By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: A marquee matchup in the SEC is on tap for Saturday afternoon at Kyle Field, as the seventh-ranked Texas A&M Aggies play host to the 24th- ranked Auburn Tigers.
Just a year removed from a 3-9 season and a winless campaign in the SEC, Auburn has experienced a complete turnaround under new head coach Gus Malzahn, as it sits at 5-1 overall and 2-1 in conference. The Tigers dismantled Western Carolina in their homecoming game last weekend, 62-3, and were able to make their season debut in the AP Top-25. It's the first time they've been ranked since October of 2011.
"All I can say is we have gotten better each week and that's been the name of the game throughout the season," Malzahn said. "I like where our team's at now and I like the fact of us getting better."
Texas A&M's 2013 resume' has a small blemish on it, as it dropped a classic shootout versus No. 1 Alabama on Sept. 14 (49-42), but other than that its season has been a rousing success at 5-1 overall and 2-1 in the league. The Aggies endured a tough, back-and-forth battle at Ole Miss last weekend, but they kicked the game-winning field goal as time expired to capture the 41-38 triumph.
"Surprisingly enough, I really wasn't that nervous," said A&M kicker Josh Lambo of the 33-yard game-winner. "It feels so great, not to kick the game- winning field goal, but to do something to help my teammates and reward their effort."
Texas A&M has beaten Auburn in all three previous meetings, including on the road in October of 2012, 63-21.
Auburn's offense has been clicking this season to the tune of 34.3 ppg and 474.2 ypg, thanks in large part to a rushing attack that ranks seventh in the nation (287.0 ypg). The unit is fresh off a school-record 712 total yards against WCU in which it scored nine touchdowns.
"Our line did a good job up front," Malzahn said. "Our backs broke some tackles. We have some explosive plays in the passing game and we've talked about that for the past two weeks. We talked about being more balanced, so I'm proud of our offense."
Tre Mason has been the most productive offensive player with 515 yards and seven touchdowns, although Cameron Artis-Payne (389 yards, three TDs) and Corey Grant (331 yards, three TDs) have also been explosive out of the backfield. Artis-Payne averages 7.2 yards per carry, and Grant nets an incredible 10 yards per touch.
Jeremy Johnson earned his first start under center last week and shined by completing 17-of-21 passes for 201 yards with four touchdowns and just one interception. Despite Johnson's outstanding debut, the team expects Nick Marshall (902 passing yards, 288 rushing yards, six TDs) to be ready to start this contest after missing time with a knee injury.
Although no AU player has more than 15 receptions, Sammie Coates has been a big play waiting to happen out wide, turning his 13 catches into 319 yards and a score. His 24.5 yards per catch ranks third in the nation.
The Tigers have stepped up their play defensively as well this season, as they rank third in the conference in allowing just 18.8 ppg while holding opponents to just 33 percent success on third-down conversion attempts.
Robenson Therezie has a team-high 28 tackles and he has three of the team's seven interceptions. Dee Ford (4.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks), Carl Lawson (4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) and Gabe Wright (6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks) have excelled at forcing pressure in the backfield.
Unsurprisingly, Texas A&M's offense has kept up the incredible pass it set last season during Johnny Manziel's freshman season. The Aggies lead the SEC in both scoring (47.8 ppg) and yardage (586.5 ypg), with both numbers ranking in the top-four nationally.
The offense runs through Manziel, and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is piecing together another historic campaign with 1,835 passing yards (.735 completion percentage), 427 rushing yards and 19 total touchdown. The standout signal caller suffered a scare early in the Ole Miss game when he temporarily went out with what appeared to be a knee injury, but he returned in short order to post 459 total yards in the win.
"Just like any other player that goes down, I am concerned about them," A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin said of Manziel going down. "...But we communicated about it and he said he was ready to go back in."
Manziel's chemistry with Mike Evans has been undeniable, which has resulted in an outstanding season from the 6-foot-5 receiver. Evans has 37 receptions for 737 yards (third in FBS) and five scores, while Malcome Kennedy (331 yards, four TDs) and Derel Walker (336 yards) also benefit from Manziel's accuracy and playmaking ability.
Ben Malena has been great out of the backfield with 375 yards and eight touchdowns (one receiving). Tra Carson (237 yards, four TDs) and Trey Williams (172 yards, three TDs) also figure in the mix.
While the offense has soared, the defense has struggled, and without significant improvement, it will be difficult for the Aggies to make claim as one of the nation's elite teams. The unit surrenders 32.0 ppg and 474.3 ypg, the latter ranking last in the SEC.
Howard Matthews leads the way with 38 tackles, while Deshazor Everett and Tommy Sanders have two interceptions apiece. The Aggies have struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, racking up just five sacks through six games.
What appeared to be an easy win for Texas A&M prior to the season has now turned into a more problematic one thanks to the surprising emergence of Malzahn's Tigers. Auburn's rushing attack will be able to find holes to run through all afternoon, and clock management will help it keep the game close throughout, but the Aggies have shown the ability to make a big play when it matters most. Expect Manziel and company to find a way to take care of business at home.