No. 2 Clemson has survived one of the toughest tests it will face all year, leaving College Station, Texas, on Saturday night with a 28-26 win against a tough Texas A&M team.
The Tigers' flaws were exposed by a well-prepared Aggies team that executed at a high level and pressed one of the nation's best teams until the very end. Texas A&M rolled up 501 yards of offense behind starting quarterback Kellen Mond, who had a career night with 430 yards passing, three touchdowns and few mistakes in his second start under new coach Jimbo Fisher.
Trailing 28-13, Mond led Texas A&M on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. Clemson's defensive line of future NFL Draft picks was flying all around, but Mond kept his calm and delivered some gutsy throws that included crucial third-down conversions and the potential game-tying touchdown passes.
Texas A&M had a two-point conversion to tie to the game after Mond's touchdown pass to Kendrick Rogers in the final minute, but it was picked off by K'Von Wallace.
"You only need one ore point than they have so let's be happy about that," Dabo Swinney told ESPN after the game. "Neither team wants to lose, you saw the heart of both teams. I thought they did a great job, they had a great plan. At the end of the day, somehow we found a way to win by two points. ... This a game we can really grow from."
Clemson is not some unbeatable juggernaut in college football this season, and it showed as much on Saturday night. The secondary got picked apart and the offense would quickly go into and out of lulls that kept sending that vaunted defensive line back out on to the field. There's a decent chance that another team will get the breaks Texas A&M did not and beat Clemson.
But Clemson doesn't have to be perfect to make its fourth straight appearance in the College Football Playoff.
A true road win against a quality SEC opponent is the kind of tiebreaker that the College Football Playoff Selection Committee loves to reward when it comes time for splitting hairs at the end of the season. Washington had an opportunity to pick up a similar win last week against Auburn -- not a road win but certainly a far-from-neutral site in Atlanta -- and was not able to pull it off. Now the Huskies have to run the table and win the Pac-12 to have an argument as the best one-loss conference champion. We still have yet to see a two-loss team make the playoff so one more loss, and Washington will be left hoping to be a precedent setting team, regardless of its standing in the Pac-12.
Clemson now has the cushion of a quality nonconference win, so if there's a regular-season ACC defeat (or even a loss to South Carolina at the end of the year), as long as the Tigers emerge as one-loss conference champions they will have a legitimate case. We've seen it before with Pittsburgh or Syracuse, but after beating Texas A&M there is no longer the pressure of needing to be precedent-setting should that loss occur again in 2018.
Here's three more things to know about the game:
1. Texas A&M was hurt by the worst rule in football: The fact that a fumble out of the back of the end zone results in a touchback for the defense is not appealing to many football fans, including this author, and it put a sour end to Texas A&M's exciting climb back into the game. Mike Elko's defense was getting all the stops they needed to give the Aggies a chance to climb back into the game, and even before the final offensive possession, there was another scoring opportunity that ended in a touchback.
2. Clemson's quarterback battle is more of a quarterback rotation: The intensity of the game and the heightened level of competition was sure to force Swinney's hand as it pertains to his quarterback battle, and the result seems clear: Senior Kelly Bryant is still the Tigers' No. 1. Trevor Lawrence still maintains an unbelievably high ceiling with an ability to stretch the defense in the vertical passing game, but Bryant started the game and finished the game and led a majority of the offensive drives.
"You've got to feel the game," Swinney said about the quarterback rotation. Bryant is the seasoned veteran who was able to provide a threat in the run game to move the ball, play field position and burn clock. He did a great job of that and delivered some dimes in big spots to help in the victory.
3. Swinney and Brent Venables shine in this spotlight games: Swinney is 15-1 in true road games and has won eight of his last 10 against the SEC. He and Venables always seem to bring their best in these high-profile nonconference games, early season or postseason, and the Tigers find ways to win. Clemson's defensive line has gotten a ton of deserved attention but the play at linebacker with Isaiah Simmons and Kendall Joseph or strong safety with Wallace was tremendous.
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