Texas A&M hopes to bolster its College Football Playoff chances, while Auburn aims to play spoiler in a key SEC West Division clash on Saturday. The Aggies ranked fifth in the second edition of the CFB Playoff rankings on Tuesday, and while coach Jimbo Fisher's team needs some help to make the four-team postseason, a road win against the Tigers would certainly bolster the resume. On the other sideline, Auburn is coming off a loss to Alabama and needs to win one of its two remaining regular-season games to secure a winning record.
After a two-week gap in games due to COVID-19 issues, Texas A&M knocked off the rust in a 20-7 win against LSU last Saturday. However, the victory was far from perfect. Fisher's offense averaged only 3.8 yards per play, did not have a completion longer than 18 yards and no drive in the second half went beyond 28 yards. While weather issues and rust played a role in the sluggish performance, Texas A&M knows it has to play better to have a shot at the four-team playoff. Prior to the two-week absence on the gridiron, Fisher's team was hitting on all cylinders. After losing to Alabama, the Aggies beat Florida 41-38 and proceeded to beat Mississippi State, Arkansas, South Carolina, and LSU by 11 or more points.
Auburn enters Saturday's matchup looking to get back on track after losing 42-13 to Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Coach Gus Malzahn's squad had a three-game winning streak prior to the loss to the Crimson Tide and could finish 7-3 with wins in their next two games. While Malzahn's status in relation to the hot seat is always a point of discussion in November and December, the financial heft of paying a new staff and buying out the previous one isn't cheap amidst the pandemic. However, a strong finish to the year would certainly help Malzahn prevent the temperature from getting any warmer in 2020.
The all-time series between Texas A&M and Auburn is tied at five wins apiece. The Tigers have won three in a row. However, the Aggies have won three out of the last four in Auburn.
No. 5 Texas A&M at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 3 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Texas A&M -6.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
Auburn's offense is coming off one of its worst performances of the season, but the hope is home-field advantage helps this unit get back on track. The Tigers are averaging 34.3 points and 6.4 yards at home, compared to 19.0 points and 4.99 on the road. Quarterback Bo Nix has also fared much better when in the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. The sophomore has connected on 64.8 percent of his throws and tossed just one pick at home. But away from Auburn, Nix is only completing 58.7 percent of his throws and has had six passes intercepted.
Under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Chad Morris and Malzahn, Nix has shown some signs of development, but it's clear this offense still has a long way to go. Nix threw for only 227 yards against Alabama, bringing his season total to 1,854. The sophomore is connecting on 61.2 percent of his throws overall and averaging 7.1 yards per completion. However, week-to-week consistency remains an issue, and Nix needs to be able to utilize his legs (283 rushing yards in 2020) and be supported by solid play up front and with the ground game. When Nix has good protection and is comfortable in the pocket, there are plays to be made in the passing game with Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, and Eli Stove on the outside.
Injuries along the offensive line hindered Auburn in the loss to Alabama and remain a concern going into Saturday's matchup. Tackle Alec Jackson is out, and fellow tackle Brodarius Hamm is questionable. The line has surrendered 17 sacks, while rushers are averaging just 4.4 yards per carry this fall. Freshman Tank Bigsby ran for 39 yards against the Crimson Tide but was clearly limited due to a hip injury suffered against Tennessee. It's uncertain how much Bigsby can contribute this week, and D.J. Williams is also questionable due to an ankle injury suffered last Saturday. With Bigsby and Williams limited, Shaun Shivers and Mark-Antony Richards should see an expanded role in the backfield.
With Auburn's concerns up front and injuries at running back, the task of moving the ball against Texas A&M's defense gets even tougher. The Aggies are allowing 22.4 points a contest and hold teams to 5.3 yards a snap. Additionally, this unit is strong in the trenches (second in the SEC against the run and tied for third in sacks) and doesn't give up much in the way of big plays. The Tigers need to find ways to generate production on the ground, with Nix using his mobility to negate some of the strength of Texas A&M up front. Also, staying out of third-and-long situations is critical.
When Texas A&M Has the Ball
For Texas A&M to get back on track after last week's performance, quarterback Kellen Mond needs to find the rhythm and production he displayed in wins over Florida, Arkansas, and South Carolina. The senior directs an attack that ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring (31.4 ppg) and averages 6.3 yards per play. And through seven games, Mond has connected on 59.3 percent of his passes for 1,573 yards and 16 touchdowns to just two picks.
The senior quarterback has to get more help from his receivers than he did against LSU, especially when it comes to winning one-on-one battles on the outside. All-purpose threat Ainias Smith paces the offense with 348 receiving yards, with tight end Jalen Wydermyer (32 catches) and Chase Lane (24) also expected to be heavily involved. After the issues against LSU last Saturday, Mond and his receivers will have their hands full against Auburn's secondary this week. The Tigers rank eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and five of the eight opponents faced did not eclipse 242 yards through the air.
Similar to when Auburn's offense is on the field, winning the battle in the trenches is critical for Texas A&M. The Aggies boast one of the SEC's top offensive lines, surrendering only three sacks in seven games. Running back Isaiah Spiller has rushed for 777 yards and six scores, while Smith (187) is another weapon the defense will have to account for. The Tigers always have talent up front, and 2020 is no different. Led by end Big Kat Bryant, tackle Colby Wooden, and linebackers Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain, this unit has generated 18 sacks and 45 tackles for a loss. But stopping the run has been an issue at times, and the combination of Spiller and Texas A&M's offensive line could create a lot of headaches for coordinator Kevin Steele. Auburn ranks 10th in the SEC against the run, allowing 162.4 yards a game. In addition to winning the battle up front, the Tigers have to do a better job of getting off the field on third downs. This defense ranks last in the SEC in that category, while the Aggies are second in the conference in offensive conversions on the critical down.
This game is likely to come down to two factors: Quarterback play and which team wins the battle up front. Auburn enters Saturday's game with concerns along the offensive line and a need to jump-start the rushing attack, especially to take some of the pressure off of Nix. Texas A&M dominated the trenches against LSU and should have an edge on both sides of the ball on Saturday. If the Aggies are able to get the ground game going, and Mond can hit some one-on-one shots on the outside, Fisher's team should have the upper hand. Auburn plays better at home, and there's an urgency to rebound after last week. The last two games in this series were decided by eight points or less. Look for a close game, but Texas A&M's edge in the trenches and motivation with the playoff still in reach wins out.
Prediction: Texas A&M 27, Auburn 24
Podcast: Coaching Carousel and Week 14 Preview and Predictions