As part of an ongoing series for the spring and summer months, SEC Country offers a point/counterpoint breakdown of some of the SEC’s biggest games on the 2016 calendar — in terms of subjectively clarifying which program needs a victory more than the other.
Today’s must-win debate: SEC Country writers Jay Clemons and Knox Bardeen tackle the Texas A&M @ Auburn clash on Sept. 17, with Clemons taking the Aggies argument and Bardeen siding with the Tigers.
For Clemons’ pro-Texas A&M breakdown, click here:
Auburn’s QB has to be better than Texas A&M’s
Let’s face it … neither school had a fun trek at the quarterback position in 2015. In fact, the proper term might be dumpster fire, and both schools burned. The Tigers need to keep Texas A&M’s dumpster fire burning so they can put theirs in the rearview mirror.
Auburn’s trouble started when it hyped Jeremy Johnson as the next great Southeastern Conference star. Instead of the dark horse Heisman candidate billing he received at SEC Media Days, Johnson finished 14th in passing yards per game among conference passers and see-sawed as the starter throughout the season.
Whether it was because of injury, a rules infraction or simply coach Kevin Sumlin’s strange need to create havoc on the offensive depth chart, Texas A&M had trouble keeping a starting quarterback in place. The Aggies’ two five-star recruits (Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen) transferred out. Sumlin needed to find a new starter.
Both Texas A&M and Auburn chased Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight, but the Aggies won his services. Auburn, which had already signed dual-threat transfer John Franklin III weeks earlier, was forced to move ahead with its current stable of signal callers.
Knight has already been installed as the starter in College Station and Franklin seems to be the front runner at Auburn. Franklin must lead his Tigers past Knight’s Aggies. Not just because of the X’s and O’s implications, but for bragging rights.
If you don’t think bragging rights matter in the SEC, just follow the recruiting trail for a quick minute. Any way to one-up another program is utilized.
Auburn’s early schedule offers a soothing calm, or a painful kick in the gut – but not both
Auburn starts its season at home against College Football Playoff runner-up Clemson, a truly arduous task. Let’s assume – sorry, Auburn fans – a Clemson victory on Sept. 3.
The next game on the slate for Auburn is Arkansas State at home, before the Tigers host Texas A&M in Week 3. Again, assume Auburn sits at 1-1 heading into the Aggies matchup … Auburn’s third game surely smells like a crossroads venture.
A loss puts Auburn at 1-2 and reeling before it has to host LSU in Week 4. A win offers a true momentum-builder before the Tigers have to find a way to corral Leonard Fournette.
With a schedule anomaly that has Auburn at home for its first five games, the Tigers have two incredibly tough matchups (Clemson and LSU) and two lesser opponents (Arkansas State and ULM). Texas A&M in Week 3 is the hinge game. Before the Tigers hit the road, will they be 3-2 or 2-3 (depending on underdogs losing and favorites doing what they’re supposed to do)?
Better than 3-2 would be marvelous. Worse … uh-oh.
Gus Malzahn is truly on the hot seat
If Malzahn doesn’t find a way to replicate his bounce-back abilities from 2013, he might not be welcomed back for a fifth season in 2017.
In his first year with Auburn, Malzahn led his troops to a BCS championship game loss (on the wings of two miracles) and a 12-2 season after the Tigers went 3-9 the season before. Malzahn doesn’t have to get back to a national title game, but he does need to show marked improvement.
Auburn went from a 12-win team in 2013 to eight wins and then seven. That’s a downward spiral from which coaches tend not to recover.
The Tigers brought back some key players on defense, should be better on offense (especially if Franklin is the real deal) and have more talent up and down their roster than Texas A&M. Losing to an inferior team won’t sit well with decision-makers who handle the coaching calls.
Auburn’s coaches directory should be written in pencil
No one will fault Will Muschamp for leaving Auburn after one season as defensive coordinator to take the top spot at South Carolina. Head coaching jobs in the SEC don’t grow on trees.
In addition to Muschamp’s departure, five other assistants had to be replaced at Auburn as a mass exodus of voluntary departures forced Auburn into job-fair mode.
It could play out that turning over the coaching staff was a good thing. Only play on the field will tell the story. If Auburn doesn’t show huge improvements week in and week out, the first are to be harmed will be recruiting.
If Auburn sputters again with a markedly different group of coaches, the next move might be to replace them all. Outside of a high school star who has always dreamed of playing for Auburn, how many recruits with multiple teams gunning for them do you think would choose a program mired in instability to spend the next three or four years of his life?