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Game of the Week Preview: Texas A&M at Clemson

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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A rematch of last season's dramatic 28-26 Clemson victory in College Station, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher will again square off with big picture implications on the line.

Overview -- A rematch of last season's dramatic 28-26 Clemson victory in College Station, Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher will again square off with big picture implications on the line. The defending national champion Tigers are ranked number one in the country and are an overwhelming favorite to make the College Football Playoff once more. Ranked just outside the top ten, the Aggies are a team many believe can get there in the near-future. On paper, at least, this will be Clemson's toughest test. Texas A&M, meanwhile, is looking for a signature victory nationally, one it almost got a year ago. One way or another, this contest will be a springboard forward; either as a hurdle cleared for the Tigers en route to yet another final four or a game-changer for the Aggies with showdowns with Alabama and Georgia still remaining. Clemson enters Saturday on a 16-game winning streak, the nation's longest. The last meeting between these two in Death Valley resulted in a one-point Tiger triumph back in 2005. 

Why to Watch -- This could be one of the games that helps shape this college football season. The superstar power is there at head coach in Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher and at quarterback in Trevor Lawrence and Kellen Mond -- and then there's the best player on the field in Clemson running back Travis Etienne, the way-too-early Heisman Trophy frontrunner. Few teams in the country can even come close to matching the talent the Tigers have; Texas A&M is, in theory, one of them. Though Clemson is a near 20-point favorite, last year's result, albeit in the Lonestar State, showed that the Aggies can compete. An upset here would shake up the national pecking order and introduce Texas A&M, a relative newcomer, as one of college football's preeminent names. Given their recent run of dominance, every game the Tigers play will be on the big stage; week two, however, may prove to be the brightest spotlight of the entire regular season.          

Keys for Clemson

1. Go to Etienne Early and Often -- Here is what is truly amazing with regards to Etienne: just once since the start of last October has he carried the football more than 15 times in a single game. In the season opener against Georgia Tech, Etienne rushed for 205 yards and three touchdowns, but did so on just 12 attempts. Though Trevor Lawrence, Justyn Ross, Tee Higgins and company must obviously be focused, Etienne is the hottest player in the country and should be treated as such. So much of what Clemson is able to do, from taking control of the tempo of a game to finding favorable coverages downfield, stems from Etienne's remarkable production. Whenever he touches the football, at this point, something amazing happens. There is an ease and fluidity to Etienne that just seems to set the Tigers into motion. This could be the type of contest where he receives 20-plus carries and sets the table for Lawrence to return to the big play proficiency we both saw last season and will undoubtedly see again. Beyond just production, there is a multi-faceted benefit to running the football effectively, one being the stabilizing effect success between-the-tackles can have on the respective offense and the ebb and flow of the game, alike. What is especially-impressive about Etienne is that he can do all of the aforementioned while maintaining the same big-play potential of a high-powered passing attack.

2. Limit Mond the Runner -- Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond isn't necessarily a volume rusher, but his mobility can prove timely, deflating for opposing defenses and can move the chains. Mond's versatility has also been valuable in the redzone. Last season, he rushed for 474 yards and seven touchdowns. Mond ran for a score in the Aggies' recent season-opener. Stopping a talent like Mond is difficult because he can extend plays with his athleticism and the mere threat of him taking off and running can keep defenses off balance. It's important that Clemson find the delicate balance between pressuring Mond, but also maintaining a disciplined approach so that chunks of open field aren't left wide open for him to run. The ultimate goal should be for the front four to consistently get into the backfield without the use of extra blitzers. This will be an outing where end Xavier Thomas needs to be big, both in terms of properly rushing the passer and effectively defending the read-option. The range of hybrid linebacker Isaiah Simmons will be a critical x-factor as well. Though Mond threw for 420 yards against the Tigers a year ago, Clemson cannot forget about Mond's versatility. That aspect of his game just might prove more impactful in a road setting against a defensive front lacking some of the proven production from this past season.  

