Will the Tigers play defense this time?
(Photo by Acid Reign.)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On November 8th, the Tigers host Texas A&M. It’s the third game between the two schools since the Aggies joined the SEC, and it could possibly be Auburn’s third game in as many weeks against a ranked team. Auburn may well face 5 ranked teams in 6 weeks to close out the 2014 football seas.
The Aggies have some chances to tune up in September, but the schedule becomes brutal down the stretch. From the East, Texas A&M draws South Carolina and Missouri. The Aggies open on Thursday night at South Carolina, followed by cupcakes Lamar and Rice at home, and SMU in Dallas. The Aggies then play Arkansas in Arlington, followed by a road trip to Mississippi State. The schedule continues without a break at home against Ole Miss, and then a trip to Alabama. The Aggies then get a week off, followed by a tuneup against Louisiana Monroe, then the Aggies travel to Auburn. Auburn will have played Arkansas and San Jose State at home, Kansas State on the road, Louisiana Tech for homecoming, then LSU. The Tigers have a bye week, then South Carolina at home before traveling to Oxford to play the Ole Miss Rebels.
The first question that comes to mind for any look at Texas A&M this season is how will quarterback Johnny Manziel be replaced? In my opinion, the situation looks pretty dire, but we’ve seen head coach Kevin Sumlin win before with a green quarterback (Kevin Kolb at Houston, for instance). In fact, Manziel basically came out of nowhere in 2012 to win the Heisman as a freshman. It looks very much like the Aggies will again turn to a true freshman this season, early enrollee Kyle Allen. Allen took part in spring drills, while heir-apparent sophomore Kenny Hill was suspended due to a public intoxication arrest. Veteran senior Matt Joeckel transferred.
Can the Aggie offense generate anything like the 44.2 point per game average generated last season? The are important pieces of that offense missing beside Johnny Football. Receiver Mike Evans is gone, as is left tackle Jake Matthews and running back Ben Malena. Of Manziel’s favorite targets, 3 of the top four are gone, including Mike Evans (69 catches), Derel Walker (51 catches) and Travis Labhart (51 catches). Four starters return on the offensive line, but there has been some shuffling. I expect the Aggies to be pretty good still, on the line. Having a lot of young receivers and a freshman quarterback will likely result in lower production in 2014.
Last season, the Aggies had one of the worst defenses in the SEC. Most defenders return this season, but will they be any better? It’s make or break year for defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. I’ve heard grumblings from Aggie fans on several occasions, and there’s doubt that he’s the answer against SEC offenses. Last season, Texas A&M gave up 32.2 points per game. To put that in perspective, consider that the past five seasons have all ranked among Auburn’s worst ever defensive performances. The worst number Auburn put up during this period was in 2011, giving up 28.9 points per game. I think part of the problem is that its difficult to prepare for physical offenses when the Aggie offense is predicated on throwing the ball. With as many as 10 starters back, the A&M camp hopes for better production.
Most folks give Johnny Football all the credit for Texas A&M’s success the past two seasons, but a closer look at the team reveals that the Aggies have been very good on special teams, and they return all of their key players. The Aggies had solid coverage, dangerous return men, and some of the strongest legs in the league. Look for that trend to continue this season.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Texas A&M offensive line: Auburn’s final starting lineup next fall is a bit up in the air, at this point. I’d expect senior Gabe Wright to start somewhere, either at tackle or end. Expect tackles Angelo Blackson, Jeffery Whitaker, Montravius Adams, and Ben Bradley to all play prominent roles. LaDarius Owens will likely anchor the run-stopping end spot, with Elijah Daniels now the likely rush end starter. Carl Lawson is coming off spring knee surgery, and the latest word is that he might or might not play at all, in 2014. There is room for newcomers to make an impact at end, especially on passing downs. For the Aggies at left tackle, senior Cedric Ogbuchi moves to the left side. From left to right it’s Ogbuchi, senior Jarvis Harrison, junior Mike Matthews at center, junior Joseph Cheek, and talented sophomore Germain Ifedi moves out to right tackle. Last season, Auburn was able to hold the Aggie running game to 3.3 yards per carry, and get pressure on the quarterback. And the Tigers did it with just a four-man rush most of the day. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Texas A&M backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are juniors Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Both are veteran, athletic SEC players, looking to make the next move up. The Aggies lose Ben Malena, but have veteran players returning. Juniors Trey Williams and Tra Carson have played plenty of football, combining for 756 rushing yards and 13 receptions last season. Auburn contained the Aggie running game last season, and should again. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Texas A&M receivers: Auburn is again fairly deep at corner, with veteran Jonathan Mincy hopefully locking down one spot, and either junior Joshua Holsey or junior Jonathan Jones at the other spot. Senior converted wide receiver Trovon Reed also looked pretty good in spring drills here. Auburn should be able to run with any receiving corps, and play physical run defense on the edges. The Aggies return senior Malcome Kennedy and his 60 catches, but will have new faces elsewhere in the spread attack. Redshirt freshman Ricky Seals-Jones is a 6′ 5” 240 pound giant on the other side, and might be a matchup problem. Still, I like Auburn’s chances on the outside. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Texas A&M secondary receivers and quarterback: Senior Jermaine Whitehead anchors one spot here, and Auburn will feature either junior Joshua Holsey, or JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief at the other position. Moncrief was a beast in spring drills, this year, and Holsey is a veteran. It is very tough to bring a new quarterback on the road in the SEC, and that’s what the Aggies will have this season. If there’s a silver lining in this game for the Aggies, it’s that true freshman Kyle Allen will have already started games in Columbia, Starkville and Tuscaloosa before this contest. Aggie slot guys are led by junior Sabian Holmes, with freshman Speedy Noil also listed as a starter. At home with experienced, talented safeties, I’ll take the Tigers. Advantage: Auburn.
