurate last week. He made a perfect throw on a deep ball for a would-be touchdown, but it went right through the arms of WR Camron Buckley. While the Aggies are feeling very comfortable with Mond at the helm after their 59-7 win over lowly Northwestern State, you have to wonder if there will be any dissension or second-guessing if Mond struggles early against the Tigers’ defense. I watched Mond play live a couple years ago when his IMG team played at Grayson High against Chase Brice. Mond looks like a much different quarterback now! He will only get better with the tutelage of Jimbo Fisher. Incidentally, Mond was a teammate of freshman Clemson linebacker Mike Jones, Jr. at IMG.
Mond’s favorite target at WR is 6’2, 220-pound Jhamon Ausbon (#2), his old teammate at IMG. Ausbon led the Aggies with 6 catches for 81 yards last week. He had 50 catches for 571 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. 6’2, 190-pound sophomore Camron Buckley (#14) had 3 catches for 44 yards last week but dropped a touchdown pass, as I mentioned earlier.
Defensively, look out for DE Landis Durham (#46). The 6’3, 255-pound senior led the SEC last year with 11 sacks. He comes off the left side, so he will be going against Tremayne Anchrum, not Mitch Hyatt. That will be a very interesting matchup because Anchrum had an outstanding game in the opener—so much so that he was named Offensive MVP by Dabo and was also named ACC Co-Offensive lineman of the week. The Aggies also return a pair of linebackers—Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka—who had 6 sacks apiece last year.
After the way both Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence played in the opener last week, it should come as no surprise that Dabo will go with the same formula at the quarterback position. Kelly Bryant will start the game, but Trevor Lawrence will come in at some point in the first half—likely after two or three series. The mentality of the staff and the team is that they are handling the quarterbacks like every other position—playing multiple players that are equally capable. To their credit, the quarterback duo are handling the whole situation beautifully. In talking to Bryant and Lawrence this week, there is absolutely no tension or animosity apparent. Conversely, they actually seem to be genuinely pulling for each other. This “time sharing” cannot be easy for either player, as they are both alpha competitors and want to play all of the snaps. However, they have both handled the situation with dignity, humility and selflessness. That’s the sort of attitude that seems to permeate this entire program and is a big reason the Tigers are where they are right now. Of course, the prevailing theory is that a dual quarterback system cannot work long-term because it prevents one quarterback from getting into a rhythm. Perhaps there is some merit to that theory, but you wouldn’t think so if you talk to Bryant or Lawrence. Both downplayed that notion. It didn’t seem to adversely affect them last week because they both played very well. Bryant was 11-17 for 132 yards with one touchdown passing and one rushing, and Lawrence was 9-14 for 137 yards with 3 touchdowns through the air. What remains to be seen is whether both quarterbacks will be able to perform in abbreviated segments again in a hostile road environment in front of 100,000 screaming Aggies. I would not expect to see Trevor Lawrence thrown into the game inside his own 10-yard line again like he was twice last week. Despite his obvious poise, that is not an ideal situation for a true freshman playing on the road for the first time. Jeff Scott told me considerations like that wouldn’t factor into their decision-making, but I’ll still be surprised if they do it. Kelly Bryant has been in these environments several times, and he has risen to the occasion. In night road games at Louisville, Virginia Tech and South Carolina last season, Bryant was at his best and led the Tigers to big early leads. So you have to feel good about him starting the game in this environment. Ideally, the Tigers will ease Trevor Lawrence into the game with a lead and good field position.
It will be interesting to see how the Tigers’ other talented young players perform on the big stage on the road. So many freshmen and redshirt freshmen made big plays last week. Justyn Ross scored on his first career reception. Braden Galloway scored on his second reception. Derion Kendrick made a 38-yard catch. Lyn-J Dixon had a 61-yard run on his second carry. Baylon Spector forced and recovered a fumble. Jackson Carman had a big block on the long Dixon run. Which of those freshmen will play and be a factor on Saturday? I think you can expect to see Ross on the field, but I’m not sure about the rest. That will be something to keep an eye on—especially if it’s a tight game. Will Galloway get some opportunities despite his inexperience at the tight end position? I can tell you one freshman—aside from Trevor Lawrence and Justyn Ross—who you will see on the field, and that is BT Potter. The kickoff specialist had a phenomenal debut, getting touchbacks on all 6 of his kicks, putting all of them into or out of the end zone. That will be a huge weapon for the Tigers—especially in road games like this one, in which field position is so critical. Touchbacks keep the crowd from getting fired up and force the offense to go 75 yards against arguably the best defense in the nation.
From a health standpoint, the Tigers are in great shape. Dabo opted not to update us on the status of DT Jordan Williams, who suffered a knee injury in the opener. My gut tells me that he will not play on Saturday. Otherwise, the Tigers will have all hands on deck. Co-Starting TE Milan Richard sat out the opener but should be good to go.
The Tigers are currently favored by 12.5 points, which is a significant spread for a team on the road. On paper, I think the Tigers are at least 17 points better than the Aggies. A&M looked great in Jimbo Fisher’s debut last week, but that team they played was probably even worse than Furman. The Aggies have probably been hearing about how great they are all week and have no idea what they are in for. As I stated, Mond showed improved accuracy, but how accurate will he be with the “Orange Rush” of Ferrell, Wilkins, Lawrence and Bryant bearing down on him? I think the Aggies’ offensive line, which features 3 starting sophomores, will be overwhelmed by the Tigers’ front seven. I also like the Tigers’ experience with these types of games. While it’s true they’ve never played in front of more than 100,000, the Tigers have been in too many of these primetime road games to count. In fact, with the exception of NC State last season, every game away from home for the last two years has been at night. That experience will serve the Tigers well, and they will execute their game plan. If the Tigers win the coin toss, they will opt to defer and play defense first. If they can start the game with a touchback, a three-and-out, score a touchdown with the short field, and then repeat that to take a 14-0 lead, the crowd at Kyle Field will be much more tolerable. If the Tigers have some turnovers, penalties or mistakes and keep the Aggies in it, that crowd will be a big factor. Fortunately, the Tigers played a very clean game in their opener last week. They did not turn the ball over or have any dropped passes, and they were nearly perfect in special teams. Greg Huegel was 2-2 on field goals, including a career long of 49 yards. That was great to see after he missed most of last season with a torn ACL. Like Kelly Bryant, Huegel has been on the big stage under pressure many times, going all the way back to the National Championship Game in the 2015 season. He will not be rattled. Spiers also has experience in pressure situations. He did not have a good game in the Alabama loss last season, but at least he has the experience. He landed a punt inside the 5-yard line last week, but Tanner Muse couldn’t find the football, and it bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
The bottom line is that the Tigers have been there and done that, and the Aggies are still trying to figure out who they are under a new coaching regime. The old axiom in college football is that defense travels, and the Tigers’ defense will be the key to the offense settling in and quieting the crowd. In talking to the players this week, you could tell all the guys on defense cannot wait to get out there and shut the Aggies down on their own field. I asked several of them about playing on the road, and they all love it because, unlike Death Valley, the crowd is nearly silent while they’re on the field. That makes it easy for the defense to communicate and make adjustments. In fact, a couple of them told me they actually prefer playing on the road.
The Tigers are 7-2 in their last 9 SEC games, with both losses coming against Alabama in the playoff. Make that 8-2! Dabo Swinney breaks the 4-4 tie with Jimbo Fisher and brings 100,000 Aggies back to reality. Just like Virginia Tech last year, the Tigers spoil the party for an ESPN College GameDay crowd.
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Championship, 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and 3rd National Championship continues….
CLEMSON 34 Texas A&M 17
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