Auburn vs. Texas A&M: The Complete Game Preview
What a difference a year makes.
Just a season ago, Auburn was on the sore end of a 63-21 drubbing at the hands of Texas A&M in the Tigers' own Jordan-Hare Stadium.
It was a new low for Auburn—with the 42-point margin tying the Tigers' all-time worst home loss in school history.
That night marked a meeting of two teams at a crossroads, as the Aggies and a young quarterback named Johnny Manziel turned heads on their way to capturing the nation's attention, while Gene Chizik and the 2012 Auburn team fell deeper into a pit of despair that ultimately led to the coach's exit from the Plains.
Now, a year later, new Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has the Tigers boasting the same 5-1 record as the Aggies.
Auburn is back in the top 25, ranked No. 24 in the latest AP poll, and back in the national spotlight going into Saturday's game against No. 7 Texas A&M in front of a nationwide audience on CBS. Malzahn has brought his hurry-up, no-huddle attack back to the Plains, and—while he may be no Johnny Football—the Tigers have an electrifying new quarterback of their own in Nick Marshall.
Suddenly, it seems Saturday's game will be played on a level playing field, just a year removed from a night when the Tigers didn't appear to belong in the same stadium as the Aggies.
Can the Tigers pull off the upset and come away with their first SEC road win since 2011?
First, the basics:
Time: 2:30 p.m. CT
Place: Kyle Field, College Station, Texas
Spread: Texas A&M -14, via Vegas Insider consensus
Auburn Keys to Victory
Run the Football
If Auburn is going to pull off the big upset in College Station, it's going to start with the Tigers offense—and the Tigers offense is going to start with the running game.
Malzahn's offensive system is based on a downhill, run-first scheme, especially when the Tigers take to the road in a hostile environment like Kyle Field.
Meanwhile, a strong rushing attack is already a part of the blueprint to beating the Aggies. In Texas A&M's last two losses, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon rushed for 149 yards in the Tide's win over the Aggies in 2013, and LSU's Jeremy Hill rushed for 127 yards in the Tigers' win over Texas A&M in 2012.
Control Pace and Tempo
Auburn may be facing a different kind of a spread offense when the Tigers line up across the way from the pass-happy Texas A&M attack, but both teams like to use tempo and control the pace of games.
If the Auburn offense can dictate the pace of the game and keep things out of rhythm and off-script for the Texas A&M offense, that will give Johnny Manziel just that much less to work with on the Aggies side.
While usually only defenses can make stops and have an impact on opposing offenses, in games like the one set for Saturday, each offense will actually have an opportunity to put the opposing team in strenuous circumstances and affect how plays are called on the other sideline.
Keep Johnny Manziel Off the Field
One of the biggest points of emphasis for any team going up against the Aggies is also one of the most simple:
When Johnny Football is on the field, anything can happen. When he's off the field and on the sideline, he's helpless. Keeping hold of the ball and putting together long, sustained drives will help keep one of the most dynamic and exciting college football players in recent memory off the field—where he can't hurt the Auburn defense.
Texas A&M Keys to Victory
Don't Allow the Big Play
Going into Saturday's big matchup, the Aggies are holding serve. Texas A&M is at home at Kyle Field and ranked in the top 10 in the country.
It would take a lot for this Auburn team to march into College Station and come out with a victory—including turnovers, miscues and blown assignments by the Aggies throughout the contest.
If Texas A&M doesn't allow those big plays—on offense, defense or special teams—the Aggies have a pretty strong shot at coming out with a victory Saturday.
Make Nick Marshall Win Through the Air
Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall had an off week last week, resting an injured knee while his teammates drubbed Western Carolina, 62-3, during homecoming. But the last time Marshall was on the field, in the Tigers' big 30-22 win over Ole Miss two weeks ago, the junior quarterback had his best game of the season as a rushing threat.
That night, Marshall rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries, proving that he can be a big part of the Auburn rushing attack alongside the Tigers' stable of backs.
But Marshall is less proven through the air—especially considering that he will be making just his second road start at quarterback in his Division I FBS career. If the Aggies can shut down Marshall on the ground, it should spell trouble for the quarterback as he tries to beat Texas A&M with his arm.
Find Balance Offensively
While the Texas A&M offense runs through Johnny Manziel and seems to live and die through his play at times, the Aggies are perhaps most dangerous when they have a solid running game going to go along with Manziel's heroics through the air and on his feet.
When the Aggies get their running backs involved, it makes for a long night for any defense—and that could be the same case for Auburn on Saturday.
Auburn Players to Watch
At the end of the day, Auburn's success Saturday is going to hinge on the play of its quarterback—both in the passing game and on the ground.
Believe it or not, if Marshall plays up to his full potential—and if all of the pieces around him are in working order—he could go blow-for-blow with Johnny Football and give the Tigers a chance to outscore the Aggies in a shootout.
On the other hand, if Texas A&M is able to get to Marshall early and often and get the junior off his game, the wheels could start to come off for Malzahn's offense.
Aside from Marshall, Mason will play the most pivotal role on offense for the Tigers on Saturday.
