Aggie weapon Ryan Swope looks to light up the scoreboard. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
War Eagle, everybody! It's time once again for another Auburn opponent preview. This week, it's new SEC member Texas A&M. On October 27th, the Aggies make their first trip in history to Auburn's Jordan Hare Stadium. The Aggies own a lifetime 2-0 advantage over the Tigers, winning in Dallas 16-0 in 1911. When we last saw the Aggies was in the 1986 Cotton Bowl. Bo Jackson had won the Heisman, but it was the Aggie runners who stole the show that day. Jackie Sherrill was their head coach, and they put a 36-16 beating on the Tigers in Bo's last game.
The Auburn football schedule in 2012 features a slightly less murderous October than the previous year. Coming into the Aggie game, Auburn will have played Clemson in Atlanta, Mississippi State in Starkville, Louisiana Monroe, LSU, had an open date, then Arkansas, Ole Miss in Oxford, then Vanderbilt in Nashville. Texas A&M is the 1st of a 4 game home stand leading up to the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa.
The Texas A&M schedule does them few favors in their first SEC season. With two FCS opponents (South Carolina State and Sam Houston State) on the schedule, one of those games will not count towards bowl-eligiblity. In the tough SEC West, some pundits think a bowl bid is a long shot for this team regardless. Texas A&M opens with Louisiana Tech in Shreveport, hosts Florida, then plays SMU in Dallas. South Carolina state comes to College Station, then Arkansas, then Ole Miss in Oxford. After a bye week, the Aggies host LSU, then travel to Auburn. Texas A&M will find out like the rest of their brethren that playing LSU takes a toll the following weeks!
For the Aggie offense, all eyes are on the quarterback spot. With 4 candidates technically still alive in the race, and little experience, some expect the Aggie offense to struggle. From my perspective, Kevin Sumlin's previous offenses have had success with young signal callers. For example, Case Keenum in Houston was dynamic right off the bat, and put up some astounding career numbers. The spring game was sophomore Jameill Showers' coming out party, as he hit 20 of 31 for 203 yards, with 2 scores and no interceptions. His nearest competition, redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel was arrested this spring in an after hours scuffle, and that will likely hinder his development.
While quarterback may still be a question mark for the Aggies, the rest of the offense is loaded. While the Aggies were most noted for blowing second half leads in 2011, they quietly were the 7th best offense in the nation, and return a lot of pieces of that unit. The Aggies may well have the best offensive line in the SEC this fall, similar in talent to Alabama. At least 3 of their linemen are expected to be high NFL draft picks next year. Senior receiver Ryan Swope headlines a dangerous receiving corps. Swope caught 89 balls a year ago, and may better that in a more pass-happy offense this season. Senior tailback Christine Michael is a load when he's healthy, and he's reportedly doing well this summer rehabbing an ACL surgery. It's kind of a misconception that teams that run the Air Raid offense don't run the ball well. Last season at Houston, Sumlin's offense ran the ball 420 times (or 30 carries per game), and they averaged 5.0 yards per carry doing it.
The Aggie defense last season was its weakness, with similar numbers to Auburn's, and gave up 28.1 points per game. Under new defensive coordinator Mark Snyder, A&M switches to a more traditional 4-3 alignment, to better deal with the SEC West's pounding ground attacks. About last year's defensive collapses, head coach Kevin Sumlin has said on several occasions that he believes lack of conditioning had a lot to do with it. The Aggies look to be perhaps a bit stronger with a 4th lineman, but significant improvement may be a ways off. It's a very thin front seven that cannot afford injuries. A&M must keep 300 pound senior tackle Jonathan Mathis and junior Kirby Ennis healthy. Senior Sean Porter is the leader of the linebackers, and he leads a unit that returns all of its starters. The secondary is a different story. The plan at this time seems to be throw a whole bunch of freshmen and sophomores out there, and hope they grow into their roles.
