Final thoughts (and a prediction) for Auburn-Texas A&M
What a difference a month makes.
At this time last month, the idea of Texas A&M or Auburn being a top-15 team was far off. Auburn had narrowly escaped Georgia State and in addition to having a quarterback controversy on his hands, Bryan Harsin also fired his receivers coach. Texas A&M, meanwhile, was coming off a 10-point performance in its first loss to Arkansas in a decade.
Go figure that in the first weekend of November, both teams are back in the top 15 heading into Saturday’s showdown in College Station. Harsin and Jimbo Fisher deserve a ton of credit for that.
Both programs had stellar Octobers. Auburn went 3-1 with its lone loss coming to Georgia while A&M went 3-1 with a win against Alabama. A New Year’s 6 bowl is still very much in play for both teams, who have become sort of mirror images of each other.
Adjustments? Staying healthy? Just playing better? Yes, yes and yes.
Let’s dig into some thoughts ahead of Saturday’s matchup in College Station:
1. Road Bo Nix is gone now
He’s a thing of the past. No longer can we use “Road Bo Nix” in jest like we once could.
Why? Here ya go:
And as I wrote last week, keep in mind that those 3 road games this year were against Penn State (No. 8 scoring defense), Arkansas (No. 8 pass defense in FBS) and LSU (no Auburn QB had won there in the 21st century). Nix doesn’t have a pad-the-stats road game against Vandy or Mizzou in there. In 2019, Nix got a cupcake matchup against a disastrous Arkansas team, which skewed those numbers. In those 3 non-Arkansas games in 2019, Nix completed 46% of his passes for 4.9 yards/attempt.
Nix is in a different place now than he was compared to his first career true road game back in 2019 which was, ironically enough, at Texas A&M. The Tigers won that day, but Nix threw for 100 yards. If the Aggies hold Nix to 100 passing yards this time around, it’d be a whale of a feat with how comfortable Nix looks making decisions in Mike Bobo’s offense.
A&M has been rock solid defensively this year. The Aggies are No. 2 in the SEC behind Georgia (obviously) in opposing quarterback rating and they rank No. 9 in FBS in yards per attempt allowed. Antonio Johnson and Leon O’Neal Jr. have been lights out on the back end, and of course, the defensive line is up there with the best in the country.
Is it too cliché to say something’s gotta give? Fair enough. Let’s just call this a fantastic matchup.
2. Take your pick for the title of “game’s leading rusher”
Because there are 4 dudes in the running.
Isaiah Spiller and Devon Achane can be those guys for A&M, and the more noteworthy development is that in addition to Tank Bigsby being that guy for Auburn, so is Jarquez Hunter. The true freshman cooled off a bit after his blistering start, but he’s still averaging 7.7 yards per carry, and he’s coming off a game in which he had a career-high 34 snaps. Go figure that came on a day in which Bigsby had a season-high 140 rushing yards on 23 carries.
Only 4 Power 5 teams have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns than A&M, but I’d still expect Auburn to have a run-heavy game plan on the road with that dynamic duo.
A&M should follow a similar script with its similar backfield. Spiller is a bruising back like Bigsby and Achane has the speed like Hunter (they’re 1-2 in the league in yards per carry). Achane has been unstoppable the last 2 weeks with consecutive 100-yard games for the first time in his career. Achane was a yard short of giving A&M a pair of 100-yard rushers in this matchup last year. This year? No Power 5 back has had more than 79 rushing yards against Auburn.
(The only back to exceed that against Auburn so far was Georgia State’s Tucker Gregg because nothing made sense that day.)
All 4 of those aforementioned backs hit at least 140 in a game this year, and they all rank among the SEC’s top 8 leading rushers. It might only be a matter of time before one of them breaks a big one.
