Back Game of the Week Preview: Auburn at Texas A&M

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Game of the Week Preview: Auburn at Texas A&M

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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There are high expectations both in College Station and on the Plains; outings like these determine which program meets them.

Overview -- This is a critical contest as a hierarchy is established in the mighty SEC West. Though Alabama and LSU are ranked higher in the national polls, all is currently equal in the division. Consider Saturday an early elimination game. The winner will enter the meat of their schedule, with games against the Crimson Tide and Tigers remaining, with meaningful momentum. There are high expectations both in College Station and on the Plains; outings like these determine which program meets them. Already with a win over Oregon, Auburn has the chance to fortify a resume that would stand as one of the nation's best. Texas A&M, having lost at Clemson, could move back up the rankings with a statement win. Albeit with plenty of football to play, the SEC West standings will start to take some shape once this one is completed.

Why to Watch -- Conference implications aside, this is a fascinating pairing in one of college football's showcase venues. A four-point Texas A&M triumph a year ago, expect another close contest this weekend. Auburn's dynamic true freshman signal caller Bo Nix will face his toughest challenge to date in an Aggies' defense that currently ranks second in the SEC, allowing just 11.3 points per game. Nix, who beat nationally-ranked Oregon in his first-ever game, has already proven to be a fearless leader; a trip to Kyle Field will test that confidence. The Nix-Kellen Mond quarterback matchup has the chance to be a good one. Some of the most talented defensive linemen in all of college football will be on display in this one, most notably tackles Derrick Brown for the Tigers and Justin Madibuike for Texas A&M, both of whom can take over games.  

Keys for Auburn

1. Lead With Whitlow -- Though Bo Nix isn't your typical true freshman, Auburn should still make it a priority to take the pressure off its young quarterback by, maybe even more than the Tigers normally do, establishing a powerful north-south running game. The formula, playing in a hostile environment on the road, should be more of the same as JaTarvious Whitlow has been one of the nation's most productive rushers. Through three games, he has 341 yards and three touchdowns. Whitlow opened the year with 24 carries for 120 yards in a win over Oregon. So much what Auburn wants to do starts with Whitlow. He, in many ways, is the catalyst for the entire team. When Whitlow rushes for 90 yards or more, the Tigers are 5-1, their lone loss coming by one-point against LSU last season. Running the football Saturday would, in theory, lessen the impact of the home crowd and decrease the likelihood of mistakes from Nix. As has been the case for much of this season, he would be much more effective and efficient as a complimentary option once Whitlow has been established. Also, the best way to mitigate some of the impact of Teas A&M lineman Justin Madibuike just might be to run right at him. Whitlow must set the tone for the Tigers.

2. Win the Turnover Battle -- Auburn is tied for last in the SEC in turnover margin with a total of minus-2. It will be hard for the Tigers to win in College Station if they don't succeed in the most important statistical category in the game, especially given the circumstances of being the road team with notable inexperience under center. The value of possession will be important on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Offensively, protecting the football will be key. It will be imperative for Bo Nix, who has done a pretty good job of ball security to date, to continue to do just that. There may be times, for the true freshman, where the better option is to simply not try to throw a pass into coverage, or not fight for extra yardage, and punt instead. Texas A&M has the most interceptions in the conference, so Nix will need to be aware. With regards to the defense, Auburn could definitely use some big plays. The Tigers are tied for last in the league with just two turnovers forced this season. With Auburn's prowess along the defensive line, and the disruption that can clearly cause, it's fair to think those moments are coming; Saturday would be an ideal time to start.   

3. Start Strong -- As if often the case for road teams, it will be important for Auburn to set a solid foundation for victory with an effective opening quarter. Almost always, the tenor and tone of a contest is established very early; and the visiting Tigers, with a true freshman quarterback, want to dictate the type of game that will be played. Potentially playing from behind all afternoon, or chasing an initial deficit, would likely be a difficult proposition for Auburn. Though the Tigers are certainly capable of winning that way, see their performance against Oregon, the task, here, is already tall enough. Momentum is a very real thing in college football, an invisible-but-impactful multiplier that Auburn needs to grab hold of right away. Should the Tigers obtain and early lead, their ever-productive rushing attack, both wearing on Texas A&M's defense and grinding down the clock, would only become that much more valuable.

Keys for Texas A&M

1. Force Auburn Over the Top -- In attempt to showcase the strength of their team and protect their young quarterback alike, Auburn is going to want to win Saturday's game at the line of scrimmage. It is there that Texas A&M must draw a proverbial line in the sand. Slowing the Tigers' ground game has to be considered priority number one for the Aggies, meaning limiting the production of JaTarvious Whitlow, Kam Martin and the Auburn quarterbacks. Texas A&M's defense has to make Bo Nix beat them through the air. The Aggies have been quite stout in the trenches to date, ranking third in the SEC in rush defense, a resume which includes holding Travis Etienne and Clemson to less than 3.7 yards per carry. Should current trends continue, Texas A&M would force the Tigers out of their comfort zone, into offensive adjustments and increase the pressure on Nix as a downfield passer. On paper, at least, that is a recipe for success. Auburn has just 19 completions of ten yards are more, the second fewest in the conference. Tackle Justin Madibuike, linebacker Buddy Johnson and company need to take away the Tigers first option and lead the charge defensively. If the Aggies can dominate and disrupt along the front seven, they will dictate the ebb and flow of the game.