The biggest loss on special teams this off-season was All-American kicker Randy Bullock. The leading candidate to replace him is redshirt freshman Taylor Bertolet. Returning senior punter Ryan Epperson was solid last season, and there's sophomore Drew Kaiser pushing him for the starting job. The return game is in good hands with senior Dustin Harris, who handles both kickoff and punt returns. Last season, A&M covered kicks pretty well, but gave up some long punt returns.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Texas A&M offensive line: A front four of junior Dee Ford, junior Jeffery Whitaker, sophomore Gabe Wright, and junior Corey Lemonier should be pretty special, and Auburn is at least two deep behind the starters. They'll have their hands full with the Aggies, as one can ill afford to blitz a lot when facing a good Air Raid team. Junior tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews are rock-solid anchors. Senior center Patrick Lewis has done well playing all over the line in his long career, and he was on the honorable mention post season Big 12 honors list last year at center. Likely starters at guards are sophomores Cedric Ogbuehi and Jarvis Harrison, both of whom are talented up and comers. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Auburn linebackers vs. Texas A&M backs: Auburn should have some combination of Darren Bates, Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Jonathan Evans starting for this one. Senior Christine Michael is a 6.0 yard per carry back, when he plays. He's battled injury most of his career, and is coming off an ACL injury last year. Beyond the 218 pound Michael, the other backs weigh a lot less. The Aggies are hoping for big things from incoming signee Trey Williams, a 5' 8" scat back in the mold of Onterio McCalebb. In the Aggie spring game this year, junior Ben Malena ran 11 times for 117 yards, which may be an indictment against the strength of the Aggie front seven. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Texas A&M receivers: This season, Auburn has the depth to keep corners fresh. Sophomore Robensen Therezie and junior Chris Davis have the speed to match up with anyone, and there's fast, talented guys two deep behind them. Auburn will need some way to stop senior Ryan Swope. He's made a living in the Big 12 catching quick slants and crosses, and running away from the defense. Swope's not alone out there, either. Senior Uzoma Nwachukwu returns after catching 50 balls last season. Texas A&M's likely 3rd and 4th receivers are senior Kenrick McNeal (8 catches) and 6'5" redshirt freshman Mike Evans. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Texas A&M secondary receivers and quarterback: Right now, sophomore Erique Florence and junior Demetruce McNeil are penciled in as Auburn starters, but expect sophomore Ryan Smith to play a lot, and also walk-on Trent Fisher. Likely A&M quarterback starter Jameill Showers will have had 7 games to settle in by this time, and he's going to put up numbers in this offense. You'll likely see some of the receivers above work from the slot, and Texas A&M actually does have a pair of pretty decent pass-catching tight ends: senior Michael Lamothe and junior Nehemiah Hicks. The pair combined for 26 catches in 2011. Most of A&M's backs have caught the ball well out of the backfield, too. The matchup is young safeties against a young Air Raid quarterback. Advantage: Texas A&M.
