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Clemson to See Familiar Faces at Texas A&M

By Dave Holcomb
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This Saturday, the Tigers will recognize so many faces in College Station that it’s going to feel like a conference matchup.

First meeting in a home-and-home series in 1973 and 1974, the Clemson Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies have squared off just four times in their long histories.

The other meetings came in another series in 2004 and 2005. That doesn’t sound like too long ago, but a lot has changed since then. At the time, Dabo Swinney was serving as a wide receivers coach on the Clemson staff.

Over recent years, teams from the ACC and SEC have met so often in non-conference contests and bowl games that it’s surprising Clemson and Texas A&M have played so infrequently. And yet this Saturday, the Tigers will recognize so many faces in College Station that it’s going to feel like a conference matchup.

The most familiar face is former Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who took over the reigns at Texas A&M. Fisher and Swinney have met every year since 2010, and during that time, the winner of their game represented the ACC Atlantic division in the conference’s championship game each year.

There isn’t another division in a Power 5 conference where two teams have so thoroughly dominated. In the ACC Coastal, every program except Pitt and Virginia has won the division since 2010, and Pitt only joined the conference in 2013. Actually, a different team has won the Coastal division each of the last five years.

Clearly, Clemson-Florida State, and as a result, the Swinney-Fisher matchup, became a rivalry, which will be renewed in Week 2. And neither coach appears to have an advantage against the other.

Swinney owns a 4-4 record against Fisher, who jettisoned Florida State for practically blood money ($75 million guaranteed). It’s been evenly matched, however, Swinney has won three in a row versus Fisher.

In the last two meetings, the Tigers scored 30-plus points. Last season, Clemson cruised to a 31-14 victory against Florida State.

If the Tigers are going to post 30-plus points versus Fisher again, they will have to do it against another familiar face - defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

From 2014-16, Elko served as defensive coordinator at Wake Forest. While the Demon Deacons finished in the middle of the ACC in yards allowed under Elko, they allowed the third-fewest points in the ACC during his final season. Behind the best red-zone defense in the ACC, Wake Forest yielded just 22.2 points per contest in 2016.

Swinney spoke about his respect for Elko, who coached at Notre Dame in 2017, this week.

“Their D-coordinator came from Notre Dame, he came from Wake Forest and I was really, really happy when he left (Wake) and went to Notre Dame because he was one of the best that we saw, year in and year out,” Swinney said. “He does a great job schematically, especially coaching up those guys in the secondary.”

There certainly are plenty of reasons to praise Elko, but not for his defensive performances versus Swinney. In three meetings against the defensive coordinator, Clemson has reached the 30-point mark each time and averaged 34 points.

It will be interesting to see what’s Swinney’s game plan for using his quarterbacks in the team’s first road game. Freshman Trevor Lawrence was impressive during his debut, throwing for three touchdowns, but the Texas A&M defense in a hostile environment is another animal compared to Furman.

Incumbent starting quarterback Kelly Bryant also played well in limited snaps, completing 62.5 percent of his passes for an average of 7.9 yards per attempt. He also threw a touchdown and ran for another score.

Early-season tests, especially on the road, have become a fixture at Clemson, as this will be the third straight year the Tigers square off with a SEC West opponent in September. In 2016 and 2017, Clemson played a home-and-home series with Auburn and won both games.

In terms of conference supremacy, the ACC could really use a dominant Clemson performance. After Miami’s blowout defeat against LSU, the ACC is reeling a bit because the Hurricanes were expected to be the other team from the conference contending for a New Year’s Six Bowl.

Not that it’s on Swinney’s mind, winning for his football program is far more important, but as the ACC flag bearer, it’s vital Clemson defeats Fisher, who abandoned his ACC school, for “greener pastures”.