Rested Tigers Travel to Texas. (Previewing Auburn vs. Texas A&M)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Rested Tigers Travel to Texas. (Previewing Auburn vs. Texas A&M)

TAMU Preview Kirk

Who will throw to Christian Kirk?

     War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn football preview! The Tigers take a bye in week 9 of the 2017 college football season, then head to College Station, Texas, to take on Texas A&M. On paper, this is a very favorable situation for Auburn. Texas A&M has been notorious the past 3 seasons for November slides, and this one will be played on November 4th. Seems Auburn typically plays the Aggies early or at midseason in Auburn, and isn’t ready. The College Station games have usually been played later in the year, and Auburn has come out on top both times. Auburn is widely expected to contend for the SEC West title this year, while lofty predictions such as that have been few and far between from the Aggie camp, where head coach Kevin Sumlin is reportedly on the “hot seat,” this season. I thought it was quite telling when Sumlin skipped the post-game press conference after the Aggie spring game.

     This year, The Auburn Tigers will have opened the season with Georgia Southern, then traveled to Clemson. Auburn will then enjoy an early homecoming game against Mercer, before traveling to Missouri, prior to a home clash with Mississippi State. The Rebels follow at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the following week, before a road trip to LSU. Auburn then travels to Fayetteville to fight Arkansas, before a well-earned bye week. Texas A&M opens at the Rose Bowl, taking on UCLA. Home tuneups follow against Nichols State and Louisiana-Lafayette. The Aggies then head to Arlington Texas, to take on Arkansas. September finishes at home against South Carolina, then the first week of October, Alabama comes to College Station. The Aggies then travel to Florida, before a bye week on October 21st. Texas A&M finishes October hosting Mississippi State, before Auburn comes to town.

     Every spring and summer since Texas A&M joined the SEC, it seems that there’s a question of who will start at quarterback in the coming fall, and this year is no different. There is a three way race once again this year, although my guess would be that as talented as he may be, the coaches will try to redshirt true freshman Kellen Mond. Mond appears to have the most upside of the candidates, but I can’t see an embattled head coach rolling the dice with a true freshman in the SEC West, unless there’s no choice. Mond and redshirt freshman Nick Starkel did make a play or three during the Aggie spring game, but also had long stretches where neither was very accurate. The most experienced candidate, senior Jake Hubenak, had only 47 passing yards on 13 attempts, and really didn’t try to throw it downfield.

     The past couple of years, a list of Texas A&M receivers tended to make one’s eyes bug a bit, at the huge collection of talent and speed present. Names like Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil, Jeremy Tabuyo and Josh Reynolds kept defensive coaches awake at night. The coaches will sleep better this year, as all 4 guys are headed to the NFL. That said, junior Aggie receiver Christian Kirk is at the top of a lot of preseason all-star lists. Still, teams will double-cover Kirk, and try to pressure the Aggie quarterbacks, till it is proven dangerous to do so.

     With a lot of unknowns in the passing game, I expect the Aggie offense to be more balanced, this season. The Aggies should have a solid offensive line, great running backs, and an emerging tight end group with a lot of promise. I expect the offense to start out featuring sophomore running back Trayveon Martin, who led the team in rushing last season with 1057 yards.

     The defense took some massive blows during the off-season, and this was a unit that basically collapsed down the stretch last year. Star defensive ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall headed to the NFL, and the top two tacklers in the back seven, Shaan Washington and Justin Evans are gone as well. A few weeks ago, it was revealed that junior starting cornerback Nick Harvey will miss the upcoming season after knee surgery. I did not see much in the Aggie spring game but cushion coverage. Still guys got open, and occasionally gashed the patchwork secondary. The Aggies do have a good starting defensive tackle rotation, but will have to find a lot of answers before the season begins in September.

     The Aggie special teams were surprisingly decent last season, and with nearly every piece of the puzzle returning, I would not be surprised if the Aggies are great, this year. One thing that stood out to me was that Texas A&M returned 4 punts for touchdowns, 3 by Christian Kirk. The Tigers will have to punt away from him!

Unit matchups, after the jump!

Auburn defensive line vs. Texas A&M offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are junior Dontavius Russell and sophomore Derrick Brown. Sophomore strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side will likely be manned by a combination of junior Jeffery Holland and senior transfer Paul James III. Auburn has a good bit of depth behind the starters, as well. Texas A&M shuffled some pieces around this spring, moving sophomore Colton Prater to center. Former center Erik McCoy has been moved to left guard, after some high-snap issues last season. Junior Connor Lanfear at right guard should give the Aggies a solid interior line. At the tackle spots, junior Koda Martin should be solid on the left, and the Aggies will try junior Keaton Sutherland. Advantage: Even.

Auburn linebackers vs. Texas A&M backs: The Auburn Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Junior Deshaun Davis, senior Tre’ Williams, junior Darrell Williams and junior Montravious Atkinson can play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players out on the field at a given time. Sophomore Trayveon Williams headlines this group, and he’ll be spelled by senior journeyman Keith Ford. Last year, a tired Auburn defense gave up a late 89 yard run to Trayveon Williams. Before that, the defense had held Williams and Ford to 66 rushing yards on 19 carries. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn corners vs. Texas A&M receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners, in junior Carlton Davis and sophomore Javaris Davis. The Tigers are hoping that Jamel Dean will be healthy this fall, as he is one of the fastest players on the team. Sophomore Jeremiah Dinson could move over from nickelback, if needed. Last season, Auburn blanketed star A&M receiver Christian Kirk, allowing him only 22 yards on 5 catches, and figures to again. The Aggies once again do have some top-end talent at wide receiver, but none of it is proven. After strong springs, we’ll pencil in senior Damion Ratley, redshirt freshman Quartney Davis and sophomore transfer Kirk Merritt in on the outside. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn safeties vs. Texas A&M secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety, and sophomore Jeremiah Dinson at nickel back. There’s not much depth here, beyond senior Nick Ruffin, who’ll probably see as much playing time as the starters. The Tigers are solid here, as long as no one gets hurt. In the slot, Texas A&M is young, with freshman Jharmon Ausbon and redshirt freshman Clyde Chriss showing during the spring game. Senior tight end Kalvin Cline and sophomore Aaron Hansford are solid blockers, and are an emerging threat in the passing game. Advantage: Auburn.

Punting: Sophomore Ian Shannon will likely get the nod as Auburn’s starting punter, after a couple of years of waiting in the wings. Shannon has looked good on A-Day a year ago, in warmups. The Tigers gave up only 19 punt return yards last season, on 6 punts, for a stifling 3.2 yards per return. The Tigers are still auditioning for the punt returner job. It’s thought that senior Stephen Roberts has the inside track, after returning 6 punts last season for 100 yards. Senior punter Shane Tripucka was good for the Aggies last season, averaging 42.9 yards per punt. Texas A&M gave up 5.2 yards per return. In the return department, Christian Kirk was electric, averaging 21.69 yards per return on 13 returns. Teams really didn’t want to kick it to him, as the season progressed. Advantage: Texas A&M.

Kickoffs: Daniel Carlson was very good kicking off last season, notching 57 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs. When Auburn did allow returns, opponents averaged only 18.0 yards per return. Junior Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s most experienced return man returning, and he averaged 22.2 yards per return last season. Few kickers can come even close to Carlson’s ability to kick touchbacks, but the Aggies have sophomore Braden Mann, who booted 55 touchbacks on 76 kickoffs. Texas A&M gave up 19.8 yards per return. The Aggies were also one of the better kick return teams in the SEC last season, averaging 23.6 yards per return, although the leader, Justin Evans is gone. I would expect Trayveon Williams and Christian Kirk to spend time here this season, and the Aggies will be just as explosive. Advantage: Texas A&M.

Place kicking: Auburn sophomore Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. Carlson was 28 of 32 on field goals, and perfect on extra points. One of Carlson’s misses was a block by Vanderbilt. Texas A&M returns junior kicker Daniel LaCamera, who hit on 17 of 24 field goal attempts. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn offensive line vs. Texas A&M defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked pretty good on A-Day. It seems the tackle spots are set, with seniors Darius James and Braden Smith. Senior Austin Golson will likely start at center, although Auburn is bringing in senior transfer center Casey Dunn from Jax State. If Dunn starts, Golson could move to guard. Also transferring in this fall is former Florida State starting guard Wilson Bell. Bell is expected to start at one of the guard spots. If Dunn does not beat Golson out, the other likely starting guard would be sophomore Mike Horton. The Aggies return some beef in the middle, led by senior Zaycoven Henderson, and junior Kingsley Keke, who appears to be on the verge of breaking out as a star. Junior Daylon Mack provides depth. Defensive end is a work in progress. Our guess at the end of spring is seniors Jarrett Johnson and Qualen Cunningham will hang in as starters with some experience. Behind those two, JUCO transfer Michael Clemons is expected to contribute early. Beyond that, things get thin. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn backs vs. Texas A&M linebackers: Auburn features junior H-back Chandler Cox blowing open holes. Running behind the big H-back will be massive junior Kamryn Pettway, and the shifty junior Kerryon Johnson in reserve. The Aggies do return some talent at linebacker, but much of it is unproven. The depth chart right now looks like either junior Otaro Alaka or sophomore Tyrel Dodson in the middle, with junior Richard Moore and freshman Anthony Hines outside. Depending on whether Dodson starts, or Hines doesn’t live up to his billing, Alaka could move to an outside linebacker spot. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn receivers vs. Texas A&M: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were sophomore Nate Craig-Myers and sophomore Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly, have good height, and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had a great A-Day, and is someone to watch out for on the outside, as well. Texas A&M was shaky at corner last season, and is now down a starter. Senior Priest Willis will start at one spot. The other side is a guessing game. I’m guessing we will see sophomores Charles Oliver and Roney Elam. Advantage: Auburn.

Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Texas A&M safeties: Auburn has potential threats here, starting with wickedly fast junior slot receiver Will Hastings. Sophomore Eli Stove can also fly. Tight ends Jalen Harris and Sal Cannella are expected to be a big part of the passing game as well. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is likely the starter. In 6 games as a freshman at Baylor, Stidham was electric. That trend continued during A-Day this spring, as Stidham was deadly accurate, and showed great mobility. Texas A&M is fairly strong at safety, and should be able to be a big help against the run. Seniors Armani Watts and Donovan Wilson have been around the block, and are very capable. Watts is the leader of the defense. Advantage: Even.

     Every SEC team suffers attrition though a tough schedule, and is limping a bit in spots, by November. Both Auburn and Texas A&M the past 5 seasons have stumbled in November in recent years, so it’s hard for me to see any advantage, there. Likely, this game will feature a couple of programs going in opposite directions. If either team doesn’t win most of its games coming into this contest, the result will likely be lopsided.

     On paper, I like Auburn’s chances. Auburn seems to be set at most spots, and where there are questions, it is typically because Auburn has really good options still competing. There are several spots on the Texas A&M starting lineup where they are still trying to find SEC-caliber players to plug in. On the other hand, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin has been known to field dangerous offenses over the years, no matter who he has to plug in at midseason.

Prediction: A rested Auburn team takes on an Aggie team that has a brutal October, with Alabama, MSU and Florida. Auburn has too much on both lines of scrimmage for the Aggies. Tigers win it, 27-13.

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