The college football season heats up in Week 4 when No. 8 Auburn (3-0) heads to College Station to take on No. 17 Texas A&M (2-1) in a pivotal SEC West showdown. In a division full of hopeful contenders wanting to push Alabama off the mountain top, an opening conference loss this early in the season could sink the dreams of either team’s chances of heading to Atlanta in December.
When the Tigers step off the team bus with swagger, A&M fans should know that it has been earned. With a fan base uneasily cheering for Gus Malzahn to pull out any win this season, Auburn impressed the nation taking down then-No. 11 Oregon 27-21 in Arlington, Texas, in the opener. The good times have rolled with easy wins over Tulane and Kent State. Against the Golden Flashes, Auburn's offense looked like world-beaters racking up 633 total yards with an impressive 467 on the ground. More importantly, true freshman quarterback Bo Nix was sharp, connecting on 12 of 16 pass attempts for 161 yards with one touchdown.
Revenge may be on the minds of the Aggies when the ball is teed up on Saturday. A&M dropped a 28-24 thriller at Jordan-Hare Stadium last season, then rallied to win the final four games. After nearly upsetting eventual national champs Clemson at Kyle Field a year ago (28-26), A&M was not as sharp on the Tigers' home turf two weeks ago, falling 24-10 to the No. 1 team in the nation. The Aggies have sandwiched that loss with an opening win over Texas State (41-7) and against FCS opponent Lamar (62-3). In an odd twist, the Aggies offense also impressed the last time out, rolling for 633 yards of total offense, 410 of those through the air.
Auburn at Texas A&M
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Texas A&M -3.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
Even if it was against a Mid-American Conference opponent, Auburn fans were thrilled to see Bo Nix get on target against Kent State. His shaky start in the pocket to start the season was drawing an extra defender in the box to protect against the run. Expect Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko to disguise coverages and bring in pressure from different angles to confuse Nix as much as possible. This strategy could benefit Auburn allowing their dual-threat quarterback the opportunity to showcase his running abilities, something he has yet to truly do this season.
The 467-yard romp against Kent State aside, Auburn has been running the ball effectively this season and that includes a 206-yard effort against Oregon. Sophomore running back JaTarvious Whitlow is currently second in the SEC in rushing with 341 yards in the first three games. The Aggies have been solid against the run, holding teams to 88 yards per game. Clemson managed just 3.7 yards per carry in their Week 2 meeting.
Clemson's offensive success against A&M came in the passing attack, as Trevor Lawrence posted 268 yards on a 24-of-35 performance. There is no guarantee that Nix can come close to that as Auburn averages 188 passing yards per game, which ranks 102nd out of 130 FBS teams. The Tigers' passing game gets a boost with the return of speedy receiver Anthony Schwartz from a hand injury. He should help stretch out the Aggies defense for yards underneath the coverage.
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
The A&M offense revolves around the play of quarterback Kellen Mond. Mond has not been sharp so far this season but is coming off his best game, destroying Lamar's secondary for 317 yards on 20-of-28 passing with a touchdown, but also threw his third pick of the season. When Mond drops back, there is talent all over the field. Jhamon Ausbon (17/253/2) and Kendrick Rogers (13/155/0) have led the charge. Quartney Davis (11/144/1) missed the Lamar game (back) but could be back in time to face Auburn.
The run game for A&M might be the biggest question mark in this game behind Nix' throwing ability. Leading returning rusher Jashaun Corbin is out for the season (knee) leading to a youth movement in the Aggies backfield. Freshman Isaiah Spiller became the team’s leading rusher on Saturday carrying the rock 14 times for 116 yards with two touchdowns – both career highs in carries and yards. If Auburn's defense compares at all to Clemson's, Spiller was held to 24 yards on seven tries. Spiller's backup is sophomore Jacob Kibodi, who got his first carries of the year against Lamar (11/45/1).
Auburn's defense has been tough to move the ball on this season holding teams to 292 yards per contest. Safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas are dynamic playmakers getting the job done against the run and the pass. Defensive end Marlon Davidson is starting to turn it on leading the team in sacks (2.5) and tackles for a loss (4.5). The Tigers could be without tackle Derrick Brown, a preseason first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches.
Both teams enter the game with significant question marks on offense. Can Auburn pass the ball efficiently and can Texas A&M run the ball as needed? If neither can perform to a level, which can do enough to help win the game? Bo Nix has already survived one Top 25 showdown this season, as he was instrumental in the Tigers coming from behind to beat Oregon in the opener. But the defense did its part as well, holding the Ducks to just 90 rushing yards on 2.7 yards per carry.
Since Texas A&M’s second season in the SEC, this game has been a tight, two-score kind of affair with Auburn winning the last two. Make it three in a row on Saturday.
Prediction: Auburn 28, Texas A&M 24
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.