Punting: Auburn returns Ray Guy finalist punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can't be returned. Auburn punted 72 times last season, and only allowed 10 returns for 62 yards. Clark pinned 33 of those punts, nearly half, inside the opponent's 20. Last season, A&M punter Ryan Epperson punted 52 times, averaged 41.2 yards, with 19 balls pinned inside the 20. When opponents did return A&M punts, results could be ugly. The Aggies gave up a whopping 17.2 yards per return. The Aggies' returner Dustin Harris was a threat, with a gaudy 18.6 yard per punt return average, while Auburn's Quan Bray averaged 7.4 yards per return on 13 returns. I don't know if you'll see many punts in this game, but look for lots of directional kicking. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn junior kicker Cody Parkey was a weapon last season on kickoffs, hammering 38 touchbacks on 66 kickoffs. There's no data out there on redshirt freshman Taylor Bertolet, who'll at least place-kick for the Aggies. Dustin Harris is the primary Aggie kick returner, and he averaged 23.4 yards per return in 2011. Auburn utilized several return guys over the course of the season. Trey Mason averaged 26.4, Onterio McCalebb averaged 30.7, and Quan Bray averaged 24.2. Auburn gave up 22.1 yards per return, and the Aggies gave up 20.3. With a veteran kicker and more return options, it's Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Auburn junior Cody Parkey was 13 of 18 on field goal kicks last season, with a few key misses. Again, there's little data on Bertolet. We'll go with the veteran, here. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Texas A&M defensive line: Auburn's starting offensive line for A-Day from left to right was redshirt freshman Greg Robinson, senior John Sullen, sophomore Reese Dismukes, sophomore Chad Slade, and true freshman Patrick Miller. There's depth and talent behind those guys, as well. If tackles Jonathan Mathis and junior Kirby Ennis play well, the A&M defense could be better than expected. The Aggies do have several pretty good defensive ends. Your stronger, run-stopper is senior Spencer Nealy, while the 250 pound junior Dramonte Moore can bring the heat off the edge. There's depth with senior Caleb Russell behind the starters at end. In the spring game, the A&M defense gave up 230 rushing yards, and that's with the top back out of the game. It's not a good sign. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Texas A&M linebackers: Speed back Onterio McCalebb has been a factor for 3 years in the Auburn offense, and should be again. There was a battle in the spring for the "between the tackles" back, between sophomores Tre Mason and Corey Grant. Sophomore Mike Blakely provided elusiveness in the A-Day game. Junior All-American transfer from Illinois Jay Prosch has been a one-man wrecking crew at fullback. Texas A&M has three starters, but there's going to be some transition between the 3-4, and the 4-3, where linebackers have to cover more ground and take on more blocks. Junior Steven Jenkins, and seniors Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter should be solid, and Porter should be an All-SEC candidate. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Texas A&M corners: Auburn senior Emory Blake is a proven weapon, but he spent much of last season banged up. A second outside receiver has yet to step up, although Auburn has talented candidates. The speedy sophomore Trovon Reed has the most explosiveness, if he can manage to stay healthy. Senior Travante Stallworth looked good in the A-Day game, and has a good bit of game experience. The Aggies are very talented, but very young at corner, and that's not a good thing against Auburn's depth. Penciled in at this time are sophomores Floyd Raven and Deshazo Everett. Senior Dustin Harris provides some depth, but he was victimized last season, and benched. The Aggies may look at playing true freshmen De'Vante Harris, seen to be the future of the Aggie secondary. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Texas A&M safeties: The Auburn quarterback is likely to be sophomore Khiel Frazier. Frazier looked good this spring, and is an athletic guy. The chief Auburn secondary receiver is senior tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has had a great Auburn career thus far. Lutz will likely be a high NFL draft pick in 2013. The Aggies return some experience at safety, but have had difficulty putting together a cohesive unit thus far. Right now, likely starters are sophomore Howard Matthews and senior Steven Terrell. The Aggies are hoping senior Steven Campbell will finally be healthy, as he's the most experienced and steady guy they have. There are too many unknowns at this time to really predict who'll have the advantage. Advantage: Even.
Expect a high scoring game in this one, with both offenses able to move the ball. If the Aggies develop at quarterback, this unit may give Auburn more fits than any offense does this season. On the other hand, the offense will have just played the LSU defense, and will be making their first foray into a big-time SEC stadium on the road this season. That's been known to rattle a lot of quarterbacks. Unlike most teams, Auburn does have enough corners to adequately cover a spread offense. Auburn also will throw 8-10 linemen at the Aggie line, and may have the fatigue edge in the 4th quarter.
A&M's biggest concern is their front 7, and by game 8, there will be some nicks and bruises. Auburn should have a pretty strong line and running game. If Kiehl Frazier or Clint Moseley provide a legitimate passing threat, the Aggies will be hard pressed to stop Auburn's wealth of big-play threats.
Prediction: Road jitters and the Auburn home advantage have some effect, but the real story of this game is Auburn running the ball and playing keep-away. When the smoke clears, Auburn wins, 34-27.