The SEC is a different league in 2013, with impressive quarterback play dominating conference headlines—and Manziel's play across the way has been as big of an example of that as any.
But the SEC is still the SEC, and if a team wants to win a game on the road in this conference, it all begins with running the football.
The Tigers have a stable of three different backs who they will throw at the Texas A&M defense, but Mason is the spearhead of that group. If Auburn is going to succeed Saturday, Mason will have to be able to keep the Tigers ahead of the chains and pound out tough yards when needed.
It's a question that's been raised more times in the past two years than anyone cares to count:
"How do you stop Johnny Football?"
The truth is, you don't stop him—you only hope to slow him down. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will look to do just that Saturday by showing the Heisman Trophy winner tons of different looks out of his 4-2-5 base defense.
Meanwhile, one man on the Auburn defense is going to be charged with spy duty for most of the game, with hopes to contain Manziel as plays break down and stop Manziel before he can get started on designed running plays.
A prime candidate for that role is Robenson Therezie—the safety-linebacker hybrid in Johnson's 4-2-5 set. At 5'9", 204 pounds, Therezie has the size and frame to chase down Manziel in the open field and make sure the elusive quarterback doesn't get away when he has him in his grasp.
Therezie leads the Tigers with 28 tackles on the season. When he isn't moving into the box to make stops, he has proven himself as a big-time player in the secondary with three interceptions this season.
If Therezie plays to the absolute best of his ability, he could be the answer to "The Manziel Problem," with an ability to cover at the second level on passing downs,and keep Manziel in check in spy sets when the quarterback is at risk to take off.
Texas A&M Players to Watch
It's hard to overstate just how electrifying Manziel has been in the Texas A&M offense over the past two seasons—and to anyone who has had the chance to see him play, nothing more needs be said.
Manziel is averaging 378.8 yards per game by himself this season, and he has accounted for 19 total touchdowns already.
Last year against Auburn, Manziel shredded the Tigers defense in Jordan-Hare, finishing 16-of-23 for 260 yards and two touchdowns through the air, with 90 yards and three more scores on nine carries on the ground—all in just over a half's worth of work.
If Manziel has a performance anything like that one on Saturday, Auburn won't have a chance.
Listed at 6'5", 225 pounds, fans won't have any trouble spotting Evans when he lines up out wide for the Aggies on Saturday.
Evans is Manziel's favorite go-to target, and he's the Aggies' leading receiver with 737 yards and five touchdowns on 32 receptions this year.
For the Auburn cornerbacks and secondary, Evans undoubtedly provides the biggest matchup problem for the Tigers in terms of size and athleticism in space—and he could be the single best receiver the Tigers face all season.
It's tough to say that the Aggies' success on defense begins and ends with a freshman, but as Darian Claiborne has improved throughout the year at the middle linebacker spot, so has the Texas A&M defense.
Saturday, he'll be charged with stuffing the Auburn run up the middle—and the Tigers will go after him up the middle early and often as they attempt to establish their rushing attack.
What They Are Saying
Auburn has a big opportunity ahead of it Saturday, sitting at 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the SEC. If the Tigers win Saturday, they're bowl eligible. And with just one loss on their resume, they will be set to make a bid at shaking things up in the SEC West down the back end of the schedule.
For Auburn running back Corey Grant, it's also an opportunity to make a statement:
"This is a big game. It's going to be on CBS, 2:30 prime-time game. This is a big game that we can really make a statement to the world and make Auburn how it used to be."
If Auburn is going to make that statement, the Tigers are going to have to get past Johnny Manziel—a young man that Malzahn paid perhaps his highest possible praises to, comparing him to the best quarterback he's ever been around in Auburn legend Cam Newton:
"I would say those two you just mentioned are probably two of the best to ever play the game in college football. We only got a chance to see Cam Newton for one year, but this guy is in the same element. They are different, but they are still some of the best to ever play."
The Auburn defense knows it won't be able to shut down Manziel, and that it'll have a tough time slowing him down. For Auburn cornerback Chris Davis, it all comes down to the Tigers' mindset and how the defense reacts when Manziel inevitably does the things that Manziel does:
"Malzahn always says, have a next-play mentality. Each and every game, you're going to give up a play, and it just depends on how you come back the next play, how you regroup yourself. We're going to face some obstacles this game, but it's going to define us how well we come back and how we face those obstacles."
Texas A&M 44, Auburn 33
Auburn will give Texas A&M all it bargained for and more Saturday—and yes, the Tigers even have a chance at knocking off the seventh-ranked Aggies on the road—but at the end of the day, Texas A&M's winning ways should continue.
The Tigers have plenty of athletes to line up opposite the Aggies, and it will be a much fairer fight in the second iteration of this new SEC West rivalry as opposed to the first last season—but everything would have to go right for Auburn earn a win.
Across the board, the Tigers don't match up very favorably against Texas A&M, and it won't help that they'll be playing in one of nation's most hostile environments.
While it won't be the shellacking that Texas A&M laid on Auburn in Jordan-Hare last season, Auburn just doesn't have the tools to walk into Kyle Field and come away with a victory.
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.