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Opponent Preview: Texas A&M

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Auburn gets another crack at Jimbo Fisher and tries to end a weird streak of futility.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M-Jimbo Fisher Press Conference C. Morgan Engel-USA TODAY Sports

Today, we continue our opponent previews for the 2018 season. After the Ole Miss game, Auburn hits a bye on the final Saturday of October before returning home to face off against a guy that once roamed the sidelines of Jordan-Hare Stadium.

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Texas A&M has been a member of the SEC now for six full seasons, going on seven. In that time, Auburn has won the football meetings in 2013, 2015, and 2017. The Aggies have won the meetings in 2012, 2014, and 2016. The road team has never lost in that span of time, and Auburn will have a fantastic shot to finally break that streak on November 3, 2018.

Standing in the way? This guy.

Kevin Sumlin is gone after several pretty solid years in the SEC West, but he came in at the wrong time. Despite great offenses and even a Heisman winner in Johnny Manziel, Sumlin never won the West in his time at A&M. He also never beat LSU, which is weird.

He had the pieces, but never fully put it together, and last year spelled the end of his tenure after the Aggies went just 7-6 and lost to Wake Forest in the Belk Bowl. However, the year started on a positively sour note for A&M with the opener against UCLA. A&M led 44-10 with six minutes to play in the third quarter, before they allowed Josh Rosen to throw for four touchdowns in the final frame, including the go-ahead score with 43 seconds left. UCLA won 45-44, making this GIF the ultimate in irony.

Anyway, A&M won the next four games before hanging tough with Alabama at home in a 27-19 defeat that truly started the slide. They’d fall to Mississippi State by three touchdowns two weeks later, lose to us in a game that was never really close the next week, and then fall to LSU to finish the regular season at 7-5. Kevin Sumlin was fired on November 26th, and named the head coach at Arizona in mid-January.

The Aggies didn’t waste ANY time, and word got out that they were ready to open up the bank vault for Jimbo Fisher, who was reportedly unhappy at Florida State. It worked, and later that week Fisher bolted Tallahassee for College Station to the tune of a $75-million promise from the powers in Aggieland. Is he worth that kind of money? I’m personally not really sure, but he’s one of four coaches that have a national championship ring currently leading a team in the FBS along with Saban, Dabo, and Urban.

Jimbo quickly put together a staff that includes former Auburn coaches Dameyune Craig (receivers coach) and Jay Graham (running backs coach), with Darrell Dickey (former Memphis OC) coordinating the offense and Mike Elko taking care of the defense after spending last season doing the same at Notre Dame.

So what kind of pieces does he have to work with? A&M’s not untalented, and with a little coaching this could be a tough start to the November slate for Auburn.

OFFENSE

As it did with Kevin Sumlin, the Aggie offense will start with the quarterback. Who gets that nod, however, is a different story. Last year, Auburn saw both Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond, with Starkel doing most of the damage, but both guys are capable and showed flashes at different times.

Starkel is the more classic drop-back passer, which actually fits into Jimbo’s ideals a bit more, but Mond provides the dual-threat that’s so prevalent in today’s game. While Mond only completed five passes for 16 yards against Auburn, he was great in the close loss to Alabama, going 19-29 for 237 yards and a touchdown. However, Starkel was the one that finished the year, taking the reins for good in November.

Whoever gets the nod to start this season will have Trayveon Williams back in the fold at running back. Williams has been an inconsistent back over his first two years in College Station, showing supreme flashes, but only having five 100-yard games out of 25 career appearances. He’s still a threat to take it to the house on any given play. I made fun of him for the scepter act earlier, but he earned it in that UCLA game.

With Williams back, it’ll soften the blow that’s delivered by the departure of Christian Kirk on the perimeter. The former Auburn target out of Arizona was fantastic in three seasons for A&M, finishing last year with 71 catches for 919 yards and 10 touchdowns. That’s gone, along with his added ability in the return game (7 career return touchdowns), and so is Damion Ratley, who chipped in another 600 yards and 6 scores through the air last year.

Coming back outside, Jhamon Ausbon was the second-leading receiver in terms of catches with 50 for 571 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he’ll see his role grow this year. Jimbo Fisher had some studs at Florida State to work with, including Kelvin Benjamin and Rashad Greene, but the past couple of seasons he didn’t have a bunch of go-to guys in the passing game. Either way, he made it work. Another thing that he’ll like to do is throw to the tight end, and the Aggies snagged a JUCO transfer named Jace Sternberger, who could find a spot right away in Jimbo’s eyes.

