Tomorrow Auburn faces a very important litmus test. A road win in College Station doesn’t make Auburn an automatic title contender but it does prove the Tigers do in fact have a quality football team capable of beating good teams on the road. A loss doesn’t mean all hope is lost but it puts Auburn in desperation mode a lot sooner than any of us would like.
For the Tigers, hope resides in its defense which has proven championship calibre through three weeks. They will face an offense though that chewed up yards against them in the comfy confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium last season. The Tigers surrendered 423 yards to the Aggie offense in that wild affair but were able to force two turnovers that proved critical.
Here’s a closer look at the 2019 version of the A&M offensive attack.
Before going any further, let’s all take a moment to be thankful Trayveon Williams will not touch the football tomorrow afternoon. Williams was a problem Auburn never really solved over the past three years as the now Cincinnati Bengal rushed for 337 yards on 40 carries and 3 TDs while also snagging 10 passes for 146 yards and another score. He also had 44.5 yard average on his 2 kick return attempts.
Oh and one more quick stat. He went 1-2 against Auburn....
As for who will be suiting up, you can’t talk about Texas A&M’s offense without starting with their enigma of a quarterback Kellen Mond. In an alternate universe, Mond would be leading Auburn into College Station to face the Aggies who would be breaking in a new QB after Jarrett Stidham’s departure. But Sumlin didn’t return Stidham’s call which means that he’s now ruining Khalil Tate at Arizona, Jimbo Fisher is running things in College Station and Gus Malzahn is still the man in charge on the Plains. Funny how life works sometimes eh?
Mond is a frustrating player to study. He clearly possesses talent and the ability to be an elite football player. There have been some impressive moments where he looked to be morphing into the elite QB prospect he was projected to be coming out of high school making insanely accurate downfield throws or making defenders look foolish in the open field with his legs.
Then there are moments where he’s wildly inaccurate or completely indecisive. Those moments make you question whether he will ever put it all together or not.
But the concern for Auburn is that he’s been at his best at home. Inside Kyle Field, Mond has a career QB Rating of 141.9 with 21 touchdowns and only 8 interceptions. On the road, that rating falls to 104.2 having thrown more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (5). Granted some of those numbers are bolstered by cupcakes being played at home but those home games also include an incredible performance against eventual national champion Clemson last season and an impressive freshman performance against Alabama in 2017.
Bottom line is Auburn will likely see Good Mond tomorrow afternoon. It’s up to Auburn’s defensive line to get to him early and often in hopes of getting him off rhythm. Most importantly, Auburn must keep Mond in the pocket. Don’t let him break contain and get a cheap one over the top when the play breaks down.
Jashaun Corbin was the man tabbed to replace former stud back Trayveon Williams. He was off to a solid start before going down with an injury against Clemson and is expected to miss the rest of the season. Now A&M must turn to true freshman Isaiah Spiller. The early returns have been outstanding for the former 4* prospect. In his first career start last weekend, he carried the ball 14 times for 116 yards and 2 TDs. He also caught 2 passes for 21 yards.
But that was Lamar, this is Auburn. He’s shown incredible explosiveness against bad opponents but saw his average yardage dip to 3.4 yards a carry against Clemson. Still, there is a lot to like about this kid. He looks like an SEC back should at 6’1” 220 lbs with surprising explosiveness in the open field. I think he’s got a chance to make a lot of noise in this league before his time ends in College Station.
The question though now is who will be the #2 man up? Sophomores Jacob Kibodi and Cordarrian Richardson both had nice days against Lamar but haven’t had a chance to do much against real competition. Not sure if you want your true freshman back to bang against this Auburn defensive front by himself all day.
The strength of this offense is out wide. This is unquestionably the best WR corps Auburn has seen to date in 2019. They have the size, the speed and the athleticism to test Auburn’s secondary in ways they haven’t really been thus far. Jhamon Ausbon and Quartney Davis are probably the most well rounded wide outs. Both run sharp routes, possess good size and can make plays after the catch. But the x-factor is Kendrick Rogers who has the ability to catch any ball throw in his general vicinity.
At 6’4” 214 lbs, Rogers is as physical a wideout as you will find in the SEC and excels in jump ball situations. He’s also a load to bring down in the open field. My guess is Noah Igbinoghene will follow Rogers much of the day as he has the length to matchup though McCreary will probably get a few shots too. 50/50 jump balls haven’t gone great for Auburn’s secondary in recent seasons so this is definitely a matchup to keep a close eye on Saturday afternoon.