Devon Achane nearly went untouched from the 35 yard line 😳💨#CFB
— PFF College (@PFF_College) October 24, 2021
3. This Auburn defense can absolutely frustrate Zach Calzada
Derek Mason deserves a lot of credit for the job he did with this group. Auburn didn’t really skip a beat without Owen Pappoe when he was out for the last month or so. He’s back, and the Tigers are going into Saturday having just held Arkansas and Ole Miss well below their season averages.
Zakoby McClain is a tackling machine when he’s not getting ejected for bogus targeting calls, Smoke Monday is one of the more versatile defenders in the country, Roger McCreary is PFF’s No. 2 graded cornerback in FBS and Colby Wooden keeps racking up SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors. Auburn’s got studs at every level of that defense.
Add it all up and it’s an incredibly difficult matchup for Calzada. To Calzada’s credit, he was a huge reason why the Aggies turned it around in October. If he plays with the same poise that he had against Alabama, surely he’ll have plenty of success against Auburn, too.
The problem is that in a pair of blowout wins against bottom feeders Mizzou and South Carolina, Calzada only completed 51% of his passes for 6.8 yards per attempt. He didn’t exactly need to set the world on fire in either game because of how dominant A&M’s rushing attack was.
Against Auburn? You need balance. Calzada needs to execute the Stetson Bennett IV game plan. That is, capitalize on play-action when those opportunities are there. There might not be very many big throwing windows against a respected secondary like Auburn’s. Is Calzada going to have avoid that colossal mistake? Or will the guy with an interception in all of his starts struggle to string scoring drives together?
A&M could use another one of those out-of-body performances.
4. I want to see Jalen Wydermyer get going again
If there’s one guy on A&M who probably didn’t want a bye week, it was Wydermyer. He’s coming off his biggest game of the season, which was a 75-yard, 2-touchdown showing against South Carolina.
Jalen Wydermyer pinballing off defenders for the TD 💪💪💪pic.twitter.com/XVMmsHiWJR
— Boom or Bust: The Draft Show (@BoomOrBustDraft) October 24, 2021
A guy who was arguably the best returning tight end in the country has yet to have consecutive games with 40 receiving yards. Considering how reliable he was as Kellen Mond’s go-to target, that’s incredibly surprising. And for what it’s worth, not all of that is a Calzada thing. Wydermyer had some atypical issues with drops this year.
But he’s such an important piece of this offense because in addition to being a capable blocking tight end, he understands route-running and how to get separation:
JALEN WYDERMYER HOUSE CALL 🚀
AGGIES BACK ON TOP 😤
— 247Sports (@247Sports) October 10, 2021
Calzada needs Wydermyer to continue to attract defenders in the middle of the field. If he’s regularly targeted in the offense — and not sparingly used like he was in his ineffective showing against Arkansas — it makes life much easier on A&M’s pass-catchers.
Fisher asks a lot of Wydermyer. Not many tight ends play north of 50 snaps in every game, but Wydermyer does. That’s the offense. That’s his skill set, too. A&M fans would love to see him play like an All-American to end 2021.
Speaking of tight ends in this game …
5. Is that Auburn actually using tight ends in the passing game?
Yep. It’s happening.
Through 8 games, Auburn’s 3 tight ends combined for 33 catches for 401 yards. That means an average of 4 catches for 50 yards per game went to the tight end position. Compare that to last year when Auburn’s tight ends combined for 13 catches for 121 yards on the entire 11-game season season. Shoot, in 2019, Auburn’s tight ends had a combined 3 catches for 21 yards. Auburn’s tight ends have more passing game production this year in just 8 games than they had in the previous 6 seasons combined.
Here’s the year-by-year breakdown compared to the Gus Malzahn era (2013-20):
Bobo is almost treating his tight ends like a multi-faceted backfield. Luke Deal is usually the run-blocker who is used in 12 personnel (1 running back and 2 tight ends), John Samuel Shenker is the every-down, pass-catching tight end and Tyler Fromm will spell Shenker to make plays in the passing game either inline (71% of his snaps) or in the slot (27% of his snaps).