2. Get Mond Going -- It's been a somewhat-inconsistent start for Texas A&M's star quarterback, a signal caller who ended last season as one of the nation's best. Mond is capable of completely taking over football games and the Aggies should look to get him into a rhythm right away. Spread the field, get playmakers in space, utilize quick passes, roll the pocket; when Mond is hot, Texas A&M is very tough to beat. Should he settle it, such effectiveness would only put extra pressure on Bo Nix and the Auburn offense to respond. Mond is a versatile, dynamic talent; he is one of just ten SEC quarterbacks the past 20 years to be part of the SEC's "24-7 Club", throwing for at least 24 touchdowns and rushing for at least seven scores in a single season. The Aggies should want him to lead the way, and gameplan to ensure that he does, in a game of this magnitude. Fresh off a showcase performance against Lamar, Mond's confidence should be high. Him playing at a high level will be critical as conference play begins.

3. Be Offensively Varied -- Given that the strength of Auburn's team is its defensive line, Texas A&M's offense will have to be balanced and unpredictable to lessen the unit's impact and scale. While great offensive line play can slow down a strong front four, so, too, can scheme. It's important that any unit mix and match plays; when facing one of college football's top teams in the trenches, it's absolutely imperative. The mobility of Kellen Mond can keep the Tigers guessing and perhaps add a little hesitation to their powerful pass rush. Furthermore, the burst of running back Isaiah Spiller, averaging 8.8 yards per carry, can also cause second thoughts. How Mond, Spiller and others are used will need to be a big part of the Aggies' gameplan. Designed runs for Mond from occasion and timely draws, screens and counters for Spiller might ultimately reduce the impact and influence of Derrick Brown and Auburn's defensive line. A quick passing game, still allowing Texas A&M's deep rotation of receivers to work, is another must.

Position Advantages

Quarterback: Texas A&M -- There is an undeniable magic to Auburn's true freshman signal caller Bo Nix, but Kellen Mond has a resume and skill set that stands out. Mond is one of college football's best players, with big-time performances against big-time opponents standing as validation. He needs to be the catalyst for the Aggies.

Running Back: Auburn -- JaTarvious Whitlow is the SEC's second-leading rusher with 341 yards on 64 carries. He has been a consistently productive focal point for Auburn and, simply put, the Tigers' tone-setter. A hamstring injury to Jashaun Corbin hurts Texas A&M, but Isaiah Spiller has proven to be an exciting freshman option.

Pass-Catchers: Texas A&M -- With Jhamon Ausbon, Kendrick Rogers, Quartney Davis and Camron Buckley, the depth Texas A&M has on the perimeter is impressive and nearly unrivaled. All four options have the talent of a number one receiver. Eli Stove is off to a hot start for Auburn, while Will Hastings is a big-play threat.

Offensive Line: Texas A&M -- Both units have been good, with Auburn and Texas A&M having allowed only three sacks a piece and each averaging well over five yards per carry. The Aggies have already faced Clemson, so get the edge in terms of live preparation for a challenge like this. Guard Jared Hocker has done nice work.

Defensive Line: Auburn -- This could be one of the best front line pairings you will see in college football this season. Tackle Justin Madibuike is a warrior for Texas A&M, while Auburn boasts star power in Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. There will be notable NFL talent on both sides.    

Linebackers: Texas A&M -- Relative inexperience, though plenty of young talent, is on both depth charts in the middle of the field. Texas A&M standout Buddy Johnson is an active, athletic and relentless defender who can be an x-factor of the Aggies near the line of scrimmage. 

Secondary: Texas A&M -- There are ball-hawks on the back-end for Texas A&M as the Aggies have the most interceptions in the SEC with five. Myles Jones and Roney Elam have two interceptions each already. Jeremiah Dinson, Auburn's leading tackler, is a versatile, veteran difference-maker for the Tigers.

Special Teams: Texas A&M -- Quite literally, Braden Mann is one of the most productive punters the SEC has ever seen. He can change games for Texas A&M. Kicker Seth Small has not yet missed a field goal this year. Roshauud Paul has some shake in the return game, as does Auburn's Christian Tutt. Anders Carlson gives the Tigers a big leg. 

Coaching: Texas A&M -- Jimbo Fisher, one of five coaches in the country with a national championship ring, is building a consistent contender in College Station, a process already well underway. Gus Malzahn, who lost to Fisher in the last BCS National Championship Game, has Auburn off to a very good start.  

Intangibles: Auburn -- Though Texas A&M will be at home this weekend, undefeated Auburn is confident and energized. The season-opening victory over Oregon, and the dramatic fashion in which it came, has served as a invigorating springboard forward for the Tigers. They have momentum and believe they can play with anybody.

Players to Watch

Auburn: JaTarvious Whitlow, RB -- It's no secret that the Tigers want to run the football and Whitlow is the man to do it. Auburn's latest feature back in a proud program legacy, he is a well-rounded between-the-tackles runner. Whitlow, moving the chains, sets much of what the Tigers do into motion.

Texas A&M: Kellen Mond, QB -- As Mond goes, so go the Aggies. Jimbo Fisher's latest star pupil, Mond does so many things well and directs Texas A&M with both his proficiency and leadership. While Mond is a polished passer, don't overlook his ability as a runner. That versatility can prove valuable on third downs and in the redzone.
    
Final Thoughts

Looking like a competitive football game between two athletic, physical teams, this matchup is life in the SEC West. Whichever team can dictate how the contest evolves with their unique style of play will earn a signature September victory. Play in the offensive backfield and along the defensive line, where multiple headliners reign, will be absolutely critical. On paper, these two teams are pretty evenly-matched. With that in mind, experience at quarterback and homefield advantage prove to be the difference in a matchup that will be close and hard-fought. Texas A&M -- 27, Auburn -- 23

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports