Saturday’s game against No. 12 Texas A&M may be the toughest game on Clemson’s schedule—but for the Aggies, it’s merely a warmup for Alabama, the in-conference game that could break Jimbo Fisher’s team’s postseason aspirations. (Only Texas A&M and South Carolina must play both Clemson and the Crimson Tide this year.) Coming off the game that was the closest Clemson came to a loss in 2018—Texas A&M lost by just two points, 28–26—all eyes are on the matchup between the presumptive ACC champion and a team hoping to break out in the SEC West.
Here are three keys that will determine Saturday’s result:
Clemson needs its defensive line to continue to look like it hasn’t missed much of a beat—and it needs to get to Kellen Mond. In Week 1 against Georgia Tech, the new-look line that Dabo Swinney called “a work in progress” at ACC Media Days in July had four tackles for a loss. It wasn’t perfect—there were more missed tackles than last year’s unit would have netted—but the Tigers seem to have plenty of depth, rotating in nine players along the line. They only allowed Georgia Tech 157 rushing yards and were plenty successful at pressuring the Yellow Jackets quarterback, but they’ll have a tougher test against a solid Aggies offensive line. A year ago when the two teams met, Mond had his best game of the season; though he was sacked three times, he put up 430 yards, and all three A&M scores came via passing touchdowns. A little bit less pressure, and the Aggies might have been able to pull away from Clemson—which puts all the more pressure on a relatively inexperienced group of pass rushers.
Texas A&M needs to run the ball. Yes, in its 41–7 win over Texas State last week, the Aggies ran for 246 yards—but that won’t likely be the norm going forward. In 2018, Jimbo Fisher’s team averaged 155.6 rushing yards per game, and it lost Trayveon Williams, its All-SEC back. His replacement, Jashaun Corbin, had 103 yards and a touchdown last Thursday, and freshman Isaiah Spiller stole the show with an 85-yard run that set up Corbin’s touchdown. Still, last time the Aggies played Clemson, they relied heavily on the passing game and became downright one-dimensional, finishing the game with just 71 rushing yards—an average of 2.2 yards per carry.
If Texas A&M is going to have any hope of containing Trevor Lawrence, it can’t allow Clemson nearly as many yards after the catch as it did in 2018. The unfortunate thing about this key is that college football statistics are not exactly robust, and there aren’t actually game-by-game yards-after-catch metrics readily available. So instead of giving a tidy bundle of stats, I’ll just say: Trust me. The Aggies allowed Clemson a whole lot of yardage after the catch, which wasn’t ideal a year ago and will be even more detrimental in 2019 if it happens again. That’s because this time around, it’s Trevor Lawrence under center for the Tigers; in last year’s game, he and Kelly Bryant split time, with the bulk of the reps going to Bryant. The two combined for 298 passing yards, and one of Clemson’s two touchdowns came on a Lawrence pass that Tee Higgins caught at the Texas A&M 42-yard line. Higgins then broke three tackles en route to the end zone, and the rest of the night was much of the same for the Aggies’ defense, which will face an even more potent offense this time around.