After two miserable weeks on the road, Auburn (1-6, 0-5 SEC) finally returns home for a matchup with conference newcomer Texas A&M (5-2, 2-2). With a 6 p.m. kickoff at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the hope is the Tigers will be able to feed off an electric energy and provide an inspiring performance like the one seen against LSU. But there are two concerning questions about Saturday's game that didn't exist against the Bayou Bengals: With the season already down the drain, just how electric will the Jordan-Hare atmosphere be, and does Auburn's defense have any shot at stopping the up-tempo spread offense run by A&M.
The Aggies are led by the sensational Johnny Manziel, who is just about everyone's pick for freshman of the year. Manziel is tied for fifth in the conference with 14 touchdown passes, just two behind SEC leaders Aaron Murray, Tyler Bray and A.J. McCarron, and his 10 rushing TDs are tied with South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore for the conference lead. Manziel is the prototypical spread quarterback, and he has led A&M to the top of the SEC in total offense. The Aggies average 43.0 points and 524.6 yards per game.
For Auburn's defense, Texas A&M provides the toughest challenge of the season. The Tigers have struggled against spread offenses with mobile quarterbacks this season, allowing an average of 463.0 yards and 31.7 points to Clemson, Louisiana-Monroe and Ole Miss. The key to stopping the A&M-style spread is getting into the backfield and blowing the play up before it can begin. In the 2010 BCS Championship Game -- sigh, those were the days -- Auburn was able to shut down Oregon's explosive offense because defensive tackle Nick Fairley was able to consistently get into the backfield and disrupt the play. The run-based spread is all about timing, and if a defense can throw that timing off, the offense will have issues.
Unfortunately for the 2012 version of the Tigers, there is no Fairley to blow up plays in the backfield. The Tiger line has struggled to make an impact all season, especially in the middle. Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright have rarely provided the kind of push Auburn needs to throw opposing offenses off their games. Defensive ends Corey Lemonier and Dee Ford did a nice job at getting pressure through the first four games, but Ford has been hampered by injuries recently, and the play on the line has suffered. With no dominant counterpoint at the other end of the line, Lemonier has been the sole focus of opposing offensive lines, and his impact has disappeared. Against Arkansas, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, he has compiled just one quarterback hurry and assisted on one tackle. With Lemonier as the only legitimate threat on Auburn's line recently, opposing offenses have been able to completely remove him from the games. As a result, the Tigers' line play has been essentially non-existent lately. Ole Miss and Vanderbilt rushed for 200 and 209 yards, respectively, and Wright generated the only sack by a defensive lineman in those games.
If the line isn't able to slow down the Aggie offense, Auburn's linebackers and defensive backs will likely be hung out to dry. Against the up-tempo spread the Tigers will likely be in a nickel package for most of the game, and if prior history is any indication, A&M is bound to find plenty of room to maneuver. Daren Bates will receive plenty of playing time at linebacker, but who joins him is unknown. Freshman Cassanova McKinzy played well in his debut as a starter against Vanderbilt, but he also made plenty of youthful mistakes. With the Aggies spreading the ball around the field, it wouldn't be a surprise to see McKinzy out of position on a regular basis. Will Auburn rely on the more experienced Jake Holland? Maybe, but Holland has had his own struggles with pre-snap positioning, and he hasn't been nearly as productive as McKinzy was last week. Either way, expect to see Auburn's linebackers -- and defensive backs, for that matter -- chasing the game.
The Aggie defense should provide Auburn a chance to move the ball and score points, but the Tigers have been making bad defenses look like the 1970's Steel Curtain all season. Arkansas is giving up 434.6 yards per game, but Auburn managed just 321 against the Razorbacks. That was one week after the Hogs allowed A&M to roll up 716 yards. Ole Miss was allowing 487.3 yards against BCS conference teams, but Auburn totaled 213 against the Rebels. It hasn't mattered how bad the opposing defense has been, the Tigers' offense has found ways to be worse.
The Aggies give up an average of 392.7 yards per game, 10th in the SEC. Aside from defensive end Damontre Moore, the Aggies' 'D' has been strictly mediocre. However, Moore has been the conference's best defensive lineman this season. The 6'4, 250-pound junior has compiled 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, both of which lead the SEC. Auburn's offensive line, which hasn't performed well in recent weeks, must find a way to neutralize Moore. A big reason for Auburn's offensive struggles has been negative plays. Whether it's been penalties, sacks or losses on running plays, Auburn has often found itself in third-and-long situations, and the Tigers have rarely converted. If Moore is allowed to consistently force Auburn into unfavorable down-and-distance situations, the offense won't have much of a chance.
Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler needs to give running back Tre Mason his carries this week. Mason might not have a huge day against the Aggie defense, which allows 138.1 rushing yards per game, but he can set up the rest of the offense. It has been repeated throughout this season, but when Mason is allowed to carry the offense, it finds success, and when Auburn gets away from the sophomore back, the offense struggles. LSU ran for 219 yards on 45 attempts last week. While Auburn isn't likely to put up that number of yards, it would be nice to see the Tigers have that many attempts. It would be even nicer if Mason received at least 20 of those attempts.
Overall, this is a bad matchup for the Tigers. The style of offense A&M employs has been serious thorn in Auburn's side this year, as has the style of defense the Aggies run -- i.e. any at all. Auburn has played well at times during the middles of games, but the Tigers have struggled mightily early and late. Auburn has allowed 28 points on seven opening defensive drives this year, and two of the three scoreless drives ended in missed field goals by opposing kickers. Auburn's fourth-quarter struggles have been well documented, as the Tigers have been outscored 62-6. With A&M's offense, those trends are likely to continue, and Auburn should be in for a long night. Texas A&M 37, Auburn 17.