AUBURN, Ala. — A few years ago, Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin were the toast of the SEC West. They each had impressive double-digit-win seasons led by wide-open offenses, and both were also rumored to be the hottest names on the coaching carousel.
But things have changed in the last couple of seasons in Auburn and College Station. Malzahn and Sumlin’s schemes haven’t clicked like they once did. Each has had quarterback frustrations. Ugly trends in SEC play started to develop.
On Saturday, both coaches will be out to prove those days are behind them when they square off in a major SEC opener (7 p.m., ESPN). Their offenses routed lesser opponents in Week 2, and their defenses each continued their strong starts to 2016.
Texas A&M will bring a 2-0 record and a No. 17 ranking to the Plains on Saturday, looking to make it 5-for-5 for road teams in this divisional rivalry. But an Auburn team desperate for its first SEC home win since late 2014 is the betting favorite for this game.
What does the matchup say about the talent of these two programs? Here’s a unit-by-unit breakdown of Saturday’s contest.
Auburn: Free from the carousel of Week 1, Sean White played the best game of his young college career against Arkansas State. White went 17-for-23 passing for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns while adding a solid 60 yards on the ground. The Tigers might go to JUCO transfer John Franklin III in certain situations to utilize his speed. Now the question is if this duo can lead a big offensive effort against an SEC program.
Texas A&M: Trevor Knight is going into his third start at A&M, but he’s been in several big games like this one. He started 15 games at Oklahoma, including a 45-31 victory over Alabama as a freshman in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. Knight has a good ability to tuck the ball and hurt defenses with his running ability. He’s not the most accurate quarterback, but he has the tools to succeed in the Aggies offense.
Edge: Texas A&M
Auburn: The Tigers had big holes to fill in their depth chart this offseason after the departures of Jovon Robinson, Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas. Sophomores Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway showed they can handle that workload in Week 2, with each back going for at least 100 yards for the first time in their careers. They were supposed to be a thunder (Pettway) and lightning (Johnson) combo this season, but they each showed deeper skill sets in stamina and explosion against Arkansas State.
Texas A&M: The Aggies also had to replace their first 1,000-yard running back since the 2011 season in Tra Carson this offseason. Right now, the Aggies are using former Oklahoma running back Keith Ford and freshman Trayveon Williams to carry the load. They’ve combined for 236 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first two weeks of the season — which is slightly smaller production than their counterparts in Auburn.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Auburn: The Tigers have played above expectations at wide receiver so far this season, rarely dropping passes and getting solid production from a wide range of players both young and old. Seven different Auburn receivers have recorded multiple catches through the first two weeks, with senior Tony Stevens and former kicker Will Hastings providing the touchdowns. This unit does the tough work in run-blocking as well, and it showed last Saturday against Arkansas State.
Texas A&M: For all the improvement Auburn’s receivers have made, they can’t quite compare to the unit Texas A&M will throw out Saturday alongside Knight. The multi-talented Christian Kirk is a legitimate All-American candidate. Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones bring the size. Speedy Noil brings the, well, you know. This is the ideal wide receiver corps in terms of size and skill, and they’ll be motivated to have a big game after putting up just 137 yards against Auburn last season.
Edge: Texas A&M
Auburn: After a rough performance against Clemson in Week 1, Auburn’s offensive line stepped its game up against Arkansas State. The Tigers returned three starters — all on the interior line — and their experience paid off in a nearly record-breaking offensive showcase against the Red Wolves. The major question mark will be new starting tackles Austin Golson and Robert Leff, who have to go up against Texas A&M’s dangerous defensive ends Saturday. If they can hold up against the pass rush, this could be the difference in the game.
Texas A&M: Texas A&M returned just one starter to its offensive line in 2016: senior left tackle Avery Gennesy, who will be a huge force in protecting Knight from Auburn’s pass rush. The rest are entering their first-ever SEC starts in a hostile environment. The new-look unit has done well early, only allowing 2 sacks and producing up front for a stronger rushing attack. But these linemen will have a tougher challenge against a much-improved Auburn defensive front.
