Auburn football: 3 matchups that will define the Tigers' game against Texas A&M
Auburn wasn’t competitive in the Iron Bowl last weekend, falling 42-13 in their 5th straight loss to Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Normally, it would take some time to get over a 29-point defeat to your archrival, but the Tigers don’t have time to feel sorry for themselves. Instead, they need to gear up for Senior Day this Saturday when No. 5 Texas A&M visits the Plains.
Oddly, while Auburn boasts a 4-0 record all-time at Kyle Field, the Tigers have registered just 1 win against the Aggies on the Plains, with A&M 3-1 at Auburn. A Tigers loss Saturday would drop Auburn to 5-4 on the season and certainly ratchet up the already considerable pressure on Gus Malzahn ahead of 2021. On the other hand, an Auburn win would give the Tigers a signature victory in a difficult season and demonstrate that perhaps, the lopsided Iron Bowl was more about a generationally good Alabama team than a disappointing Auburn one.
Saturday’s game might be even bigger for Texas A&M. While the Aggies have what is likely the best resume win in college football with their 3-point victory over Florida, their other wins have ranged from average to downright unimpressive. The combined record of the Aggies’ opponents excluding Florida and Alabama is 10-29. The Aggies’ inability to win those other games convincingly has created a potential eye-test issue with the College Football Playoff Committee, and Texas A&M could use a big road win over Auburn to boost their Playoff credentials.
It’s an intriguing and impactful matchup, and one that should have a big spotlight as the noon game on ESPN.
Here are 3 matchups that should define the game.
Can Auburn get their mojo back in the run game?
This could be where the game is won or lost for Auburn, and it’s a stern test for a Tigers run game that has struggled of late.
Auburn’s run game started slowly as the Tigers adjusted to so many new faces on the offensive line. The emergence of Tank Bigsby, and a bit more comfort up front, helped the Tigers break out with 200-plus-yard rushing performances against Arkansas, LSU, South Carolina and Ole Miss. But the Tigers stalled out after a COVID-19 pause forced them to go 3 weeks without a game. Bigsby was injured against Tennessee, and the Tigers also lost tackles Brodarious Hamm and Alec Jackson for portions of the game. As a result, the Tigers ran for only 165 yards, and the numbers against Alabama were worse, with Auburn collecting only 12o yards at a ghastly 2.9 yards per carry.
Improvement may be hard to come by against the Aggies’ stout front.
Only Georgia has been better at stopping the run in the SEC this season, as Texas A&M limits opponents to just 87 yards per game. The Aggies have allowed only 3 yards per rush attempt, 10th nationally, and in their past 2 games against LSU and South Carolina, they have given up only 86 yards combined at a scant 1.72 yards per attempt. That’s dominant stuff, and it’s a big advantage for the Aggies heading into Saturday’s game.
As we’ve written in this space throughout the season, Auburn’s pass game tends to fail when the run game can’t get going. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chad Morris simply lack the schematic complexity necessary to throw effectively without the threat of the run game. Put plainly, Auburn has to get their mojo back on the ground to win.
Malzahn acknowledged as much to the media Tuesday.
“We’ve got to be balanced,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to be able to run the football effectively to be at our best. I think that’ll be a big key to this game.”
Can Kellen Mond be effective against man coverage?
Auburn doesn’t have a great run defense, ranking 10th in the SEC in that category and allowing 162 yards per game. The good news is that defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is aware of that weakness, and like LSU last weekend, he’ll likely pack the box against a physical, dangerous Aggies run game. LSU showed that if you can slow the Aggies’ run game and force Kellen Mond to beat you, you have a puncher’s chance so long as you can cover.
The Tigers can defintiely cover. Steele loves to play man coverage (more than 70 percent of defensive snaps, 3rd most in the SEC), and while Auburn’s secondary doesn’t have a Derek Stingley Jr. to spearhead it, it is probably deeper and more talented as a whole. The best of the Auburn defensive backs, Roger McCreary and safety Smoke Monday, are ball hawks who can also jam you and alter routes at the line of scrimmage thanks to their length and physicality.
LSU forced Mond to make winning throws 1-on-1 against press man coverage. Here’s a chart of how that worked out:
Kellen Mond's pass chart vs. LSU
40.7% Adj Comp
25.7% Depth Adjusted Accuracy
23.5% Success Rate
0 Explosive Pass
5.88% Interceptable Pass Rate
17.7% Defender Breakup Rate
13.4 ADOThttps://t.co/s06g6Pmch4 pic.twitter.com/ZyCp2y7ppZ
— SEC StatCat (@SEC_StatCat) November 30, 2020
That’s not good, and again, Auburn has a better secondary than LSU.
Auburn’s front 7 isn’t as good at getting pressure as LSU’s, but if Auburn can slow the run, they should have a chance to negate big plays and perhaps create turnovers. Further, Mond’s options downfield continue to be limited, and with the best of his vertical options, Chase Lane, expected to be limited due to an injury suffered against LSU, Auburn’s corners and safeties might be able to take some chances and sit on Mond’s short throws.
Schematically, this is an advantage for Auburn. But that’s only if the Tigers slow Isaiah Spiller, one of the country’s most efficient and violent runners, which leads us to key No. 3.
Can Texas A&M run the ball on 1st down?
The Aggies’ 1st-down run success rate on the season is 56 percent, a really good number that demonstrates why Jimbo Fisher’s offense put up 40-plus points against the likes of Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina earlier this season. The Aggies are balanced, running 52.55 percent of the time. But they prefer to establish the run to open up the passing game, and they run 56 percent of the time on 1st down. When it works, the Aggies stay on schedule and don’t make Mond execute on unfavorable down and distances.
As noted above, the reality is that the Aggies don’t have the downfield weapons of fellow College Football Playoff contenders Florida and Alabama. As a result, they really need to be methodical and wait to exploit favorable matchups in positive down and distance situations.
Auburn’s front is very ordinary, or has been this season, save Big Kat Bryant. And while linebackers Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe are both good on tight ends in coverage and play fast, they are undersized and sometimes struggle against big, physical offensive linemen — something the Aggies certainly have no shortage of.
Auburn’s run defense has been very uneven this season. It was dominant against LSU, limiting the Tigers to just 32 yards rushing on 27 attempts. But it struggled mightily against Tennessee, who moved the ball up and down the field for 464 total yards and 222 rushing, only to beat themselves with a critical red-zone interception and a missed field goal.
Against LSU, the Aggies’ 1st-down rushing success rate was only 38 percent. If Auburn is closer to that number, and not the Aggies’ 56 percent season average, this is likely a very close game, one that will come down to the better quarterback: Bo Nix or Mond.