3. Continue to Play Loose -- One of the most unique aspects of Clemson's historic success the past few seasons has been their distinct attitude and brand. While most teams play more tense in the spotlight, the Tigers, under head coach Dabo Swinney, have found a way to both enjoy and embrace the moment. That sentiment has resulted in Clemson playing free and easy and absorbing the ebb and flow of every game almost seamlessly. The prime example of the Tigers' relaxed focus was last year's College Football Playoff run, where Clemson outscored Notre Dame and Alabama by a combined score of 74-19. Even as the pressure mounts with the top-ranked Tigers getting every opponent's best effort, Clemson must maintain the status quo. Undoubtedly, especially after last season's close call, Texas A&M is coming east to win. It may take a near-perfect effort from the Aggies to pull off the upset, one that would change the national narrative. Likely, all it will take for the Tigers is for them to continue to be themselves. For all of the talent and experience on Clemson's roster, the team's approach has been as big of a key as its athleticism.

Keys for Texas A&M

1. Don't Give Up the Big Play -- Last season, Clemson led the nation in offensive plays of at least 30, 40 and 50 yards. This fall, the Tigers are already one of just a dozen teams with multiple plays of 50 yards or more. Simply put, Clemson overwhelms opponents with home run conversions, crushing foes with highlight-reel, momentum-grabbing plays. Texas A&M has to make the Tigers earn all of the production they get and cannot allow the game-changing swings to occur, especially in Death Valley. It's quite the challenge for the Aggies, given that Clemson can go the distance in the passing game and running game equally well. Led by Buddy Johnson, the Texas A&M linebackers must be fundamentally-sound in their technique as arm tackles against Travis Etienne simply do not work. Roney Elam and company in the secondary must keep Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross in front of them and be well-aware of Trevor Lawrence's willingness to throw deep passes down the field in jump-ball fashion. The pressure will very much be on the Aggie defensive backfield. The role of veteran defensive lineman Justin Madubuike will be critical in both realms. He, fresh off 10.5 tackles for loss in 2018, can limit Etienne's burst at the line of scrimmage and rush Lawrence's timing with a consistently disruptive performance. As an offense, Clemson will score. A bend-but-don't break effort from Texas A&M, however, just might give the Aggies a chance to win.

2. Spread the Field -- Part of what makes Texas A&M such a matchup problem is just how dynamic the offense can be. Facing the national leader in scoring defense from a year ago, the Aggies will need to use the full width and length of the field, along with all of their playmakers, to find Clemson's weaknesses. Quarterback Kellen Mond is the catalyst. One of just ten SEC quarterbacks the last 20 years with at least 24 passing touchdowns and seven rushing scores in a single season, Mond has both the proficiency as a passer and the mobility as the runner to keep the Tigers guessing. That versatility, whether on designed runs or not, should be taken advantage of. Anything to stem the tide of the Clemson edge rushers. South Carolina was able to move the football in Death Valley last year by spreading the field. On paper, Texas A&M has the perimeter depth to do the same thing with the likes of Quartney Davis, Kendric Rogers and Jhamon Ausbon. Running back Jashaun Corbin can be featured in the passing game as well. It's hard to constantly beat the Tigers at the point of attack, or any way for that matter. Given the playmakers they have, the Aggies' best bet will likely be to try to get their skill position players in space.

3. First and Second Down Success -- Offensively and defensively, Texas A&M simply has to have early down success. While so much of an outcome's focus is retroactively placed on third down situations, first and second chances are the foundation for those critical moments. In a game like this, there is a huge difference in a 3rd-and-3 and a 3rd-and-9. Given Mond's running ability, the Aggies would have multiple options when facing four or fewer yards to gain; much more than that, on the road, against a front seven that has somehow led the nation in tackles for loss five of the last six seasons, is just asking for trouble. At least in theory, forcing Clemson into third-and-longs would mitigate some of Travis Etienne's involvement and would allow Texas A&M's pass-rushers to focus on getting after Trevor Lawrence. From there, defensive coordinator Mike Elko could try to work his schematic magic with the odds somewhat in his favor. It goes with out saying that how the Aggies perform in the game's deciding moments will be critical. With that in mind, the key for any heavy road underdog is staying in front of sticks.

