Auburn Tigers (4-4, 1-4 SEC) vs. No. 19 Texas A&M (6-2, 3-2 SEC)
Texas A&M comes into this one trying to keep its slim SEC West title hopes alive, while Auburn needs a win to get out of the cellar in the division. The Tigers also need a victory in at least two of their final four games to become bowl eligible.
The past three matchups between these teams have been high-scoring affairs, with the previous two decided by a combined seven points. Are we in store for another nail-biter Saturday night?
Kickoff: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Weather: Cloudy, 56 degrees, 40 percent chance of rain/thunderstorms
Line: Auburn +7 (VegasInsider.com)
By the numbers
Auburn’s opponents have only returned five kickoffs and four punts this season. That combined total of nine is the lowest in the FBS.
That statistic comes into play this weekend, as Auburn faces one of the most dynamic players in the country in freshman wide receiver Christian Kirk. The Tigers’ secondary already has to contend with Kirk in the passing game, so it is imperative to keep his hands off the ball as much as possible as a returner.
On the season, Kirk is tied for the SEC lead with two punt return touchdowns. The freshman also averages 21 yards per kickoff return.
The Tigers have played well on special teams to this point. If Auburn is going to pull off an upset, the special teams unit cannot afford to let Kirk make big plays.
Texas A&M has racked up 26 sacks this season. The Aggies’ sack totals rank ninth in the country and only Alabama (27) has more in the SEC.
Auburn has allowed just 14 sacks, but the Tigers haven’t faced a pass-rushing tandem like Texas A&M sophomore Myles Garrett and junior Daeshon Hall. Garrett is second in the country with 10.5 sacks and Hall has six sacks of his own.
It will be crucial for Auburn to limit negative-yardage plays and stay out of obvious throwing situations. If not, Auburn quarterback Sean White could spend a lot of time looking at the sky instead of locating his receivers.
The Tigers will find it difficult to win Saturday if the defense continues to give up big plays. Auburn has allowed 37 plays of 20 yards or more this season. Texas A&M’s offense is second in the SEC with 47 of such plays.
In addition to Kirk, the Aggies possess other skill players that will test the Auburn defense. The Tigers have to keep the Aggies from building a large lead early, because the offense has not performed well working with a deficit.
Auburn’s offense has rediscovered some explosiveness in recent weeks, but the Tigers have gained 20 yards or more on offense just 28 times. That is tied with Vanderbilt for last in the SEC.
Storylines to watch
The health of Sean White and Peyton Barber
After missing the majority of practice last week with injuries, White (knee) and starting running back Peyton Barber (undisclosed injury) both practiced this week.
Both players saw the field last week against Ole Miss, but White had his lowest completion percentage (42.9) in a game this season. Barber was limited to just eight carries, while junior-college transfer Jovon Robinson received the majority of the touches.
Barber and White are expected to play against Texas A&M barring any setbacks. We will have to see if the injuries have any effect on their performances.
Containing Kyler Murray
The freshman will make his second career start on Saturday. Murray presents a threat through the air, but he is also dangerous as a runner.
Murray accounted for 379 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina last week, and 156 of those yards came on 20 rushing attempts.
It will be key for Auburn to put pressure on the young quarterback. However, it may be more important for the defensive linemen to remain disciplined and keep Murray in the pocket.
Red zone blues
When Auburn reaches the red zone, it needs touchdowns instead of field goals. Last week, the Tigers entered the red zone three times against Ole Miss and each possession ended in a field goal.
The game was eerily similar to Auburn’s loss to Mississippi State earlier this season. Auburn went to the red zone four times in that game and left with just six points in the 17-9 loss.
Auburn can’t leave points on the field and expect to keep up with Texas A&M’s offense.
Auburn’s offense has steadily improved each week with White at quarterback, but the Tigers still have many questions on that side of the ball. The offensive struggles are partially because of an underperforming offensive line, which faces two of the best pass rushers in the country on Saturday.
Auburn’s defense has not fared well against mobile quarterbacks like Murray. The return of defensive end Carl Lawson will help contain the freshman, but even Lawson cannot cover up all of the team’s defensive flaws.
For those reasons…
Texas A&M 38, Auburn 20