Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Sweeney
- Clemson and Texas A&M meet on Saturday night in College Station, with the Tigers as 12-point favorites.
- Clemson will try to use its ferocious defensive line to force A&M into obvious passing situations.
- Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence could be the difference and help them cover the spread with explosive passing plays.
Dabo Swinney vs. Jimbo Fisher is the Texas-sized showdown we never knew we needed — or imagined we’d ever get.
In late 2017, Fisher jumped ship at Florida State, where he was 4-4 against Swinney. But for all their familiarity with each other, there’s still a lot of unknown.
Swinney says he’s had to watch film of everything but the Aggies to figure out which schemes Fisher and new defensive coordinator Mike Elko will be running. Fisher doesn’t know which Clemson quarterback might see the most snaps in Week 2.
No. 2 Clemson, a 12-point favorite, is a straight-up winner in 14 of the last 15 road games. We expect the Tigers to be favored by double digits in every game this season.
This game will likely come down to the trenches. The Tigers present all sorts of issues up front with Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant. They’ll face an Aggies’ offensive line that features three sophomores.
The problem is figuring out if Clemson is close enough to midseason form and can win by more than 12. Or, can Texas A&M can live up to last week’s performance of 758 total yards and 59 points and keep this game close?
For the latter to happen, the Aggies have to run the ball well behind playmaker Trayveon Williams. It’s crazy to ask them to go for 500 rushing yards again. Clemson isn’t Northwestern State, and the Tigers’ defensive front is stellar.
Clemson’s front seven held all but one opponent under the national rushing average a year ago, and six of seven starters return.
A&M needs to keep down-and-distance in its favor or quarterbacks Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel will be running for their lives on third downs.
If the Aggies can keep Clemson honest and force extra defenders into the box, it could open up a deep passing game. The secondary is an area the Tigers can be exploited, especially if Mond is scrambling around and making things happen.
But Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables could use a similar scheme he implemented last year to shut down former Louisville QB and 2016 Heisman winner Lamar Jackson on the road. Clemson built a bubble around Jackson and forced him to make short throws from the pocket. You can do that when your defensive line is this good.
The Cardinals couldn’t convert enough third downs or hit big plays until the game was out of reach.
Playing in front of a 100,000 fans for the first time in school history, Clemson wants to start to fast, push the tempo and put enough points on the board early to make it tough to rally against one of the nation’s best defenses.
That strategy can lead to a conservative approach in second halves and missed covers when the spread is double digits.
If Bryant struggles to meet those early-game expectations, don’t be surprised to see Lawrence getting a majority of the snaps moving the rest of the way. Clemson scored on all five of his drives last Saturday against Furman.
He’ll be the X-factor in this one, and Clemson will make a Texas-sized statement in a tough road environment.
The Pick: Clemson -12
Brad Senkiw is a contributor to The Action Network and hosts The Press Box weekdays, 9 a.m.-noon ET on WCCP 105.5 The Roar.