When No. 1 Clemson faces No. 12 Texas A&M on Saturday the Tigers just might be facing their stiffest test of the regular season. The Tigers-Aggies game will draw national attention because Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher looks to have potentially figured out Clemson coach Dabo Swinney ... well, at least it looked that way last year.
Clemson made history in 2018 as the first program of the modern era to finish a college football season 15-0 when it defeated Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship to claim the program's second title in three years. It was a dream season for Clemson fans, but not one without twists, turns and bumps in the road -- the first of which came against Texas A&M as the Tigers needed now-Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant to lead the way in a 28-26 win.
A lot has changed since then for Clemson as Bryant left the team shortly after Trevor Lawrence was named the starter and developed into one of the most discussed quarterbacks in all of college football. But that game also changed the expectations for TAMU, raising what was possible with Kellen Mond at quarterback after he threw for 430 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers and led two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. The Aggies fell just one two-point conversion short of potentially sending the game to overtime.
Now we get the return visit in this exciting on-campus nonconference series as Fisher returns to Death Valley for the first time since his final season at Florida State in 2017. Swinney and Fisher have had some epics battles in that stadium throughout their careers, and Saturday afternoon should be no different given the excitement for the 2019 season at both programs.
Clemson: When it comes time for College Football Playoff debates in November, this game will be held up as an example of how Clemson would -- or would not -- fare in the mighty SEC. Such logic ignores more important factors in evaluating a team's strength of schedule, but this is college football, and if you came for sound logic then you came to the wrong place. Nitpicking top teams in the playoff era is entirely subjective and based on perception, and right now the perception is that Clemson won't face many challengers in the ACC this year while Texas A&M represents the toughest test on the schedule.
It's a no-win situation for Clemson, really. A loss badly damagers playoff chances and a win, even by two or three touchdowns, only affirms this "but they weren't tested" argument that anti-Clemson propaganda operatives are fine-tuning for later in the season. It's not fair to Swinney, Lawrence or this 2019 Clemson Tigers team, but it is part of the deal when you're at the top of the mountain in college football.
Texas A&M: Pulling off an upset of Clemson in Death Valley would pay dividends in Jimbo Fisher's efforts to bring a championship to Texas A&M. Those kind of signature wins both provide proof to the current team that it is championship quality and show recruits watching on television that coming to join Fisher and the Aggies will put you in position to not only challenge but defeat the best teams in the country.
Texas A&M's signature win to this point under Fisher is a seven-overtime 74-72 win against LSU, but one of the most significant performances of the 14 games (10-4) was that loss to Clemson. If that narrow loss helped power this program to wins on the field and on the recruiting trail, just imagine what finishing the job might do for the Aggies moving forward.
Date: Saturday, Sept. 7 | Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: Clemson Memorial Stadium -- Clemson, South Carolina
TV: ABC | Live stream: WatchESPN.com
Game prediction, picks
We might have a situation where oddsmakers aren't going to be able to keep up with Clemson. The issue in games like this, and others against the tougher teams on the Tigers schedule, is that opponents will be able to move the ball and score against a defense that's still reloading and figuring things out after the loss of three first round NFL Draft pick defensive linemen and several more key veterans. Because Texas A&M should be able to move the ball and score a little, Clemson will continue to play aggressively on offense. And since Lawrence, Travis Etienne and Co. won't be coming out of the game, they'll just continue to score. I like the Tigers by three touchdowns, something like 45-23. Pick: Clemson (-17.5)
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