Jimbo’s offense typically features an NFL tight end but attrition and injury have left him down a crucial piece of his scheme. Both Glenn Beal and Jalen Wydermyer are fine ball players but they aren’t going to threaten Auburn’s defense in the same way as Jace Sternberger did last season. Though keep an eye on Wydermyer in the redzone. He only has three catches but two have gone for touchdowns.
Finally, there’s the big boys up front. I think it’s fair to categorize the A&M offensive line as the weakness of this unit. Like Auburn, they returned some good experience but have struggled getting consistent push in the interior. Keep an eye on true freshman Kenyon Green who has NFL ability but is still learning how to play SEC calibre football. He and Tyrone Truesdell will probably be the two strongest men on the field and should make for some thunderous collisions in the trenches.
When Jimbo’s offense is at its best it features an experienced QB who understands all the nuance of his scheme, an NFL calibre running back who can take it to the house at any moment, an NFL calibre tight end capable of exploiting mismatches in coverage over the middle of the field and experienced wideouts who can consistently execute the option routes his offense frequently deploys. I think A&M has maybe two of those pieces this season in Kellen Mond and their wide receiver corps.
Due to some differences in personnel, I fully expect to see more 11 and 10 personnel sets than maybe Jimbo typically likes to use. Part of the complexity of Fisher’s scheme comes from the multitude of formations and personnel groupings he will throw at you. Some coaches have described his offense as “only running 2 or 3 plays” but he’s able to run those concepts through pretty much any formation or personnel group imaginable.
What also stands out about Jimbo’s offense is his propensity to attack defenses into the boundary. Last season against Auburn, it was clear that Fisher saw some mismatches on the weakside of Auburn’s defense and attacked it over and over again until Auburn adjusted. Specifically, he made use of lots of two tight end formations in order to get Auburn into their base 3-4 look. He would then isolate the Buck with a number of different read plays and challenge him to make tackles in space. Auburn struggled to do so especially early in the game.
It also provided the Aggies offensive line with easier angles to get to Auburn’s 2nd level and seal lanes on the outside. A&M had a ton of success running sweeps into the boundary because with the condensed space they were able to not worry so much about double teams but instead get downfield and get a hat on a linebacker.
So how did Kevin Steele counter? He got out of his 3 linebacker sets and into his Nickel package. He also used more even fronts (4 defensive lineman) instead of odd fronts (3 defensive lineman) which turned the Buck into a defensive end instead of a weakside linebacker. A&M could still read him but now Auburn’s linebackers could fit on QB keepers or outside runs.
He also turned up the heat. The Tigers brought pressure a bunch as the game wore on to heat up the pocket hoping to force Mond out of his comfort zone in hopes of him eventually making a mistake. He finally did, ironically enough on a play where he had all day to throw the ball.
I doubt we see the same game plan Saturday for a number of reasons. First, I think Jimbo is going to hunt 1 on 1 matchups on the outside with his wideouts against Auburn’s nickel and safeties. Daniel Thomas, Jeremiah Dinson and Christian Tutt have been outstanding coming downhill but in the past have been known to struggle in man coverage against more talented WR corps. Given Auburn’s struggles early in games, look for A&M to try and land some haymakers early to amp the pressure up on Auburn’s offense.
Secondly, A&M has two young tight ends who aren’t necessarily weapons in the passing game like they had last season. A lot of the concepts Jimbo used last year against Auburn utilized the TE getting matched up in space against Auburn’s linebackers. The Tigers’ linebacker corps is more athletic this season while his tight ends are less so.
Finally, Fisher is going to want this game to be outside the box. Obviously he will attempt to establish an inside run game but chances are slim they will be able to find consistent success there. He will undoubtedly use a plethora of misdirection and motion to get Auburn’s young linebackers out of position but it’s going to be hard keeping Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, Nick Coe and the rest of the big fellas up front from consistently snuffing his zone heavy scheme out. Odds are better to this game in space and see if his athletes are better than Auburn’s.
If this game goes sideways Saturday for Auburn it will likely be for two reasons:
1.) Auburn turns the ball over on offense
2.) A&M’s wide receivers consistently win 1 on 1 matchups with Auburn’s secondary
We are going to find out Saturday if Auburn has the horses on the back end of its defense to compete against the likes of LSU and Alabama later in the season. Not having to rely on extra rushers to generate pressure will be big for Auburn as it would give Steele a chance to get a little more creative with his coverages and force Mond into some mistakes.
But Auburn has seen a better QB and a better offensive line already this season. They will need to get off to a faster start than they have so far this year but I trust this group to keep A&M to three or less touchdowns. After that, it’s on the offense to find a way to put some points on the board Saturday afternoon.