No. 1 Clemson faces only two ranked opponents this season, and No. 12 Texas A&M is the first.
The Tigers escaped Kyle Field last season with a 28-26 victory, the closest Clemson came to a loss in 2018. After naming Trevor Lawrence starting quarterback a week later, head coach Dabo Swinney and staff ran the table, winning their first undefeated national title in nearly four decades.
“[Clemson] is an outstanding football team,” A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said at a press conference on Monday. “Dabo has done a tremendous job. … When you win national championships, and you’re ranked No. 1, you’re good in all three phases.”
Other than A&M, Clemson’s only ranked opponent is No. 22 Syracuse on the road next week.
Offensively, the Tigers lost only a pair of experienced linemen upfront. Returning are receivers Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins, who combined for nearly 2,000 yards last season, and Travis Etienne, who rushed for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Lawrence is a Heisman frontrunner and is expected to be drafted first overall once he is eligible for the NFL draft in 2021. The signal-caller started 11 games in his freshman season, putting up 3,280 passing yards, as well as 30 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Defense is another story for Clemson. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has been working with a defensive front that lost every starter except strongside linebacker Isaiah Simmons, forcing backups from last year to step-up in 2019.
All-American candidate Xavier Thomas is one of those backups who has stepped up at defensive end. He and edge rusher Justin Foster are both blue-chip talents making their first starts and looking to make a splash immediately. Venables has reloaded in terms of his current starting front, but depth issues might be something that haunts the Tigers in big games.
A&M quarterback Kellen Mond and the offense face a tough challenge in Death Valley, but they are confident in their preparation. Mond put up his career-best performance against Clemson last season with 430 passing yard, and he said he’s well-aware of what to expect after kickoff.
“The thing that pretty much everybody knows is that Death Valley and the environment is going to be pretty ridiculous,” Mond said on SEC Network. “But that’s one thing that helps, being in the SEC, every time being on the road. We know it’s going to be loud and a hot environment.”
The Aggies will also be looking to replicate their defensive dominance against Texas State on one of the biggest stages in college football.
The defensive front only allowed eight rushing yards a week ago, and if the line is able to take advantage of the inexperience along Clemson’s offensive line, clogging gaps and reaching the backfield will make a big difference.
Defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s secondary has improved from last year, recording four interceptions against Texas State - over half of what they produced in all of last season. The unit’s ability to replicate last week’s performance will be instrumental in the outcome of Saturday’s matchup.
“We’ve got to focus on making big plays,” cornerback Rony Elam said. “Their receivers are older this year, so they make more plays. We’ve got to show up and play our best.”
Clemson is favored to cover a 17.5 point spread on their home turf in Death Valley.
The Aggies will hit the road to take on the Tigers Saturday, Sept. 7 at Memorial Stadium. Kickoff is set for 2:30 p.m. and will be televised on ABC.