Unit Advantages

Quarterback: Clemson -- While Kellen Mond is one of the best quarterbacks in the country for Texas A&M and can make plays a number of different ways, Trevor Lawrence, who has not yet lost a game for the Tigers, is on another level. What is scary is that Clemson scored 52 total points in week one and Lawrence didn't play all that well. Obviously, he is poised for a return to form.

Running Back: Clemson -- Heisman Trophy-frontrunner Travis Etienne has 1,863 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns over his last 16 games, all at an average of over 8.6 yards per carry. College football just has not seen much like his production and efficiency in recent memory. Etienne is currently the hottest name in the game.

Pass Catchers: Clemson -- Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross are as good as any wide receiver duo in the country. Higgins had a couple of must-see catches in week one. Texas A&M's perimeter rotation is also very impressive, with Kendric Rogers possibly being the best of the bunch.

Offensive Line: Clemson -- Without much fanfare comparatively-speaking, the Tigers continue to win at the line of scrimmage on offense as well. Tackle Tremayne Anchrum is a true anchor off the edge and veteran guard John Simpson has seen it all inside. This is a group that plays well together.

Defensive Line: Texas A&M -- While Clemson has an incredibly-talented unit that is still one of the nation's elite, there is some relative retooling going on after the departure of an all-time great front four. The versatile Justin Madubuike is one of the best linemen in all of college football. Notably, the Aggies had nine tackles for loss in week one.

Linebacker: Clemson -- The dynamic Isaiah Simmons, with ten total tackles in the season-opener, is a key difference-maker in the middle of the field. He covers the field like few others. Buddy Johnson, who also had a very productive week one, is the name to watch for Texas A&M.

Secondary: Clemson -- There is a lot of big game experience in the Tigers' secondary. Safeties Tanner Muse and K'Von Wallace are a good back-end. Cornerback A.J. Terrell is and will be active. It's worth noting that Texas A&M's Myles Jones had two picks last week.

Special Teams: Texas A&M -- What punter Braden Mann did last season was quite historic, becoming the first player in college football to average more than 50 yards a boot in over a decade. He is a legitimate playmaker and can switch field position with one kick. Running back Jashaun Corbin doubles as a dangerous return man. 

Coaching: Clemson -- As great as Jimbo Fisher is, it's just impossible to go against Dabo Swinney and his staff at this point. The Tigers have lost only once, to Alabama in the College Football Playoff, since mid-October of 2017. Featuring two of the five current head coaches with national championships on their resume, this coaching matchup is a signature showcase for the game today.

Intangibles: Clemson -- The swagger the Tigers have, specifically at home, is downright staggering. They aren't just confident, they are convinced. That said, the fact that Texas A&M took Clemson to the absolute wire a year ago should help the Aggies' resolve in this one.

Players to Watch

Clemson: Travis Etienne, RB -- Who else? Etienne is the name to know in college football right now and has come through whenever and however his team has needed him. After merely 12 carries, albeit for over 200 yards and three touchdowns against Georgia Tech, don't be surprised if Etienne's rushing attempts total is close to double that against Texas A&M.

Texas A&M: Justin Madubuike, DL -- Given Clemson's comprehensive offensive potential, the Aggies will need active play at the line of scrimmage. Madubuike is that man. With a 2.27 marginal OAYP score after week one, he both entered the year as and is remains the highest-rated interior defender in the Southern Pigskin coverage area.

Final Thoughts

A couple of things suggest a close, or at least closer, contest. First, Texas A&M is a good football team. Jimbo Fisher is building a power and that process is well underway. The Aggies, as last season showed, have the talent and belief to play with Clemson. Also, you have to wonder how long the Tigers, who have won eleven consecutive games by at least 20 points, can keep beating everyone on their schedule and, quite frankly, math. Texas A&M, physically and athletically, can matchup. That said, there is a difference in challenging Clemson, though that would be better that anyone else has done as of late, and beating them in Death Valley. The Tigers are so well-rounded and, additionally, so sharp at home. Expect a competitive game for three quarters, but the defending national champions, with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne, prove to be too much.

Clemson -- 37, Texas A&M -- 23

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports