COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- What a difference a year makes.
The Auburn team coming into Kyle Field today is much different from the one that hosted Texas A&M a year ago. Both teams are 5-1 and ranked in the top 25 (A&M is seventh, Auburn is 24th), and each has a head coach known for his innovative offensive mind (Gus Malzahn for Auburn; Kevin Sumlin for A&M), so it should be an entertaining and compelling 60 minutes in this SEC West Division clash. Here are five things to watch:
1. Auburn run game vs. A&M run D: Auburn is one of the best rushing teams in the country (287 yards per game), and it's no fluke. The Tigers have three solid running backs (Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant), plus a starting quarterback who is a running threat, too (Nick Marshall). Texas A&M's run defense is 13th in the SEC (201.17 yards allowed per game) and struggled through much of the first half, though defensive coordinator Mark Snyder was encouraged by his unit's performance against Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to 133 yards on the ground. This battle will be key.
2. Defending Manziel: No defense has really had an answer for Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The only team to defeat the Aggies, which was No. 1 Alabama, benefited from two interceptions but still conceded 562 yards to the redshirt sophomore quarterback. Manziel bounced back from two turnovers last week vs. Ole Miss to lead a come-from-behind effort in a 41-38 win. How Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson attacks Manziel will be interesting to watch. A&M offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney said Auburn has one of the more talented defenses that Texas A&M will see this year.
3. Will A&M generate a pass rush? Texas A&M has been one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to sacking opposing passers. The Aggies have just five sacks this season; Illinois is the only team in the nation that has fewer (four). Snyder stressed that his group has to be able to generate a pass rush sometimes without having to blitz. If they can't, Marshall and his Auburn teammates will have time to do what they want offensively.
4. Tempo: Both teams like to play at a fast pace. Expect Texas A&M to continue that, as usual. Will Auburn? Malzahn noted that the Tigers are at their best at a high pace, but earlier this week, he told reporters, "Sometimes you may need to try to keep it away from [Manziel]." Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, who knows Malzahn well, tried to be methodical in the first half of the Rebels' game with A&M last week. Will Auburn employ a similar strategy in hopes of keeping the game close heading into the fourth quarter?
5. Wrinkles: Auburn played freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson last week in place of Marshall, who rested with a knee injury, and Johnson played well. Could he see action on Saturday? How will the Auburn defensive front attack Manziel? The Aggies have seen a variety of defensive fronts all season and at times have had to adjust pass-protection schemes on the fly. Will the Tigers mix it up? Will defensive back Deshazor Everett, A&M's best defensive player, play (he left Ole Miss game with an injury), and if so, will he line up at cornerback or safety (or both) now that safety Floyd Raven is healthy again? How much will Manziel run the ball on designed draw plays? Against Arkansas two weeks ago, there were no designed runs in the game plan. Last week against Ole Miss, he did it with some regularity. These two head coaches and their staffs are creative, so don't be surprised to see a few things you haven't yet this season.