Punting: Auburn must start a new punter, here, going with redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchenson, who had a really solid A-Day game. Texas A&M’s junior Drew Kaser had a monster year punting the football, averaging an astounding 47.4 yards per punt. The Aggie punt coverage unit did give up 10.7 yards per return, but considering those howitzer shots, that’s not too bad. Auburn gave up only 5 returns all last season, for 35 yards. (That’s 7.0 yards per return.) Both teams are still trying to find punt returners. The Aggies have listed freshman Speedy Noil as their top guy, while Auburn’s most experienced returning punt returner is senior Quan Bray. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Kickoffs: Auburn must replace veteran kicker Cody Parkey, and will do it with redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson. Junior Taylor Bertolet is back for the Aggies, and he hit 47 touchbacks on 97 kickoffs last season, and when he wasn’t kicking it to the end zone, he did an excellent job of placing the ball in the corner without having any go out of bounds. As a result, the Aggie coverage gave up only 18.3 yards per return. Auburn’s coverage was porous, giving up 25.8. Auburn senior Corey Grant ripped off 5 returns for a 32.0 yard average for Auburn as the top guy coming back. Junior Trey Williams led the Aggies last season with a 25.2 yard average on 28 returns. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Place kicking: Auburn redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. He hit a monster 51 yard field goal this year in the Auburn A-Day game, but also missed an extra point. The Aggies counter with junior Josh Lambo, who last season hit on 8 of 10 field goal attempts. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Auburn offensive line vs. Texas A&M defensive line: Auburn returns 4 starters on a road-grading, violent offensive line. Greg Robinson moves on to the NFL, but Auburn has talent to replace him. From left to right, it’s sophomore Shon Coleman, sophomore Alex Kozan, senior all-SEC Reese Dismukes, senior Chad Slade, and sophomore Avery Young, with junior Patrick Miller still in the hunt to perhaps unseat one of the tackles for a starting job. Texas A&M will start junior Alonzo Williams and sophomore Hardreck Walker inside, with senior Gavin Stansbury and sophomore Daeshan Hall at the ends. The starters will be bigger and stronger than a year ago, but a look at the depth chart is worrisome. Most of the listed reserves are freshmen. Any injuries here will leave the Aggies very young on the defensive front. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Texas A&M linebackers: Although Auburn lost Heisman finalist Tre Mason early to the NFL draft, Auburn should be fine here with seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Grant was this year’s A-Day star, looking even more explosive and unstoppable. Add in a corps of talented newcomers, and it’s no secret Auburn will be able to tote the rock again this season. H-back is a bit thinner. Senior blocking specialist Brandon Fulse moves from end/receiver to take over the starting nod, but depth behind him is questionable. Texas A&M is rebuilding at linebacker, and will likely start senior Donnie Baggs, sophomore A. J. Hilliard, and sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Texas A&M corners: Auburn juniors Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis developed into one of the more dangerous receiving duos in the SEC, last season. Add in monster transfer D’haquille Williams, and this unit became downright scary this spring, with lots of depth behind the big three. Texas A&M has moved probably their best defensive player, senior Deshazor Everett back to cornerback full time, and he’ll be joined by junior De’Vante Harris. The Aggies will be solid this season at corner, but they’ll have their hands full in this one. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Texas A&M safeties: Auburn senior tight end C. J. Uzomah is a nightmare for safeties to cover. When Auburn needed to go to him late in games last season, C. J. was there every time to haul in the score. Auburn also has senior Quan Bray in the equation, who’s been the career quick screen guy. When guys start to clamp down on him, he can get open down the field. Auburn returns senior quarterback Nick Marshall, and he’s easily the most dangerous guy returning at the position in the SEC this fall. With a spring spent working on a shaky passing game, the sky’s the limit this fall. Marshall was devastating running the zone-read option last fall. The Aggies start seniors Floyd Raven Sr. and Howard Matthews. Matthews is the leading returning tackler on the team. Advantage: Auburn.
On paper, Auburn should win this game in a rout. The Tigers will have a veteran offense going against a defense that will at best be middle of the pack. The Aggies will be bringing in a freshman quarterback, against a veteran defense. Still, I’ve seen Kevin Sumlin offenses generate yards and points with a rotating cast of characters, again and again. I expect that the Aggies will have some offensive success in this one, and Auburn will have to play well to win. This one is sort of a trap game, sandwiched in between tough road trips to Oxford and Athens. Hopefully, the Tigers won’t be caught looking ahead.
This will be a transition year for Texas A&M, and even optimistic local reporters are projecting at best a 9-3 season. Others figure something like 6 or 7 wins. I’m not sure 9 wins is achievable with this team. The only SEC West team the Aggies are likely to be favored over is Arkansas. Add in a tough opener against South Carolina and a visit by Missouri, and that looks like seven possible losses. Success this season will hinge on how many upsets the Aggies can spring.
Prediction: Auburn takes care of business in this one, bulling to a 45-20 win.