Auburn has quietly turned things around in a big way under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn.
The No. 24 Tigers are 5-1 (2-1 SEC) and ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time all season.
While the turnaround on the offensive side of the ball has been tremendous—the Tigers are averaging 474.2 yards per game as opposed to the 305 yards per game last season—it's been the play of Auburn's defense that's been the bigger surprise for this year's Tigers.
The total yardage mark isn't anything to write home about, as the Tigers are giving up 399.2 yards per game—the 10th-best mark in the SEC. Scoring offense is a different story though, as they're only giving up 18.8 points per game—third-best in the SEC. They're allowing opponents to convert only 33.33 percent of their third-down opportunities, also third-best in the SEC.
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel shouldn't sleep on the Tigers, because they're the epitome of a "bend but don't break" defense.
Manziel hasn't missed a beat from his record-setting 2012 season. All he's done this year is rush for 427 yards and five touchdowns, throw for 1,835 yards and 14 touchdowns, and put his team on his back to win on the road at Ole Miss.
In other words, he's the same old Johnny. Auburn knows that this is the toughest task yet for the new-look defense.
"What you have to do, anytime you have a team like them that has good players at every spot, you have to get it out of your mind that you're going to stop them," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told AL.com. "You have to disrupt them, you have to slow them down, you have to get some takeaways, you have to play really good in the red zone."
Auburn made a shift on the defensive line, as senior defensive end Nosa Eguae moved to defensive tackle prior to the Ole Miss game. All the Tigers have done since then is notch 10 sacks in two games and given up just 95 yards per game on the ground.
The blueprint to slow down Manziel hasn't changed since LSU shut him down last year. You have to keep him in the pocket and hope the interior of the defense can clean up the mess when he takes off. The Tigers' two-deep at defensive end features Dee Ford, LaDarius Owens, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson—all of whom have the size and athleticism to give Manziel fits.
If they can do that, it will put an enormous amount of pressure on Eguae—who has the athleticism to play outside but the technique that makes him effective inside.
It also puts pressure on Auburn linebackers Jake Holland and Cassanova McKinzy.
Holland has struggled to take proper angles throughout his Tiger career, which is something Manziel routinely exploits. That means 6'2", 238-pound backup Kris Frost may be more of a factor in this one than he has been thus far this season.
Auburn can't revert back to where it has been over the previous four years, when tackling seemed like more of a myth than a reality.
If Auburn shuts down Manziel on the ground, it still has to limit what he can do through the air. Aggie wide receiver Mike Evans presents a matchup nightmare for any defense, and while No. 1 cornerback Chris Davis is back and healthy after an early-season ankle injury, he's still six inches shorter than Evans.
That's a bit of a problem.
Auburn needs this win.
With their one loss coming to LSU, the Tigers are still very much in the mix in the SEC West. If they fall to Texas A&M, the outside shot of winning the division will become fantasy. In the rough and tumble SEC West, having two losses on the resume—each to fellow division title contenders—will be too much to overcome.
There's no shortage of athletes on Auburn's defense, but slowing down Manziel takes much more than athletes. It takes a scheme that creates confusion and capitalizes on mistakes.
The Tigers have only gained nine turnovers on the season, and unless that changes, it's going to be difficult for the Tigers to spring the upset.