With Auburn's "tune-up" games against Tulane and Kent State in the books, the Tigers will hit the road for the SEC-opener against Texas A&M this weekend while trying to keep its undefeated record at Kyle Field intact.
Since the Tigers and Aggies started playing each other annually in 2012, each team has only been held under 20 points in a game once, so finding early success on offense and avoiding drive-killing turnovers and penalties is a must.
But the biggest factor on whether Auburn can pull off the road win is the composure and play of true freshman Bo Nix, who has slowly showed signs of improvement the first three games of the season, including a 13-of-17 performance for 166 yards and one score last weekend against Kent State.
For the Tigers, the big question is how do they put Nix in comfortable situations and mitigate the effects of the crowd and hostile environment, not to mention what's sure to be an aggressive Aggie defense.
In his weekly presser, A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher said the team's main focus on defense is affecting Nix, who will likely be under regular pressure from a talented Aggie front seven.
Establishing the run game will be key in keeping the pressure off Nix and opening up the play-action passing game. That won't be an easy task against an Aggie defense that is only allowing 88 yards a game on the ground.
Auburn's run game exploded last weekend, rushing for 467 yards and six scores. Boobee Whitlow, Kam Martin and Shaun Shivers will have a much more difficult challenge this week, and will likely need Nix to help them and himself out on QB keepers in the run-option game. But it's critical that the offense doesn't put Nix in third-and-long situations, which would only increase the crowd noise and pressure on the young signal-caller to make a big play, which is often when big mistakes tend to happen.
When it comes to the passing game, it's unclear if top target Seth Williams will be cleared to play after sitting out last week while nursing an injury, but speedster Anthony Schwartz should continue to see his role grow, which would give Nix a dangerous weapon and put pressure on the Aggie defensive backfield. Schwartz might even get the big "club" cast off his hand this week, although he's still expected to wear some type of protective equipment if that occurs. A healthy Schwartz could provide that missing element to an Auburn offense that's struggled at times this season to sustain and finish drives.
On defense, the Tigers just need to keep doing what they do — dominating at the line of scrimmage and pushing into the backfield to pressure the quarterback and shorten the time for receivers to get open.
Tackle Derrick Brown is "day-to-day" after suffering a first-quarter injury last weekend, although he's expected to suit up Saturday, so that shouldn't affect the Tigers' game plan. Defensive end Marlon Davidson might the X-factor in disrupting Kellen Mond's rhythm after starting the season off strong with 14 tackles, 4.5 for a loss, and 2.5 sacks. It's essential the defense gets Mond out of his comfort zone with the Aggies relying more on the pass than the run in the first three games.
That might be even more true Saturday, with starting running back Jashaun Corbin out for the season. His replacement, freshman Isaiah Spiller, is talented but nearly the same take-it-to-the-house type threat. If Auburn can disrupt Mond and contain the Aggie run game while steering Nix away from costly mistakes and turnovers, the Tigers should move their record at Kyle Field to 4-0.
Auburn 27, Texas A&M 17