Auburn football: Tigers couldn't handle pressure when it mattered most
There’s a popular saying among coaches that says pressure bursts pipes. Texas A&M’s defense was the pressure on Saturday. Auburn’s offense played the part of the pipe.
Aggie defenders weren’t the sole source of pressure that has continued to mount on Auburn. The pressure of being a true championship contender was growing no matter who the Tigers played on Saturday. That’s the kind of pressure that Auburn couldn’t have been prepared for last week.
Remember what football analysts and, especially, Auburn fans were talking about last week? The Tigers could win the rest of their games, win an SEC Championship and perhaps sneak into the conversation for the College Football Playoff. Not anymore.
Remember all the conversations on Twitter about how Auburn controlled its destiny? All of that was true. Don’t think for a second that Auburn’s players didn’t know what was at stake against Texas A&M. Coaches try to keep their players away from the media and the implications of a big game. That’s difficult considering players like being told how good they are and social media makes it impossible to avoid the praise. Auburn players knew they had a lot at stake on Saturday and they looked like it.
Fumbles, dropped passes and mistakes destroyed any chance that Auburn had to beat the Aggies in the second half on Saturday. Why did Auburn’s offense, which had looked consistent the previous two weeks, only manage three points? The A&M defense also scored a touchdown as the Tigers imploded in the most important moments. Why? Well, that goes back to pressure.
The Aggies were averaging three sacks per game, which was tied for third best in the SEC. They had four sacks against Auburn. More pressure.
The Tigers’ strong rushing attack struggled against Texas A&M’s run defense, which is one of the best in the SEC. Auburn managed 73 yards on the ground. More pressure.
The Tigers faced a crowd of over 108,000 fans that knew when to be their loudest. More pressure.
The Tigers had an SEC championship to play for against the Aggies. The mere thought of making that type of special run added the most pressure of all. All Auburn could do was burst.
There’s no shame in Auburn’s offensive response to elevated expectations on the road against a quality defense. It was bound to happen. Auburn had played over their heads throughout the season to get to 6-2. Before the season, many pundits expected Auburn to lose four or more games. At 6-3 with three games remaining, the preseason predictions will likely come to fruition.
It’s understandable for the Tigers to feel dejected, but they shouldn’t be too downtrodden. Few thought Auburn would be in a meaningful game in November. The Tigers were supposed to be rebuilding under first-year head coach Bryan Harsin. Instead, they have excelled for most of the season.
Two pressing questions come away from Auburn’s loss to Texas A&M. How does Auburn respond to the ugly loss and do the Tigers have a problem playing on a big stage?
Let’s start with the latter. Auburn has played in two games that have drawn national attention. They didn’t fare well in either. Auburn lost at Penn State 28-20 in September and we all know what happened in College Station on Saturday. The concern about not performing on a big stage is well founded. How Auburn responds remains to be seen.
Auburn is 2-0 in games after a loss this season but one of those games barely counts as a victory. After losing to Penn State, the Tigers had to change quarterbacks to avoid a dreadful upset against Georgia State. After (understandably) being beaten by No. 1 Georgia, the Tigers had a comfortable win at Arkansas. How will Auburn react to the Texas A&M loss when the Tigers have to play Mississippi State on Saturday? History suggests that you should flip a coin.
As for the big-stage concerns, Auburn won’t have to worry about that for a couple of weeks. This week’s game against MSU won’t be must-watch television for the rest of country. The following week’s game will have even less national appeal when the Tigers play at South Carolina.
Auburn finishes the season against Alabama in The Iron Bowl. Whatever Auburn does before then, that game always has the kind of pressure that Auburn hasn’t handled well this year.
With all due respect to Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, something like the Texas A&M implosion was bound to happen. The Aggies were good enough and smart enough to know that they had to take away Auburn’s rushing attack and they did.
It was up to Nix to lead Auburn to a victory instead of being a game manager leaning on a strong running game. Nix never looked comfortable in the more challenging role. However, Nix wasn’t the only Tiger that fell flat against A&M. Auburn’s entire offense deserves blame, especially the line. Auburn averaged 2.5 yards per rush and Nix was constantly pressured.
Auburn fans shouldn’t be overly dismayed by the loss on Saturday. This is still a rebuilding year. However, those fans have every right to be concerned about how the game unfolded against Texas A&M. If Harsin and the Tigers can’t handle the big stage any better in the future, then any hope of Auburn winning a championship will burst with the entire college football world watching.