Auburn: This is one of Auburn’s biggest positions of strength, and it showcased its depth against Arkansas State. Players such as Derrick Brown, Andrew Williams and Jeff Holland shined behind starters Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, Dontavius Russell and Marlon Davidson. This unit doesn’t always light up the stat sheet, but it has been a force in run-stopping and pass-rushing through the first two weeks. It’ll be a tough matchup for Texas A&M’s inexperienced offensive line.
Texas A&M: Myles Garrett is the best pass-rusher in college football, and Daeshon Hall would be the most productive defensive end on Auburn’s roster if he decided to suit up for the Tigers. Together, they are a destructive force against any offensive line, combining for 34 tackles for loss last season. Down the middle, the Aggies are deep with Zaycoven Henderson, Hardreck Walker, Kingsley Keke and former 5-star prospect Daylon Mack.
Edge: Texas A&M
Auburn: Sophomores Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams have excelled in their first two starts, making plays all over the field against both Clemson and Arkansas State. Returning starter Tre’ Williams has been as sure as they come at run-stopping, but a couple of major coverage busts fell on him in Week 2. Montavious Atkinson got some much-needed snaps last Saturday and can be a key rotation piece against Texas A&M. Auburn’s defense has made big strides from last season, and a lot of it has to do with the play of its linebackers.
Texas A&M: Shaan Washington and Otaro Alaka are a pair of 240-pounders who have done well in run support, which has been the Aggies’ defensive downfall in recent seasons. There’s not a ton of experience in this unit, but the linebackers play well behind a defensive line that is one of the best in the country. They haven’t had much responsibility in pass coverage so far, which is something Auburn might try to exploit.
Auburn: The Tigers secondary followed up a strong Week 1 performance against Deshaun Watson with a solid one against Arkansas State. A few big plays given up through the air turned into Arkansas State’s best scoring chances of the evening. Auburn has plenty of experience in its defensive backfield with Carlton Davis, Joshua Holsey, Stephen Roberts, Tray Matthews and Rudy Ford. They’ll need to play some of their best-ever ball to handle Texas A&M’s stellar passing attack.
Texas A&M: Like Auburn, Texas A&M has experience in its secondary, and it’s turned that into even more improvement through the first two weeks of the season. Texas A&M ranked 15th nationally in yards allowed per pass attempt last season, and it forced UCLA’s Josh Rosen to throw three picks in Week 1. Safeties Armani Watts and Justin Evans will look to prevent White from taking the top off the defense. Donovan Wilson is an experienced option at nickel, and Priest Willis has had a strong start to the season at corner.
Auburn: Daniel Carlson is in the running for the title as the best kicker in the country, and he showed last week he has solid wheels if Malzahn elects for trickery. Kevin Phillips didn’t punt at all against Arkansas State and forced several fair catches against Clemson. Neither return unit has had much of a chance to make big things happen, but they have veteran presences there. Carlson’s reliability will be a huge boost for Auburn in what has the makings of a close game in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Texas A&M: Kicker Daniel LaCamera and punter Shane Tripucka have had good openings to their roles as starting specialists for the Aggies. Kirk is a dangerous punt returner who ran two back for touchdowns a freshman last season. The Aggies are also averaging a good 22.29 yards per kick return so far this season, which is more than seven yards better than their opponents. Auburn will try everything in its power to make sure Kirk doesn’t get too many chances to break the big play.
The Bottom Line
This is an even matchup between two teams that boast improved defenses and look to prove their rediscovered offensive magic against lesser competition weren’t fluke performances. The trenches will be vital in this matchup as Auburn looks to hold off Garrett and Hall while also attacking A&M’s new-look offensive line with its own defensive star power.
Auburn will have an advantage when it relies on the ground game, while Texas A&M will take the edge when it drops back to pass. The other two scenarios look split right down the middle. Texas A&M is the ranked team with the impressive home victory over a Power Five opponent, but Auburn will have the home-field advantage — that is, if it will start to mean anything in what has been a road-dominated series.