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OAYP: Texas A&M at Clemson Preview

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Breaking down the biggest keys to Texas A&M at Clemson through the lens of the OAYP advanced metric.

Week one of college football did not disappoint. There were close calls, upsets, highlight reel plays, and plenty of memorable moments abound. However, outside of a few of those highlight reel plays, there was little else that will leave a lasting imprint from either Clemson or Texas A&M’s opener.

By 9:00 ET last Thursday, our own Matt Smith was already ready to see this weekend’s marquee matchup.

The 2018 contest between the two, in College Station, turned out to be more compelling than anyone expected. Clemson walked away with a 28-26 win, en route to their perfect national championship season, but the Aggies put up more of a fight than even some of their particularly optimistic fans could have predicted. It was a sort of coming out party for Kellen Mond, and the Aggie faithful left Kyle Field knowing that Jimbo Fisher was the man for the job. Plus, if not for a fumble out of the back of the end zone, or Kelly Bryant taking over for Trevor Lawrence for the remainder of the game, in the third quarter, Texas A&M might have even pulled off the upset.

One can only hope that when they meet in Death Valley on Saturday, the rematch is just as competitive.

Below is the projected starting offense for Clemson and defense for Texas A&M, accompanied by their marginal OAYP scores. If you’re not yet acquainted with the new metric, the tl;dr of the individual player scores is best boiled down to something like WAR, in baseball. Both value and efficiency are taken into account, and while it doesn’t exactly correlate to wins or points, necessarily, it does display each player’s said value and efficiency relative to the positional mean. The basic rule of thumb we’ve been using is: below -1.0 is a red flag, between -1.0 and 0 is below average, between 0 and 0.5 is above average, between 0.5-1.0 is roughly ‘second tier’, greater than 1.0 is a bonafide superstar, and 2.0 or higher might as well be a superhero.

Let’s break down the single most important factor that will decide who wins that facet of the game, and then we’ll do the same for Texas A&M’s offense vs Clemson’s defense. OAYP’s projected margin of victory can also be found at the bottom.

Deciding Factor: The Run Game

According to B.J. Bennett, Travis Etienne is already one of the greatest running backs in college football history. Fresh off of 205 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries against Georgia Tech, he appears to have picked up right where he left off a season ago.

Now, obviously Clemson also has one of the two best quarterbacks in the country and a pair of otherworldly receivers, but if you can’t stop Etienne, or Lyn-J Dixon, for that matter, who is sporting a cool 2.06 marginal OAYP of his own, it doesn’t matter. Texas A&M, relatively speaking, did that in 2018.

In that matchup, Etienne was held to only 44 yards, and the team averaged 3.59 yards per carry, their second lowest rate of the season. And in their lowest, against NC State, they still managed four touchdowns on the ground. A&M allowed two. So, Mike Elko and company did arguably the best job of any team in 2018 of containing Clemson’s rushing attack.

That was last year, though. Gone are all but one starter from that front seven, which ranked in the national top ten in yards per carry allowed.

Then again, that one returnee is a heckuva good one to have back.

With a 2.27 marginal OAYP after week one, Justin Madubuike is still the highest rated interior defender in Southern Pigskin’s coverage area. Last year, his three forced fumbles were tied with McTelvin Agim for the most among returning SEC players. He also tied for first with Derrick Brown and Rashard Lawrence among returning interior defenders in tackles for loss, and sat alone atop that list in sacks, while racking up 44 total QB pressures, which ranked first among returning interior defenders in the conference, as did his 13.7% pass rush win rate, according to Pro Football Focus.

But what about everyone else? As you can see, Buddy Johnson is solidly above average at the position, but, unfortunately OAYP can’t tell us much else, given the small sample sizes for he and Madubuike’s supporting cast.

Joining Madubuike along the line of scrimmage, Jayden Peevy (not listed in the chart as he didn’t start against Texas State) posted the highest week one OAYP score of any defensive lineman in the ACC or SEC. However, aside from those two and Johnson, while the unit played well as a whole, there was a relative lack of playmaking, especially given the competition.

Suffice it to say, Clemson’s offensive line is a little different than Texas State’s, and returns four-ish starters from 2018 (Gage Cervenka started eight games, but didn’t meet the full qualifying threshold). As a group, they ranked in the national top 20 in line yards per carry and stops allowed at or behind the line of scrimmage. Comparatively, Texas State ranked 115th and 122nd, respectively, in those measures. So, yeah, it’ll be tougher to get to Etienne and company in the backfield than it was in week one.

And speaking of week one, granted also against less-than-stellar competition, Clemson placed three blockers on OAYP’s ACC Team of the Week, and tackle Tremayne Anchrum actually had the highest single game OAYP of any offensive linemen in the conference.

All that being said, stopping, or even slowing Etienne, does not mean completely shutting down Clemson’s offense. The Aggies’ pass defense was subpar last year, at best, and though Myles Jones looks like a potential breakout star, he and most of the rest of that secondary are largely unproven. That does not bode well against Lawrence, Ross, and Higgins.

Still, Texas A&M can at least give itself a chance if Etienne is contained. For all of the deserved hype around Lawrence, it’s the running back that has to be the focal point of the game plan.

Deciding Factor: Big Plays

On the flipside, it’s all about winning the explosiveness battle. The team that does that wins the game about 86% of the time.

Clemson’s secondary was, other than special teams, probably its lone relative weakness in 2018. Relative is the operative word, here -- they did rank 26th in yards per attempt and 15th in passer rating allowed -- but pass defense is not a secondary stat, rather a team stat. OAYP itself might even be modestly overrating the Tigers’ defensive backfield. Math can only account so much for the fear that one can only assume must consume an opposing passer when they look into Dexter Lawrence or Clelin Ferrell or Christian Wilkins’ eyes.

Those guys are all gone. Nevertheless, Clemson’s pass rush will still be elite, Brent Venables is the best in the game at what he does, but it won’t be the same. That might have been the greatest defensive line ever. This group could be awesome, the best in the country, but it still won’t be what it was.

That means more pressure on the defensive backs. And, even if that defensive line was back, Kellen Mond was one of the few quarterbacks that didn’t look scared against them last year. He was one of just two QB’s with a passer rating above 140 against Clemson, in 2018, one of three to throw more than one touchdown pass, and while the other two both threw interceptions, Mond didn’t. With some help from a herculean effort by Kendrick Rogers, Texas A&M averaged more yards per attempt than anyone else did against the national champs.

And it sure doesn’t hurt that Mond is among the best improvisers in the sport. On throws from outside the pocket, his 4:0 touchdown to interception ratio was tied for the best in the FBS.

Jashaun Corbin also has some home run ability out of the backfield. Those will be harder to come by against a Venables front seven, led by the best linebacker in the country, Isaiah Simmons, but it only takes one or two to make a difference.

Moving the ball consistently with much efficiency is nearly impossible against Clemson. Every now and then, however, you can find a tiny crack in the armor. The key is to make it hurt as much as possible when you do. Mond did it better than just about anyone in 2018, but doing it again will be easier said than done.

PROJECTED MARGIN OF VICTORY: Clemson by 30.48

Woah. That’s pretty scary given that this will likely be the most challenging opponent the Tigers will face in 2019, at least until the postseason.

Vegas has this one at about 17.5, and I’d like to think it will be closer to that, but honestly, OAYP is probably right. It’s easy to be excited about Mond and the Aggies under Jimbo Fisher, but Clemson is just playing a different sport than almost everyone else right now.

Stopping Etienne and ripping off some chunk plays would sure go a long way on Saturday, but this mountain is probably just too high to climb.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP