WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.1 CLEMSON vs. NO.11 TEXAS A&M
- 2019-09-06 14:22:15
Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
What a start to the Tigers’ national title defense last week! Travis Etienne announced his Heisman campaign with authority, rushing for 205 yards and 3 touchdowns on just 12 carries! His first TD went for 90 yards, tying a Clemson record. It was a career record in yardage, his second career 200-yard game and his fourth 3-touchdown game. The Tigers’ offense racked up 632 total yards, and the defense wasn’t too shabby either! They allowed just 14 points and 294 total yards, recording 3 sacks and 3 turnovers. Special teams chipped in a fourth turnover, and first-year starting place kicker B.T. Potter nailed his only field goal attempt from 51-yards, which was longer than any made by Greg Huegel in his career as four-year starter. With the 52-14 win, Dabo passed the legendary Bobby Bowden for best ACC win percentage (.814) in history!
The season opener is out of the way now, and it’s time for big-boy football, as the top-ranked Defending Champs welcome No.11/12 Texas A&M to Death Valley. It will be the most talented team the Tigers face until the College Football Playoff, and we all remember what a dog fight last year’s meeting turned into late in the game. Many people, however, only recall the final score and the fact that the Aggies had a chance to tie the game in the final minute with a 2-point conversion. In actuality, the game was never very close until the last few minutes. The Aggies were never tied or in the lead past the first quarter, and the Tigers had opportunities to blow the game open if not for several mistakes, like a fumbled snap on the goal line resulting in no points. It was also as hostile an environment as could be, at night with over 100,000 fans after hosting ESPN College GameDay, and the Tigers split time at quarterback. That being said, this A&M team looks to be stronger in many ways, and has a full season with Jimbo Fisher’s offense and Mike Elko’s defense. They’ve lost a couple key players on offense but were dominant on both sides of the ball last week, and quarterback Kellen Mond was very sharp. It’s another big-time ACC vs. SEC matchup, and Death Valley is gonna be rocking!
On a personal note, my brother, sister and I all graduated from Clemson, and our three cousins and uncle all graduated from A&M, so there are serious bragging rights on the line within my family. Beyond my own family, the similarities between these two schools and football programs have always resonated with me. Both are land grant schools that were founded as military and agricultural colleges in the late 1800’s and produced the most World War II officers of any school outside of the service academies. A&M’s football program is in its 125th season—one more than Clemson—and the two programs are neck-and-neck in terms of success on the field. Clemson has exactly 3 more wins all-time, a slightly better win percentage (.614 to .601) and two more AP national titles (Aggies’ only one was in 1939, three years after the AP Poll was created), but the Aggies have a slight edge in NFL Draft picks and NFL first-rounders. A&M has two Heisman winners, and Clemson is still seeking its first, having been robbed three times. I attended both games between the Tigers and Aggies in 2004 and 2005. The former was Dabo Swinney’s second year on the staff, and it was a tough upset loss for Tommy Bowden, Charlie Whitehurst and company, who were ranked No.16 at the time against the unranked Aggies in College Station. The Tigers got the last laugh, though. In his first Clemson game as a true freshman, James Davis rushed for over 100 yards, and Jad Dean made 6 field goals, including the game-winner as time expired. The only touchdown of the game for the Tigers came on a Chansi Stuckey punt return. We’ll see if the Tigers can make it three in a row against the Aggies!
Clemson trails 3-2 all-time versus Texas A&M, but the Tigers have won the last two meetings….Clemson has won 8 of its last 9 games versus SEC teams….Tigers are going for 17th straight win, tying the program record from 2014-15….Clemson has not lost a game before October since 2014….Clemson has won 11 straight games by 20 points or more. One more will tie last year’s Alabama team for the longest streak ever…Clemson has had a positive turnover margin for 4 straight games, the longest streak since 2013.… With the win over Tech last week, Clemson has won its last 10 straight games featured by ESPN College GameDay regardless of home, away or neutral…Clemson is 26-3 in its last 29 night games. Two of the three losses were to Alabama, and the third was at Syracuse without a starting QB or starting kicker…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 61 straight weeks. Georgia is 3rd at 30 weeks…Dabo is now 10-1 in season openers, losing only at UGA in 2014…Clemson has won 16 straight in Death Valley going back to the last-second loss to Pitt in 2016. Prior to that, the Tigers won 21 straight….
TEXAS A&M SYNOPSIS
The Aggies, of course, are in their second season under Jimbo Fisher, who is as familiar as anyone with Dabo, Venables and Clemson. He even went head-to-head with Venables while he was the Oklahoma Defensive Coordinator before moving to Clemson—once while Fisher was at LSU under Nick Saban and twice while at FSU. So it shouldn’t have surprised so many that the Aggies made some adjustments in the second half last season that enabled them to get back in the game offensively, putting up 23 points after just 3 points in the first half. Of course, the Aggies also benefited from some spectacular—perhaps lucky in some cases—catches and some dropped interceptions by the Tigers.
The Aggies lost a couple key offensive weapons from last season, most notably RB Trayveon Williams, who led the SEC in rushing last year. However, Williams wasn’t a factor in last year’s meeting in College Station. The Tigers did a superb job against the run, holding Williams to just 31 yards an no touchdowns on 17 carries. What hurt the Tigers last year was Kellen Mond, those receivers and the passing game. Mond was 23/40 for 430 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 33 net yards. Replacing Williams at running back will be 6’0, 210-pound sophomore Jashaun Corbin (#7), who rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries last week in their 41-7 win over Texas State. Corbin is not quite as powerful between the tackles as Williams was, but they like to get him the ball in space with the passing game. He had 4 catches for 12 yards and another TD last week. Ironically, the Aggies have a freshman back named Spiller, who wears #28! That will be odd for Clemson fans to see on Saturday. The 6’1, 220-pound Isaiah Spiller averaged over 15 yards per carry, going for 106 total. They also have a junior corner named Renfro (who does not wear #13), but he was suspended for the opener as well as this game.
The Aggies’ other big loss on offense is at tight end, where Jace Sternberger was one of the best in the nation last year and selected No.75 overall in the NFL Draft. He also did not have one of his best games in last year’s meeting, failing to find the end zone, but he did have two catches for 48 yards. More importantly, his absence will likely be felt from a blocking standpoint. The tight end always figures prominently in Jimbo Fisher’s pro-style offense, and he will have to rely on a couple of young, inexperienced tight ends this year. Sophomore Glenn Beal (#86) is 6’5 and 265 pounds. He had just two catches for 10 yards last week after appearing in 8 games without a reception last season. They have a talented freshman in 6’5, 260-pound Jalen Wydermeyer (#85), who had one catch for 9 yards last week.
Ultimately, though, the Aggies will go as far as QB Kellen Mond takes them. The junior had his coming out party against the Tigers last year, playing like a Heisman winner and rallying his team to nearly tie the game with a last-minute 2-point conversion. And that, albeit early, was against the defense that shutout Alabama in the second half, allowing just 16 points in the National Championship. The Tigers sacked Mond 4 times but easily could have had a few more if not for Mond’s escapability and finding his hot routes. Jimbo Fisher has praised Mond highly for his progress since last season, saying that Mond is light years beyond where he was last season in terms of his understanding of the offense, decision-making, confidence and accuracy. That was on full display last week against an admittedly inferior Texas State team. He made a couple tremendously accurate throws on deep passes last week.
Of course, a big part of Mond’s success in that game last year was the play of his wide receivers, all four of whom are back. They made sensational catches all over the field, including a couple of circus catches by Rogers for touchdowns. Rogers, Davis, Ausbon and Buckley are all dangerous play-makers for the Aggies, and for the Tigers’ secondary, it’s going to feel a little similar to what they face in practice every day. It will be a great barometer for first-year starting corner Derion Kendrick after playing a team like Georgia Tech that does not have a great passing game. 6’4, 204-pound Kendrick Rodgers is the biggest of the group and had 7 catches for 120 yards and the aforementioned 2 touchdowns against the Tigers last year. The battle between Rogers and lengthy corner A.J. Terrell will be wildly entertaining. 6’2, 194-pound Camron Buckley (#14) had 4 catches for 93 yards in the game last year. 6’2, 218-pound Jhamon Ausbon (#2) was high school teammates with Mond at IMG Academy in Florida. He had 3 catches for 61 yards. 6’2, 200-pound Quartney Davis (#1) had 2 catches for 39 yards. Davis and Ausbon led the way last week with 85 and 75 yards, respectively, and a touchdown each. They also have a talented redshirt freshman in Jalen Preston (#5) at 6’2 and 214 pounds. Finally, be on the lookout for true freshman Kenyon Jackson (#83). He didn’t have a catch last week, but at 6’6, 200-pounds, he is a matchup problem if Fisher feels he’s ready for live bullets. Interestingly, Jackson played at Grayson High in Loganville, GA, the same school as Chase Brice, Wayne Gallman that used to be coached by Clemson Safeties Coach Mickey Conn. Incidentally, I saw Mond and Ausbon play in high school when I covered the game between IMG and Grayson. Mond and Chase Brice went head-to-head, and Mond came away with a 20-point road win. Clemson LB Mike Jones, Jr. also played for IMG in that game!
One last note of interest about the Aggie offense: you might recall the name of sophomore RB Cordarrian Richardson (#25). That’s because the Memphis native was a Clemson commitment in the 2017 recruiting class but didn’t qualify academically. As a result, Dabo and the staff discovered Travis Etienne just a couple months before National Signing Day, and the rest is history! That’s right, the all-time Clemson career leader in yards per carry would not be at Clemson if not for Richardson’s de-commitment. Amazing how life works! Richardson wound up at UCF and played on their undefeated “national championship team” in 2017 before transferring to A&M and sitting out last season. He had 2 carries for 12 yards last week, but you know he would love to make an impact on Saturday!
Defensively, the Aggies have come a long way in a short time under Defensive Coordinator Mike Elko in just over a year. They used to be one of the worst run defenses in the SEC, and last year they were 3rd in the nation! Elko made Wake Forest one of the best defensive teams in the nation before spending a year at Notre Dame and then moving to Texas with Fisher, so he is very familiar with the Tigers' offense. The Tigers’ running backs rushed for just 70 yards, although they only carried the ball 13 times. Kelly Bryant netted 54 yards on the ground. There are several great matchups to watch in this game, but the Aggies’ front seven against the Tigers’ running game might be the most intriguing, especially after Etienne and the Tigers rushed for over 400 yards last week! 6’3, 304-pound junior DT Justin Madubuike (#52) is a beast on the interior. He had the Aggies’ solitary sack against the Tigers last year and looked good last week. The Aggies return just 4 starters from last season, and 3 of them are in the secondary, which is problematic because that was their biggest weakness last year. They were ranked No.98 in pass defense, having allowed 253.2 yards per game. One of the returning starters, Renfro, will also miss the game Saturday due to a suspension. However, the secondary looked pretty darn good last week, coming up with four interceptions in the opener. We’ll find out how good they really are when they go against Trevor Lawrence and the best wide receiver group in the nation.
Finally, the Aggies return the best punter in the nation, Braden Mann, who won the Ray Guy Award last year and had a big game against the Tigers. He averaged 55 yards on his 5 punts in that game, with a long of 73! Punters are rarely impactful weapons, but he is certainly one of them. Field position is probably the second most important statistic behind turnovers, and Mann can flip it over and over. They have a returning place kicker in sophomore Seth Small. He was 20-28 last season with a long of 52 yards, so he has a good leg. He was 2-3 from 50 plus and 3-6 from 40-49 yards. He was 2-2 last week in the opener. Small supplanted senior kicker Daniel LaCamera last year shortly after LaCamera was 2-4 in the Clemson game, including a chip-shot miss.
Jimbo Fisher’s press conference from earlier in the week is below. He talks about what a challenge Clemson will be and what a great environment Death Valley is. Worth a listen!
Although the Tigers escaped College Station with a win last year, it seems like they feel they have unfinished business with the Aggies—especially on the defensive side. Starting safety K’Von Wallace told us that was definitely the case for him personally on Monday. Remember, it was Wallace who made the game-saving tackle at the goal line in the 4th quarter, and he also made the interception on the 2-point conversion attempt to seal it, but he also dropped a couple of interceptions, including one that tipped into the hands of Kendrick Rogers for the Aggies’ last touchdown. I expect to see the defense come out with a chip on its shoulder, looking to make a statement. Of course, motivation and emotion can only get you so far, and it mostly comes down to execution. In that regard, the inexperienced defensive front has an opportunity to prove that there is little or no drop-off from last year’s elite group. They were outstanding for the most part against an overmatched Georgia Tech team, but this will be another animal on Saturday.
The biggest question mark heading into the game will be whether we see slot receiver and punt returner Amari Rodgers make his 2019 debut. Rodgers, of course, tore his ACL back in March and is way ahead of schedule with his rehab. Interestingly, I asked Dabo a week before the opener if there was any chance Amari might play against A&M. Dabo said there was "no chance” and that he should be back by late September or early October. However, Dabo was asked again during our Sunday evening teleconference, and he said that it was a possibility. My hunch is that they will not risk playing Amari early, but if the game is tight at halftime, we could see him in the second half. Or he might come in early if Derion Kendrick muffs a punt. Rodgers was the starting punt returner all of last season. However, if the Tigers have a two-touchdown lead or more for most of the game—as was the case last year—why risk playing Rodgers? Save him another week for a tough road game at Syracuse. We shall see. Diondre Overton will likely start at slot for the second straight week. He had just one catch for 3 yards last week but made a terrific touchdown catch from Kelly Bryant in College Station last year, and that proved to be the difference in the game.
This will be a fascinating chess match to watch between offensive guru Jimbo Fisher and Brent Venables, who befuddled Alabama in the championship last January. Again, Jimbo knows Venables as well as anyone, so it will be interesting to see if Venables can come up with some wrinkles that will catch Fisher off guard and vice-versa. I don’t expect the crowd to adversely affect Mond and his veteran receivers too much. They have been in plenty of similar environments in the SEC. However, it could be a factor for the young tight ends and running backs for the Aggies, not to mention starting freshman right guard Kenyon Green (#55). At 6’4, 330 pounds, he is going to be a great one in years to come, but you never know how a freshman will handle his first big game in an environment like Death Valley.
Turnovers and field position are always huge factors, but they could be particularly important in this one. The Tigers have won the turnover margin for four straight games going back to last season. That hasn’t always been the case, often times in recent years winning in spite of—not because of—turnovers. The Tigers recovered two fumbles—and should have had two or three interceptions—last season at A&M and did not turn the ball over. One of those turnovers was with the Aggies’ backup quarterback in the game after Mond lost his helmet. The Tigers came up with 4 turnovers last week, but they also gave the ball away 3 times, and all by their two Heisman candidates. We’re not used to seeing Etienne cough up the football or Trevor Lawrence throw interceptions. He had just 4 all of last season, and one of those was a fluke off the back of Gage Cervenka’s helmet in the fourth game at Georgia Tech. To be fair, Trevor’s second interception was a throw-away with time running out before halftime. He simply left the ball too far in play instead of throwing it out of bounds. On the first pick, the corner made a great read on a screen and jumped the route. I expect Trevor to learn from that and not make the same mistake again. Hopefully, the Tigers will play a much cleaner game on Saturday and have gotten those mistakes out of their system!
In the final analysis, I believe the Tigers are too explosive, have too many weapons and are too balanced for the Aggies to hang with them for 4 quarters. If they load the box to stop the run, Trevor can pick apart their secondary. If they try to double Tee Higgins or Justyn Ross, the other will be left on an island with his corner for a one-on-one, and that usually favors the Tigers, at it did on Tee’s 62-yard TD last week. The Aggies have great receivers too, but without Trayveon Williams, I like the Tigers’ chances of stopping the run without heavy support from the back seven. The Tigers will need to employ a spy at the second level to prevent Mond from scrambling when the pocket breaks down, and Muse will need to be sound in his eye discipline so he doesn’t get beat over the top if he cheats up for run support. The Tigers have won 11 straight games by 20 points or more and need just one more to tie Alabama for the most ever. Dabo wouldn’t talk about that, but don’t think for a minute that it’s not in the back of his mind. It will be interesting to see what he does if the Tigers have the ball with a couple minutes left and a 13-19 point win. Ordinarily, he would sit on the ball and run the clock out, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to score and keep that streak going. This game might be close early, but the Tigers will be too much for the Aggies. Make it 9 out of the last 10 for the Tigers over the SEC. They tie the school record with their 17th straight win--the nation's longest active win streak--and win by just enough to keep the 20-point win streak alive with a chance to make history at Syracuse!
The Prowl toward a 5th consecutive ACC Title, a 5th consecutive CFP appearance and a 4th National Title continues……
CLEMSON 48 Texas A&M 28
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