In the midst of a two-game losing streak with an injured Sean White watching from the sideline rocking a brand-new Under Armour sweat suit, I know I’m not the only one that didn’t feel too good about Auburn’s chances when it visited College Station last season.
O we of little faith.
Then, Jeremy Johnson and Jovon Robinson reminded Auburn nation yet again that football games are actually won on the field (I know, huge shocker), and much to the surprise of the occasional pessimists such as myself, the ailing Tigers went on the road and bullied No. 19 Texas A&M all night long.
The 26-10 upset turned out to be one of Auburn’s more satisfying, less traumatic wins of last year. Shame on us for forsaking the angel that always seems to be watching over this team.
In an attempt to predict the game’s outcome in 2016, I think Gus Malzahn and the Tigers have put themselves in a position to generate similar results. With a fresh infusion of confidence following last week’s offensive revelation against Arkansas State, it’s kind of hard to bet against them. But it would also be unwise to sleep on the Aggies — they’ve been pretty impressive in their own right on both sides of the ball.
Adding to the parity, Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies will be packing a lot more punch this time led by former Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight. And by all accounts, Texas A&M believes that he’s the missing piece to its playoff puzzle.
Tiger fans can’t wait for this one to kick off Saturday. So to help pass the time, here are three things to think about heading into Auburn’s SEC opener.
3. QB play: White (and only White, lord willing) vs. Knight
Months ago when I first heard that Texas A&M was adding Knight to its roster, all I could think about was the show he put on in 2014 when the then-redshirt freshman led Oklahoma to a 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over Alabama.
Knight absolutely shredded Kirby Smart’s defense with 348 yards and four touchdowns through the air, but fell victim to an injury-plagued sophomore season that eventually led to him being benched in favor of current Sooners starter Baker Mayfield. Regardless, as an Auburn man I can always appreciate any player who directly contributes to Nick Saban’s demise. It just sucks in situations like this when that player happens to be suiting up for a team the Tigers have to face.
While Knight didn’t put up All-American numbers during his time at Oklahoma by any stretch, his MVP performance in the 2014 Sugar Bowl against Alabama left a lasting impression on me. Despite his sophomore setbacks, in the right situation it was a no-brainer in my mind that he has all the tools necessary to be a star at the Division I level.
My lofty expectations for Knight were dashed in Norman, but a change of scenery appears to have greatly benefited his game. Under Kevin Sumlin, Knight seems to be back on the path to greatness, and that could spell serious trouble for Auburn’s secondary.
Texas A&M’s two-quarterback rotation of Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray was less than stellar last season, which resulted in the team’s worst offensive totals of Sumlin’s tenure. This year with a rejuvenated Knight pulling the trigger, the Aggies’ offense enters Week 3 as the league leader in points and yards from scrimmage.
It’s still early, but by season’s end I think Knight will be recognized as the best quarterback in the SEC (which isn’t saying much considering this year’s clear lack of talent at the position). For up-and-comer Sean White, Saturday’s game will be a great test to see where he stacks up against a quarterback who I believe to be among the nation’s elite.
Simmer down, Auburn fans. Knight still has to go out and prove it, remember?
White and Knight have more to prove than anyone in this matchup; both will be looking to validate their dominant performances from a week ago and put some respect on their names. Auburn and Texas A&M’s defensive units have had marginal success thus far, but both sides will have their work cut out for them Saturday night as league play begins. This game has all the makings of an old fashion SEC shootout.
Ready or not, Knight and the Aggies are walking into Jordan-Hare Stadium with fireworks Saturday night, and it’s up to White and the rest of Auburn’s offense to keep up in what I expect to be a high-scoring affair.
Was Auburn’s offensive production against Arkansas State a fluke? I guess we’re about to find out.
2. Auburn’s (undersized) secondary vs. Texas A&M’s stud receiving corps
Through two games Knight hasn’t connected on many deep balls, but that doesn’t make the home run threat of Texas A&M’s wideouts any less real.
Auburn’s defense isn’t backing down from the challenge (because that’s not how things work on the Plains), but Tiger fans still have four legitimate reasons to worry.
Texas A&M’s ridiculously dangerous starting group comprised of Speedy Noil, Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones is arguably the best in the country, and each has the big-play ability to hit an opposing defense where it hurts.
So Tiger faithful, do I even need to say it? Taking away the big play Saturday will be a major key to Auburn’s success. Unfortunately for the Tigers, however, that’s an issue defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has yet to resolve. For the sake of our sanity, lets pray he figures it out in a hurry.
When these two teams met last season, Auburn’s defense was able to keep Texas A&M’s passing attack in check. Auburn forced Kyler Murray into three interceptions before Sumlin pulled him late in the third quarter following a head injury. But this year’s Aggies have greater stability in Knight, meaning Auburn’s secondary is going to have to give a similar effort, if not greater this time around if it hopes to limit the production of Texas A&M’s pass catchers.
This isn’t the type of game where Auburn’s defense can afford a few careless mental errors — if that side of the ball isn’t locked in, the Aggies have the weapons to make them pay. The Tigers should have all the motivation they need to stay sharp.
I’m willing to bet that the fallout from Ricky Seals-Jones’ infamous targeting-no-targeting call that resulted in the severe injury of cornerback Jeremiah Dinson is still fresh on Auburn’s mind. I think the Tigers will be taking this game a little more personal than others, and I have little doubt that the defense will be looking to exact some revenge.
1. Texas A&M’s defense against Auburn’s smash-mouth brand of football
We all know that White needs to take the next step in his development and can’t afford to play mediocre football. We understand that Auburn’s secondary has to eliminate the threat of the deep ball and play bigger than their size. But for the Tigers to come away victorious against the Aggies, the most critical key to victory will be dominating time of possession.
In 2015 Auburn was able to do just that, with its offense possessing the ball for 33:57 to Texas A&M’s 26:03. Jovon Robinson’s 159 yards on the ground made Jeremy Johnson’s life a whole lot easier, allowing him to manage the game, avoid the costly turnover and keep Texas A&M’s weapons on the sideline. Auburn’s offense stayed true to its identity, finishing with a season-high 311 yards rushing on 52 carries.
Incredible things happen when business is booming in Auburn’s backfield. The Tigers have to stay loyal to running the football, and dominate this game between the tackles.
With Robinson gone, Auburn will have to rely on The Cruiser and The Bruiser — its two-headed monster at running back — to carry the load. Are the nicknames catching on yet?
Don’t get me wrong, White has to continue to make big-time throws for the Tigers to knock off the Aggies, but the team’s largest offensive contributions have to come from Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway. I guarantee that their performances Saturday night will have a direct impact on the outcome.
Controlling the clock — it’s one of the most effective, yet under-appreciated concepts in football. For those who still don’t understand the importance of this strategy, let me break it down for you.
The better Auburn runs the ball, the longer its offense stays on the field. The longer its offense stays on the field, the longer that Aggies offense stays on the sideline. If Texas A&M’s offense is on the sideline, the team can’t score points. And if Texas A&M can’t score points, do the math — It all adds up to Auburn’s first SEC win of the year.