5 things to watch when No. 12 Texas A&M faces No. 1 Clemson

Kellen Mond warms up before a football game against the Texas State Bobcats at Kyle Field on August 29, 2019, in College Station, Texas.

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – No. 12 Texas A&M will travel to No. 1 Clemson for a rematch of one of last season’s most exciting games.

Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond will lead the maroon and white against Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers, as A&M will try to exact revenge on the reigning national champions for last year’s two-point defeat at Kyle Field.

Here are five things to watch in Saturday afternoon’s SEC-ACC showdown:

1. Texas A&M’s defensive front vs. Clemson’s rushing attack

The Aggies held Texas State to just eight rushing yards in their season opener last week. That is the fewest yards allowed by an A&M defense since 2004. They will face a much more daunting task Saturday afternoon.

Travis Etienne, arguably the best running back in the country, will be lining up in Clemson’s backfield. The 210-pound junior did not hold back against Georgia Tech in week one, rushing for 205 yards and three touchdowns, including a 90-yard run in the first quarter. Sophomore Lyn-J Dixon, who rushed for 547 yards and five touchdowns in his freshman season, also returns for the Tigers.

“He’s a pretty tough, hard runner,” defensive end Tyree Johnson said. “He keeps his feet moving and makes some plays out of nothing. We’ve just got to really wrap up and get him down to the ground.”

The Aggies, who held Etienne to 44 yards and one touchdown last year, return a stout front seven. Linebackers Anthony Hines III and Buddy Johnson combined for 11 tackles last week, including two for a loss, while the defensive line features two 300-pounders in Bobby Brown III and Justin Madubuike.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll go back and learn from what we did last year,” Brown said. “But I don’t think we’ll sit in the past and just dwell on it.”

Head coach Jimbo Fisher is not letting the focus on Etienne distract him from quarterback Trevor Lawrence’s ability to make plays outside of the pocket.

“The thing about Trevor that I think people lose sight of is that he’s very athletic,” Fisher said. “This guy can run. He can create plays with his legs. They’re an extremely dangerous team, and it will be a huge challenge for us, no doubt.”

“When anyone steps out of their rush lanes in the pocket, it can be pretty dangerous,” Johnson added. “The big thing that Coach Elko tried to preach to us over the spring and this fall is containing those rush lanes, collapsing the pocket and not letting the quarterback scramble out so much. It will be a big key for us this game.”

This will be an exciting battle to keep an eye on Saturday afternoon.

2. Both sets of wide receivers

This game will feature wideouts with size and experience on both teams. The Aggies’ group features four juniors: Quartney Davis, Jhamon Ausbon, Kendrick Rogers and Camron Buckley. Rogers, 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 190 pounds, and Ausbon, 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 218 pounds, bring size to the group. Davis, who joined Ausbon in the end zone last week, brings the biggest scoring threat.

“I think our radius is what helps us out because [Mond] can throw the ball to places where other guys, probably shorter, can’t really get to,” Ausbon said. “He definitely likes that we have a lot of range, and we’re able to catch the ball in different places.”

Many Aggie fans will remember Rogers’ breakout game in last year’s matchup between the Aggies and Tigers at Kyle Field. A&M’s tallest receiver went for 120 yards and two touchdowns in what was Clemson’s closest game of the year. Rogers had been dealing with a lower leg injury in camp but said he is 100 percent and ready to go this weekend.

“I love it, honestly,” Rogers said when asked about the Aggies being an underdog. “I’m not going to be surprised, and no one else should be surprised if we come out with a win because we’re going to execute Coach Fisher’s plan, and we’re going to do what we do best.”

Unfortunately for the Aggies, the Tigers bring an even bigger group of pass catchers to the field. Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross and Diondre Overton are all 6 feet, 4 inches tall and more than 200 pounds. Higgins and Ross return after combining for 1,936 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, while Overton caught three for himself.

“They’re so challenging because most teams will have one dominant wideout where he’s just so explosive,” Fisher said. “They’ve got three, four and five of those guys. The backs are the same way. It’s an extremely tough challenge.”

Expect some fireworks from the passing game of both teams Saturday.

3. How Texas A&M’s offensive line protects quarterback Kellen Mond

Three Clemson defensive lineman were selected in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft. The Tigers' defensive line is younger and less experienced than in recent years, as nine of the 12 players listed on the depth chart are freshmen or sophomores. Normally, that would be music to the ears of an offensive line, but Fisher made it clear that his guys should not expect any less of a fight.

“Defensively, they lost a lot of linemen,” Fisher said. “At the same time, it’s the same bodies in different numbers. [They have] guys running around making plays. They are dominant up front. They can rush the passer. They can play the run.”

The Aggies did not allow a sack last week against Texas State, but Mond took some hits and was hurried a handful of times. If those mistakes are not corrected, those hurries will turn into sacks against Clemson this weekend. In last year’s two-point loss to the Tigers, A&M allowed four sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. They will try to improve on that this year.

“[Last year] was a hard-fought game,” left guard Jared Hocker said. “We came up close, but we just didn’t get the job done at the end. This year, I’m looking forward to the opportunity, and we’re not going to let them slip away like we did last year.”

4. Can Myles Jones continue his strong play in Week 2?

The 6 foot, 4 inch-tall junior will get his second consecutive start to begin the 2019 season, as Fisher announced that junior Debione Renfro will be suspended again this week after violating team rules. Jones impressed in the season opener last week, snagging two interceptions against Texas State.

Obviously, Tigers are bigger than Bobcats, and he will have a lot more to worry about this weekend in South Carolina. Even so, it is a great opportunity for Jones to stake his claim for a starting spot deeper into the season.

The Aggies ranked outside the top 100 in turnovers last season, forcing just seven interceptions and four fumble recoveries. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko has entered this season focused on creating more takeaways. His defense got off to a hot start in their season opener, forcing four interceptions.

“What we’re focused on this season is making more plays on the ball,” said senior cornerback Roney Elam, who had a one-handed interception against Texas State. “Last year wasn’t very good with creating turnovers.”

The Aggies will likely need a few more if they want to come home with a win this weekend.

5. How will Hocker play after his confident proclamation?

I hate to do this, but Hocker guaranteeing an upset Saturday afternoon has become a national story.

Personally, I don't think it's a huge deal, but it was surprising to hear from one of Fisher’s offensive lineman.

It is well-known that Fisher preaches the "faceless opponent" theory and coaches his players to approach every game in the same manner. When he found out about Hocker’s comments, his response was short.

“Jared better play well,” Fisher said. "I mean, it's great to have confidence [but] that doesn't need to be said.”

For Hocker’s sake, I hope he does play well, but the guys up front for Clemson will not have one shred of sympathy for the left guard if he gives up some big plays.