Commentary: A&M Will Give Tigers Plenty to Handle Saturday

by - Correspondent -

The 2005 Clemson football home schedule isn’t your daddy’s football schedule anymore.

Gone are the days when the Tigers would open up with Appalachian State, The Citadel, Wofford or even a respectable Furman team. Instead, the Tigers open their 2005 season Saturday night with as formidable a non-conference foe as Death Valley has witnessed in quite some time.

When the series with Texas A&M was first announced several years ago, most Clemson fans anticipated a quality, Top 25 opponent with a longstanding tradition of gridiron success. But the program fell upon hard times, diminishing its stature and, therefore, leading the Tigers faithful to believe this game might not be so difficult after all. The Aggies’ 4-8 record two years ago seemed to provide further credence to that belief.

But A&M head coach Dennis Franchione quickly proved why he is such a master rebuilder of downtrodden football programs. Coach Fran proved at TCU and Alabama that he can remedy seemingly hopeless situations and that was further evident in his second year in College Station.

After a blowout opening game loss to Utah, a team that would eventually go undefeated, A&M quickly showed Clemson and other programs why they cannot be underestimated. Quarterback Reggie McNeal proved to be a multipurpose threat as he was responsible for 22 touchdowns — 14 passing and eight rushing — and was the second leading rusher on the squad — 718 to Courtney Lewis’ 742.

The A&M offense averaged 30.4 points and 438.5 yards per game — 263 passing and 175.5 rushing — achieving such numbers against quality Big 12 conference competition such as Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado.

This season marks Franchione’s third at the school and expectations continue to rise. The Aggies have already been dubbed as a “sleeper” team by ESPN and NFL draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. has touted McNeal as one of the five top quarterbacks in the nation. As if that weren’t enough, the defensive coordinator for the Aggies is Carl Torbush — a name that should sound familiar because he was once defensive coordinator and, later, head coach at the University of North Carolina.

Forget about Torbush’s coaching record in Chapel Hill, the fact is that the Tarheels enjoyed a Top 10 program during the Mack Brown years and their defense, led by Torbush, was one of the primary factors. Now, he is hoping that same magic will translate into equally high rankings for A&M.

If this sounds like Clemson has no chance of winning Saturday night’s game, one must admit the Tigers will have their work cut out for them. Yet, the Tigers do have a chance.

Last year, Clemson played the Aggies relatively close for nearly three quarters of the game but turnovers doomed their chances and made the 27-6 final score extremely deceiving. For the Tigers to win, running backs Reggie Meriweather and Duane Coleman must achieve success on the ground and quarterback Charlie Whitehurst must make accurate passes and the correct decision on when to throw or not to throw those passes.

The Clemson receiving corps must also hold onto the football — something that plagued this team all of last year. Although Kelvin Grant, one of the primary victims of dropitis, is injured and uncertain for Saturday night’s game, the return of Chansi Stuckey and emergence of newcomer Aaron Kelly provide optimism for Tiger fans.

Although this game is a sellout, and enthusiasm among Clemson fans is needed to show A&M and the rest of this year’s opponents that Death Valley can be an intimidating place to play, the Tigers cannot just rely on fan turnout and ear deafening roars to ensure success Saturday night. Instead, this team must play mistake-free football on both sides of the ball.

The defense has got to do its part also — putting pressure on McNeal but containing him to prevent any long quarterback runs. Not only must they prevent A&M from converting third-down and long plays, they must also be opportunistic enough to recover any fumbles or hold onto interceptions that may come their way.

This team must also demonstrate it has the eye of the tiger, which is evident in successful programs. In other words, if this team has a lead late in the game, they must do whatever is necessary to hold onto it —a la Georgia Tech and Duke of 2004.

Although the task is great, I believe the Tigers can win this game because Texas A&M, though solid, is not invincible by any means. But in order to do so, Clemson must play like they did in defeating Florida State and Tennessee in 2003 and Miami to some degree last year.

Should the Tigers be able to do that, the 2005 season will be off to a “roaring” success. Otherwise, this game could be the start of a long, hard season for Clemson football players, fans, and, especially Tommy Bowden.

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