It’s fair to say that Auburn’s newest West Division rivalry is also one of the most difficult to explain. No, there’s not the outright wackiness of the LSU series, with a different moniker given to nearly every year’s game, and there’s not the hatred of the Iron Bowl.
Auburn and Texas A&M just doesn’t make sense a lot of the time.
2012 — The first meeting as conference foes saw the Aggies bring an eventual Heisman winner into Jordan-Hare Stadium and walk away with maybe the easiest win anyone had over that year’s Tiger team. It was a record for futility as Auburn allowed 63 points and got run out of the building by the SEC’s newest member.
2013 — After that embarrassing loss in Auburn, this was the game that turned the fortunes for the Tigers under the Gus Malzahn regime. Auburn entered College Station ranked 24th but the 45-41 win over the Aggies skyrocketed the Tigers to 11th in the polls. It was the kickstart that Auburn needed to begin the SEC Championship run.
2014 — And then it all came crashing back down to earth. Auburn was 3rd in the country with just a road loss to then-top-ranked Mississippi State. Kyle Allen blitzed a bad Ellis Johnson defense and Auburn fumbled away two chances at a win late. Many point to this game as the turning point in Gus’ tenure. The Tigers lost the last three games against FBS competition that season.
2015 — You’d think that after losing at home with Nick Marshall under center, a win on the road would be nigh impossible. Wrong. Auburn played maybe its best game of the 2015 season and walked out of College Station with a really easy 26-10 win (over Kyler Murray, by the way).
2016 — And here you go again. Rhett Lashlee decided not to block Myles Garrett and he blew up the Auburn offense after the Tigers took a 7-0 lead. Tray Williams put the capper on this game with an 89-yard touchdown late, and ESPN’s cameras showed a telling shot of Jay Jacobs on the sideline with fans streaming out of the exits behind him. This was as close as Gus has come to getting fired, for if he hadn’t beaten LSU the next week, he would’ve been let go.
2017 — Then the pendulum swings back the other direction. Auburn went into College Station and dominated the Aggies thanks to a super-efficient day from Jarrett Stidham. In the most recent edition, the road team held serve once again.
So what’s going to happen this year? Texas A&M comes in as a 4.5-point underdog, sporting a head coach with an even bigger contract than Gus’. Jimbo Fisher’s departure at Florida State was highly-publicized and insanely sudden, but he found a place that was yearning for something a little more consistent. Kevin Sumlin had his ups and his downs for sure, but it’s hard to get more consistent than Jimbo was when he was at Florida State. Sure, there was a downturn at the end, but there’s a ton to the story that goes beyond the field of play. You can’t dispute the records, winning ten games in six of his eight seasons.
However, Jimbo’s teams have come under fire for the most part because of the offense. It certainly worked exceptionally well with a quarterback like Jameis Winston in 2013-14, but it sputtered unnecessarily aside from that. There was so much talent at Florida State that it should never be the case, but those teams had trouble running the ball. Maybe it’s a Rick Trickett issue on the offensive line. Either way, the offenses only ever really clicked one time for Jimbo, and that was with a Heisman winner at the helm.
It’s a similar story this season at Texas A&M.
The Aggies did what they were supposed to do against Northwestern State and Louisiana-Monroe, but SEC play has been unkind. It’s been a grind. After taking Clemson to the wire, and driving for 99 yards on Alabama early, you thought that this might be a top ten team. A few ugly wins over middle-of-the-pack SEC teams later, and you’re thinking otherwise. Then they go and get roughed up by Mississippi State (condolences, to be sure), and this looks like a team that Auburn can beat.
They’re bad in the red zone (on both sides of the ball), and they’re not exactly the best at stopping big plays. Both of these things bode well for Auburn, since the Tigers have struggled hitting that long bomb connection this season and need a little help getting into the endzone at times as well.
However, it’s tough to run the ball on them. Auburn played well in Oxford because the running game was lighting the offense up. Boobee Whitlow got his 200 all-purpose yards, and Auburn finally chewed up some ground yardage. That may not happen against the Aggies, especially if Whitlow and Jack Driscoll are limited.
This season feels like a lot of growing pains for A&M, as they try to move from Sumlin’s style of play to Jimbo’s style of play. The offense can pick up yardage, but man, they’re struggling to score. In their last four SEC games, they’ve posted 24, 20, 26, and 13 points. Auburn’s defense isn’t going to allow more than that barring defensive or special teams touchdowns.
It feels like a game that Auburn can win. Can the Tigers build on what happened in Oxford and start November off on the right foot? Or will Jimbo get a huge road win to push Tiger fans’ feelings on Gus even more to the wrong side of the tracks?
This is a pivotal game for not just the 2018 season, but for the near future of Auburn football. If we lose this one, and beatings at Georgia and Alabama follow, the decision makers at Auburn may decide that the money’s not too much. It’s honestly hard to see a 6-6 team that went 0-3 against the SEC down the stretch keeping a coach. At the same time, it’s hard to see the firing commence when there’s honestly not much else out there. With a win, and a possible victory against a very beatable team in Athens next week, the sentiment changes completely.
What are we going to see this weekend? I hope we get the fireworks back like we saw in College Station last season.
BIG game Saturday morning, everyone. Be loud for the last real home game for the seniors on this team. War Eagle!