It’s totally different than the previous offense’s approach to tight ends. Players know it, too:
Auburn C Nick Brahms joking on his teammates in the TE room when asked about their increased role in the passing game this season: “I didn’t know they could catch, honestly. I thought they were just blockers. We were trying to recruit them to the O-line.”
— Nathan King (@NathanKing247) November 3, 2021
Consider that one of the many reasons Nix has looked more comfortable this year, despite the fact that wide receiver was easily Auburn’s biggest question mark coming into 2021.
Will that continue against an A&M defense that really hasn’t faced a whole lot of elite pass-catching tight ends yet? We’ll see.
Against the Aggies, Alabama’s dynamic tight end duo of Cameron Latu and Jahleel Billingsley had as many catches (1) as it had drops. Nick Muse didn’t have a catch against the Aggies, either. In fact, Colorado’s Brady Russell had the best passing game performance for a tight end against A&M all year, and he had 3 catches for 20 yards. On the season, A&M surrendered just 14 catches for 82 yards and 1 touchdown to the tight end position.
Why is that the case? It could be because of how dominant the Aggies’ defensive line is. Offensive coordinators would rather have their tight ends help try to block DeMarvin Leal instead of trying to run routes. It could also be the fact that lining up a tight end in the slot means doing so against Antonio Johnson, who guards that position frequently and is PFF’s No. 1 graded cornerback in FBS.
Whatever the case, it’d be darn impressive if Auburn’s tight ends continued their collective breakout season against A&M.
6. Why the winner could still get to Atlanta
Well, Auburn controls its fate to Atlanta. Dare I say, the 2-loss Tigers actually still have an outside shot at the Playoff, which would be reminiscent of 2017. That is, beating Alabama and Georgia with a darn impressive 2-loss résumé. Of course, that’s just part of it. Auburn would essentially have to run the table against an absolute gauntlet of a remaining schedule:
- at No. 14 Texas A&M
- vs. No. 17 MSU
- at South Carolina
- vs. No. 2 Alabama
- vs. No. 1 Georgia (only if Auburn reaches SEC Championship)
Is it a slim chance that Auburn goes 5-0 there? Absolutely. But having an actual Playoff path in November is all any coach can hope for, much less one in his first season like Harsin. Shoot, just being able to say you control your own destiny to a division title is a major win.
A&M doesn’t necessarily control its fate in the West, but it will, however, still have an outside chance if it can survive Auburn. The remaining schedule for the Aggies is much more favorable than Auburn, but not by much:
- vs. No. 13 Auburn
- at No. 16 Ole Miss
- vs. FCS Prairie View
- at LSU
If A&M gets by Auburn, who knows what to expect in Oxford against an Ole Miss team that entered Week 10 with 9 of 11 offensive starters dealing with injuries.
Either way, it feels like the division will be decided in the Iron Bowl. The winner of Saturday’s game in College Station would still need Alabama to lose that game in order to get to Atlanta. Of course, Auburn has a bigger say in the Iron Bowl outcome than A&M.
And a prediction … Auburn 24-17
Auburn blew my 5-7 preseason projection out of the water. It was easily my biggest miss. Week after week, I picked against Auburn. Come to think of it, I haven’t picked the Tigers to win a single Power 5 game this year.
In other words, I’m tired of being wrong about Auburn.
Both teams look vastly improved, especially on offense. But I still think these defenses will prove to be the strength and we’ll get a low-scoring game that starts off something like 10-7 going into the half. Dare I say, I trust Nix to make plays late on the road against a quality A&M defense. The 2020 version of myself didn’t think I’d type that sentence. Heck, the September 2021 version of myself didn’t think I’d type that sentence, but here we are. The Tigers turned into a complete team before our very eyes.
A Calzada interception late sets up a short field for Auburn, who gets a go-ahead score on a Nix touchdown pass to a tight end. Wild times, I know.
College GameDay snub aside, get ready for a good one in College Station.