Up front, A&M should have everyone back. Auburn fans have seen firsthand what consistent faces on the offensive line can blossom into (see the 2007 freshman class), so the Aggies can afford to be optimistic about this bunch. They weren’t great last year, with A&M ranking 88th in yards per carry (4.0), and 75th in sacks allowed (2.23 per game), but the benefit of getting everyone back should improve those numbers.

Something that will be interesting to watch for is exactly how the offense adjusts under Jimbo’s watch. He’s not one to throw the ball all over the field, choosing to depend more on the run game to make things work, but if he fully entrusts the offense to Darrell Dickey, we may see a middle ground. Dickey’s Memphis offense last year was one of the best in the country through the air, with Riley Ferguson throwing for more than 4200 yards, and Anthony Miller grabbing over 1400 yards in passes with 18 touchdowns. With the talent that Kevin Sumlin accrued, A&M will likely be a very tough out when they come to Auburn early in November.

DEFENSE

Here’s where just a little improvement can make most of the difference. A&M has a ton of space to grow on the defensive side of things, because they weren’t good as a whole.

  • Passing Yards Allowed - 237.6 ypg (85th nationally)
  • Rushing Yards Allowed - 171.0 ypg (71st nationally)
  • Total Defense - 408.6 ypg (77th nationally)

Those numbers aren’t great, but there are a few bright spots — namely, the pass rush. Myles Garrett’s legacy lives on, as the Aggies ranked second in the country in sacks, with nearly 3.5 each game. With the interior of the line as solid as can be thanks to Daylon Mack, it allowed the edge rushers plenty of freedom.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Texas A&M Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Look at those gams! My stars. And he’s just there to plug the middle.

Actually going after the quarterback on a full-time basis will be Landis Durham, who led the Aggies with 10.5 sacks last year, and returns for more this season. He’s joined by Tyrel Dodson and Otaro Alaka, who combined for another 11 sacks from the second line, and A&M should be set pressuring the passer. Those three guys were also all in the top four of tacklers for A&M in 2017, so they’ll produce again this year.

In the back end, A&M does lose Armani Watts and his four interceptions to go along with his status as the team’s second-leading tackler, but like the offensive line there’s a ton of talent returning. It just needs to be better. Derrick Tucker can help that with his 55 tackles and four pass breakups last year, and A&M gets some size help among the defensive backs with Charles Oliver (6’2, 200) and Clifford Chairman (6’5, 195) manning spots on the boundary.

Mike Elko’s first season as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame was pretty good, with the Irish ranking 31st in the country in scoring defense, but his 2016 effort in his third season at Wake Forest was his crowning achievement. That year, the Demon Deacons were in the top 20 in the country in scoring defense, red zone defense, sacks, turnovers, and defensive touchdowns along with three other schools — Alabama, Clemson, and Washington (all of whom made the Playoff). He should have an effect in College Station, and A&M could end up being a fun little bunch to watch in 2018.

SCHEDULE

Speaking of Alabama and Clemson... have fun, Jimbo. Both of those teams appear on the September schedule for A&M. After a warmup opener against Northwestern State, Clemson comes to Kyle Field on 9/8. Then it’s Louisiana-Monroe, and bang, you’re off to Tuscaloosa. The Aggies will meet Arkansas again in Arlington in Week Five, and then they take care of their East Division counterparts with Kentucky at home, and a pretty good South Carolina team in Columbia.

Jimbo when he first saw that September schedule.

The trip to play the Gamecocks is the first of three straight road games (sandwiched around a bye), because then they go to Starkville, and open November at Auburn. Then the final three games of the year are back home with Ole Miss, UAB, and LSU visiting College Station.

With the way the season starts, A&M may take its lumps but be better than the record indicates. There are about 120 schools that would be 2-2 to start that stretch, and I don’t think anybody expects Jimbo to beat Clemson or Alabama in his first month, and so it’s the next five games that are critical.

Of the matchups with Arkansas, Kentucky, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn, only one comes at home, and that’s the easiest one! If A&M went 1-4 in that stretch, would anyone be truly surprised? I don’t think the rails come off completely, but if the Aggies start struggling and they’re put on roller skates with the losses piling up, watch for that $75 million to come into question. A&M could very well struggle to make a bowl game if that road swing goes poorly, and then it gets hot.

But, we still have to beat them at home, and if the car’s shaking by that point, a win over what should likely be a good Auburn team would very much help to steady things up a bit.

Up next: at the Dwags.