Texas AM handed Jimbo Fisher a plaque this offseason celebrating the program’s future national championship, with the date listed TBA, so don’t act surprised that AM will treat a loss Saturday night vs. Clemson as a moment ripe for celebration. Since Fisher’s arrival this winter, the football program and its fan base have rallied around the idea of progress. It’s pretty obvious progress was made against the Tigers.
To push one of the nation’s elite programs for the entirety of 60 minutes might make this the best night for AM in years, even if the Aggies lost. Given his first chance to show what his program is about today and will be about in the future, Fisher aced the test. If things turn out as planned, we’ll look back at this loss as a major moment in Fisher’s tenure.
And that’s in a loss. It’s a bit of a different story for Clemson. The Tigers can and should revel in a tough road win against an opponent from the Southeastern Conference, even one without the recent track record of, say, Florida. The Tigers should also be wary of the issues that sprouted up against the Aggies – issues that if unaddressed may be exploited even further by one of the handful of national contenders ahead on the team’s schedule.
Start with the play of the secondary, which allowed 430 yards passing and three touchdowns without an interception to AM quarterback Kellen Mond. The defensive line played up to standard, which should come as no surprise: Clemson’s foursome up front is as good as you’ll find in this or any year of college football, with nearly an entire two-deep of contributors destined for the next level.
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The thought was that this line would be so good as to patch over any potential issues at linebacker or in the secondary. It’s true that Clemson’s ability to rush the quarterback with just four linemen will do wonders for this defense, especially against the weaker opponents in Atlantic Coast Conference play. But AM, through Fisher, showed how a smart offensive formula can counteract even a wide disadvantage at the line of scrimmage.
Of lesser concern – if discussed breathlessly, as these things normally are – is the dynamic at quarterback. Senior Kelly Bryant was the primary option against AM, though true freshman Trevor Lawrence did throw for 93 yards, highlighted by a fantastic catch-and-run touchdown by receiver Tee Higgins. It’s not wrong to say that Clemson needs to make a decision; it’s also not wrong to say that Dabo Swinney and his staff have time to make the right one.
It’s a situation that’ll resolve itself on its own. Bryant may be too dependable to remove from the lineup. In that case, look for the senior to be the Tigers’ option in tests like the one on Saturday night, in hostile environments against coaching staffs salivating at the idea of putting a defense across from a freshman quarterback. Then again, it’s pretty evident through two games that Lawrence is operating on a different level. Based on talent, he’s the best choice for Clemson.
If left alone, each issue could be the Tigers’ downfall. Quarterback less so, since there are two workable solutions to that question, but the secondary could be one of the yearlong concerns that means the difference between a national semifinal and a New Year’s Six bowl.
But don’t forget this about Clemson: The Tigers have been here before. Not at AM, exactly, but in these settings. On the road wearing a target. As the team that gets every opponent’s best shot. In high-pressure, must-win games. In games against inferior competition. Clemson knows the score, and Swinney and his staff understand that there’s a formula for winning the national championship.
In the regular season, at least, it’s about survival. Clemson will lose once during the year, since that what this program does, but it won’t be at an AM. It’ll be to North Carolina State or someone meaningless. Since ascending to the top of this sport, Clemson has basically used certain spans of the regular season like a loaded NBA team preparing for the playoffs – doing just enough to make sure they make it, and then turning it on.
So those potential issues, like the secondary, maybe the lack of explosiveness at linebacker, the mixed bag at quarterback? It’s really not a big concern. Clemson is rounding into form, doing just enough to survive your best shot while taking comfort in the fact that its best football will come in November and December. Besides, what does it say about Clemson that AM lost at home and is celebrating?