Auburn opens SEC play at noon ET on Saturday in College Station.

Texas A&M is the opponent, a program some believe whose time has come to take its spot atop the SEC West.

Winning on the road in the SEC is challenging enough, but against a quality opponent like the Aggies it will certainly be a test for the Tigers and head coach Hugh Freeze in his 1st season on The Plains. Needless to say, a victory on Saturday would be huge for Auburn.

The Tigers are looking to improve to 4-0 on the season. They haven’t done that since the 2019 season, when a 5-0 start preceded a 9-win season and a No. 12 ranking in the final College Football Playoff poll.

But fast starts aren’t terribly uncommon at Auburn.

Who can forget that in his 1st season as Auburn head coach, Gus Malzahn’s 2013 team made it all the way to the BCS Championship Game. Then, in just his 2nd season as head coach of the Tigers, Gene Chizik’s 2010 team won the national championship with a perfect 14-0 record.

It’s far too early to be thinking such thoughts in the middle of September. But could the stars be aligning 1 more time at Auburn? They certainly seem to be falling into place.

One would have to admit that the SEC West is down this year compared to the past decade or so. With Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M all stumbling out of the gate, suffering embarrassing nonconference losses, it seems the door has been opened for someone else — perhaps Auburn — to walk through and take the title.

Could Freeze follow in the footsteps of Chizik and Malzahn with their early success at Auburn? Would that be so far-fetched? Just looking at the numbers, 2 stats give an indication that the Tigers might just have a puncher’s chance at contending this year.

The 1st is defense. And, in particular, pass defense. Through the 1st 3 games of the 2023 season, the Tigers lead the SEC in defending the pass. Auburn is giving up just 155 yards per game through the air.

Granted, the Tigers haven’t faced a passing attack like the one they’ll see on Saturday in Aggies quarterback Conner Weigman and that group of talented receivers. But so far, the Tigers have yielded just 2 TD passes in 3 games and have picked off 5 throws while allowing the opposition (UMass, California and Samford) to complete just 56.8% of their passes.

The encouraging aspect of those stats is that it hasn’t been a 1- or 2-man show but an overall team effort. A total of 10 different players have recorded at least 1 quarterback hurry, and 7 different Tigers have broken up at least 1 pass this season.

In addition, the Tigers have been able to get home on defense in passing situations. They’ve already accumulated 8 sacks over the 1st 3 games. Eugene Asante and Marcus Harris lead the group with 2 sacks each.

The other statistical category of interest is rushing offense, where once again the Tigers lead the SEC in the early stages of the 2023 season. Auburn is averaging a league-best 215.67 rushing yards per game.

The big surprise there is that quarterback Payton Thorne leads the team in rushing. Thought to be the passing quarterback in Auburn’s 2-QB system with dual threat Robby Ashford suited more for the run-option scheme, Thorne is averaging 6.36 yards per carry and has already scored 2 rushing TDs.

Don’t expect that trend to continue but do expect Jarquez Hunter to get more touches and eventually lead the way. Damari Alston has also proven he can get the job done, averaging right at 5 yards per carry on a team-high 24 attempts this season.

A solid running game, coupled with a defense that limits opposing high-flying offenses sounds like a formula for success.

So far, for Freeze and the Auburn Tigers, it has been.

Now we’re going to find out how well it travels as Auburn heads into the meat of the 2023 schedule.

That’s where we’ll find out if this indeed turns out to be another one of those magical seasons on The Plains.