No. 2 Clemson surviving Texas A&M provides some answers but creates even more questions

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Clelin Ferrell had already glanced at the most damning number of the night for Clemson: 501.

Clemson's All-American defensive end was disgusted despite a night in which the defense he stars for posted championship numbers: four sacks, 10 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, recoveries on two of them and a half dozen quarterback hurries.

"Whatever numbers we had don't really matter," said Ferrell, one-fourth of what might be the defensive line in history, "because they had 500 yards [of] offense."

It was, in fact, the most yards given up by the Tigers since 2016. That doesn't seem that long ago. And that prior defensive lapse came against Lamar Jackson in the process of him winning a Heisman Trophy. Louisville threw up 578 yards in a 42-36 loss.

So whatever euphoria there was for No. 2 Clemson after a 28-26 win at Texas A&M, it was met with a bit of shoulder shrugging. Just like that day against the Cardinals, at least the Tigers won on Saturday night.

"Make no mistake, what you saw out there tonight is going to bode well for our team as we go through this season," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney crowed. "We're going to build a ton off of what happened tonight."

Clemson did almost lose the dang thing against a quarterback (Kellen Mond) making his 10th career start and a program still launching itself under Jimbo Fisher.

Half the story may have been Clemson almost blowing a lead, a game and their position in line for a College Football Playoff berth. But the other half was the Aggies perhaps arriving sooner than expected.

They survived those multiple punches to the gut and came out, well, almost smiling.

"It shows everyone else that we're not a pushover and we're not going to be an easy game," said Mond, minutes after a career-best 430 yards passing and three touchdowns.

Jimbo was buying in, too.

"I know it's not a whole victory, but we ask our guys to get better every day and take steps," Fisher said.

These Aggies have gotten better in two games quicker than anyone could have expected. If not for two missed Daniel LaCamera field goals, Aggies everywhere would have been tap-dancing all the away across University Drive for a cold one (cans only, mind you) at the Dixie Chicken.

As it was, both sides were left asking … what if?

What if Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant had been knocked down for a 3-yard loss on fourth-and-goal from A&M's 1 in the first half? Clemson led 14-3 at the time. After that, the Aggies were never out of it.

What if backup quarterback Nick Starkel -- on his only snap of the night – did not fumble into the arms of Clemson defensive end Justin Foster? The third-quarter turnover allowed the Tigers to drive 70 quick yards for a 21-3 lead.

What if the officials had overturned a Texas A&M touchback with 2:13 left in the game? Clemson strong safety K'Von Wallace punched the ball loose as TAMU receiver Quartney Davis was stretching for the end zone. "It's a guarantee he's going to score if I don't," Wallace said.

What if LaCamera had made just one of those two missed field goals (one was blocked)?

"I think we gained a lot of respect, honestly," Aggies linebacker Tyrel Dodson said. "I don't think anyone thought the game would be as close as it was."

The back-and-forth ended after Mond's 24-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Rodgers with 46 seconds left. Mond's two-point conversion pass was intercepted.

Up until then, it seemed like the Tigers could not -- and maybe would not -- close the deal.

"I almost had four interceptions," Wallace said. "I dropped every single one of them."

The two superstar coaches had been 4-4 against each other in the ACC. But this wasn't those old Florida State-Clemson mega-battles. Jimbo is plotting, scheming, recruiting for the future. His 2019 class is rated at or near the top in 247Sports composite list.

Put in ACC terms, this was more like present-day Clemson against present-day NC State … or maybe Virginia Tech.

Fisher inherited Mond, an unrefined product who had decommitted from Baylor out of high school; he chose the Aggies but had the Tigers second on his list.

Meanwhile, Fisher continues to plow new ground intentionally playing two quarterbacks in the context of chasing a championship.

Whatever happened to the old saw, "If you have two quarterbacks, you have none?"

Clemson will need both senior Kelly Bryant and freshman Trevor Lawrence the rest of the way. Lawrence was so good he hit Tee Huggins for a 64-yard touchdown on his first snap of he game. He was so green that Swinney used Bryant on the last six possessions of the game.

"I haven't really seen anything quite like it," said Lawrence, rated the No. 1 prep prospect in the country. "I think me and Kelly have done really well handling it."

But everything on this night was supposed to start and end with that Clemson's defensive line. All four starters made at least one All-America team last year. The defensive tackles alone combine for 665 pounds. Even if Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins didn't have the athletic ability of circus performers, they could plug the middle of the field.

Then you add the litheness of Ferrell and Austin Bryant.

For all the disruption it caused, their effort wasn't quite complete because a maroon and white monster just might have emerged.

"We're the best defense in the country. I really believe that," Ferrell said. "We try to treat it like it was just another bite out of the elephant. Some bites are juicier than others."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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