No. 17 Texas A&M, Auburn to test mettle in SEC opener
Both teams are looking for some sort of redemption when Texas A&M and Auburn meet at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium in an SEC opener to be telecast on ESPN.
For the Aggies, it's an opportunity to establish themselves as contenders in the West Division.
For the Tigers, it's a chance to validate their performance in the six-point loss to No. 2 Clemson in the opener and show that they are ready to rebound from a couple of disappointing seasons.
But it's not a game that should be seen as an end-all to end-alls.
“Whatever happens this week,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said at his media session previewing the game, “there's still a lot of heckuva lot of football to play this season.”
The Aggies go into the game with a 2-0 record after swamping Prairie View A&M 67-0 last week following their overtime 31-24 win over UCLA in their opener. It marks the fourth straight year they have opened a season at 2-0.
That's just another sign of the progress the Aggies have made since joining the SEC before the 2012 season, Sumlin said. Sumlin measures the progress the Aggies have made since then in “light years.”
“When I got here we were supposed to not win — at all,” he said. “And we've created a standard right now where we're supposed to play for championships. That's a pretty good raise of the bar in five years.”
Getting a win at Auburn certainly would be another raise of that bar. Although the Aggies have dominated the series, the Tigers won last year's meeting in College Station 26-10.
Sumlin said the Aggies have put that game aside as they prepare for this meeting.
“This is a different year,” he said. “I haven't even thought about that game at all. We watched a little bit from a personnel standpoint, but as far as mindset and where we are as a football team, this is a different football team.”
But not just a different team, he emphasized.
“Without a doubt, we're a better team,” he said. “How much better we'll find out Saturday.”
Auburn was a much better team as well in the season's second week.
Junking the musical chairs game they played in the opening loss to Clemson, the Tigers evened their record at 1-1 with an impressive offensive show after turning the game over to sophomore quarterback Sean White.
White took all but a handful of snaps against Arkansas State last week, and the change in strategy paid off. White passed for 244 yards, going 17-of-23 passing with three touchdown tosses in Auburn's 51-14 victory.
Even more impressive: He rushed for a net 60 yards on 10 carries. He lost two yards on a sack. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn saw that as a big advantage.
“A quarterback needs to be a runner for us to be as good as we can be,” Malzahn said. “And he was a runner enough tonight.”
White was coming off a so-so performance against Clemson when he was only 10-of-21 passing with an interception and had to share time with senior Jeremy Johnson and junior college transfer John Franklin III.
“When your coaches believe in you, it gives you a little bit of confidence,” White said.
The other big development as the Tigers bounced back from the loss to Clemson was the emergence of running back Kamryn Pettway to complement starter Kerryon Johnson.
Pettway is more of a power runner than Johnson, which gives Malzahn flexibility at the position. Pettway, an H-back whose primary role was blocking last year, didn't have a carry in the opener but had 15 for 152 yards against Arkansas State.
“It's just like I jumped right back in the groove again,” the former tailback said.
Johnson rushed 18 times for 124 yards, the first triple-digit rushing game of the sophomore's career. He has rushed for 218 yards in his first two games as a starter.