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October 17, 2013
The next step
AUBURN | Auburn will play an important football game Saturday afternoon against the lone college team featuring a Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback.
The game will be played inside his home stadium.
The game will be the featured national broadcast on CBS, which means most everyone connected to college football will be watching or paying attention or at least glancing at what happens.
It's a big deal. Texas A&M and its potent offense led by the always charismatic Johnny Manziel, who thrives in the spotlight, is a captivating team to watch. When the Aggies are involved, points come easily and are conceded almost as easily. It's pinball on grass -- lots of blinking lights and sound and spectacle.
It feeds into the collective lack of attention span that has enveloped our country. People love it. They know they love it because they've seen Manziel go off, seen prized wideout Mike Evans make spectacular plays, seen the Aggies somehow make a seamless transition into the Southeastern Conference.
Auburn, to many people, is yesterday's news.
Cam Newton is gone. So is Nick Fairley. The coach was fired less than two years after winning a national title. What happened to Auburn? is a common refrain outside the state. Heck, some people inside the state wondered the same thing two months ago.
You didn't blame them. You may have wondered the same thing.
It's two months later, though, and now you don't wonder anymore. You know exactly what happened. You know a massive correction is underway, that Gus Malzahn and his nine assistant coaches have transformed Auburn football into a place where words like excellence and accountability and guile actually mean something once again.
You saw the LSU game. You saw the smaller dog take some gnarly licks, regain his footing and dish out some punishment of his own.
The bigger dog won the fight, sure, but you saw passion.
You didn't see acceptance.
Auburn comes into this game as footnote to the season's first half. The Tigers are the team that was 1-5 one year ago and now are 5-1. A lot of people don't know that because the Tigers haven't made their big statement just yet.
The wins against Ole Miss and Mississippi State were nice. The wins against Washington State and Arkansas State don't look as nice now that those teams have a combined record of 7-6, but simply establishing the team's first winning streak since Oct. 1, 2011, was an achievement.
Can Auburn beat Texas A&M?
Yes. There are ways. The Aggies have some defensive issues that have been exploited. They allow a lot of explosive plays. They allow a lot of rushing yards per game. They allow more first downs than any team in the SEC by a significant margin.
The Tigers know how to run the ball. That can be a strength-on-weakness situation that changes the dynamic of what can happen Saturday.
Can Texas A&M beat Auburn?
Yes. There are ways. Manziel is excellent at creating on the fly. Auburn isn't great at defending on the fly and struggles to tackle in open space. Something must be done to clutter Manziel's workspace whether that involves mitigating the Aggies' run game or pressing Manziel into hasty decisions or disguising coverages with the intent of leading Manziel into poor passing decisions.
Auburn has on its side a 61-year-old defensive coordinator with more than a decade of SEC experience. He's had 10 months and six games to learn his players. He's experimented with fronts, coverages, stunts, blitzes, alignments, personnel groupings. He's been preparing for this stretch of games for a while.
Auburn has on its side two of the sharpest offensive minds in the college game. Maybe the two sharpest in terms of strategic ability. They also have two good quarterbacks, three good tailbacks, a good offensive line and a group of receivers who clearly are making rapid progress.
Auburn has become exactly what Malzahn promised.
The edge is back. The toughness is back. The ability to demoralize defenses with a flurry of between-the-tackles runs is back. Auburn is playing Auburn football once again.
The defense isn't quite up to the standard set years ago, but there are signs that the transformation is underway. If the Ole Miss game was a true statement of the defensive line's current level of ability and not a situational surge, that transformation may be closer to completion than even the most optimistic projection.
With all that said, this is not a must-win game.
This is a season of reclamation on the Plains. It's one that Malzahn has engineered brilliantly so far and a loss in College Station does nothing to diminish what already has been accomplished.
But you know what? A win in College Station would change everything.
The stakes would rise exponentially. So would Auburn's reputation, which grew significantly in 2010 and dissipated in a matter of months. Malzahn is aiming to maintain a more firm grasp on relevance this time around.
Will relevance make its way to Malzahn's grip in Texas this weekend?
I don't know.
Still, considering that as an realistic scenario says a lot about the past 10 months.
Texas A&M had better be ready. Tomorrow's news is waiting to be written.