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Auburn looks to extend Texas A&M's SEC losing streak

AUBURN, Ala.Ellis Johnson doesn't really know what to expect out of Texas A&M on Saturday.

That's a stark reversal from last year, when the Tigers could count on two things from the Aggies: First, Heisman Trophy-winner quarterback Johnny Manziel would keep plays alive with his feet and pick up yardage through the air and on the ground. Secondly, when Manziel looked downfield, it was a good bet he would be trying to find his favorite target in the 6-foot-5 Mike Evans.

Both of those came to pass, as Manziel totaled 502 yards (454 passing, 48 rushing) of offense while Evans torched Auburn's secondary for 287 yards and four touchdowns on 11 receptions.

But Manziel and Evans are in the NFL now.

In Manziel's place this week is true freshman Kyle Allen, who will make his first start away from home.

And that's where Johnson's questions begin.

"I don’t know whether they’ll try to be cautious or not. It’s certainly not in their philosophy to do that," Auburn's defensive coordinator said. "We’re going to prepare for the regular Texas A&M to come in here throwing it around. They got a very good offensive line. Their receivers may be the most talented. They’re young. They’re not as old (or) as experienced as that crowd last year but I know the young man’s got great talent and can throw the ball anywhere on the field."

Allen didn't show that ability much last week, however. In his debut as the Aggies' starting signal-caller, he threw for only 106 yards, tossing both a touchdown and an interception in a 21-16 win over Louisiana-Monroe. His completion rate was also well below Texas A&M's standards, as he connected on just 46.4 percent (13 of 28) of his attempts.

After looking at the film, Johnson believes there might have been a reason for Allen's lackluster numbers.

"The last ballgame they played a lot of heavy sets, two tight ends and things of that nature, but the team they were playing was a big blitz team — a lot of zero blitzes and fire zones and stuff — and it could have been they wanted to just clean it up for him," Johnson said. "(Texas A&M used) a lot of max protection, two-man routes, very different."

Another marked difference Johnson has seen in the Aggies' offense is the lack of involvement the quarterback has had in the running game. Last year, it was a staple.

This season, Johnson said the Aggies have all but abandoned it.

"Will we see it? Maybe we will. People will look and see what you've had problems with, and if they think they can hurt us with it, they would," he said. "I just believe (they'll bring) the Texas A&M offensive playbook in here and try to help the young man operate it. They've got good enough players around him with offensive line and skill guys that he's certainly capable of moving the football."

On the flip side, the Tigers' offensive coaching staff will have their eyes trained on one player when they have the ball: defensive end Myles Garrett.

Regarded as one of the nation's top defenders in the Class of 2014, the Arlington, Texas, native has more than lived up to the hype. In nine games, he's collected 11 sacks, breaking Jadeveon Clowney's single-season SEC freshman record (eight). Garrett has 42 tackles this year (tops among Aggie defensive linemen) and also leads the team in tackles for loss (12.5) and quarterback hurries (eight).

Knowing this, Gus Malzahn said his team must be aware of Garrett's spot on the field at all times.

"He is an extremely talented pass rusher," Auburn's coach said. "He's long, he's fast, he has very good get-off, and when he knows it's pass, he can wreak havoc."

Even with Garrett's superlative efforts this year, the Aggies have struggled defensively, ranking among the bottom three teams in the SEC in both total defense (414.2 yards per game) and scoring defense (25.9 ppg).

Malzahn didn't care about the numbers, though.

"They've got unbelievable talent," he said. " ... Defensively, their secondary is probably the most experienced group in our league. They've got, in my opinion, a couple of future NFL guys back there, too. We're expecting to get their best."

That's not the prevailing thought outside Auburn's football complex, however, as Texas A&M was a 23.5-point underdog as of Friday afternoon.

Facing a team ranked No. 3 in the country and owning the nation's longest home win streak at 14 games, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin didn't cut any corners when describing his team's challenge Saturday.

"I think everyone has seen Auburn play. They are a really fine football team," he said. "You've watched them play on the road and play tough games on the road, last week and early in the year against K-State in a really hard-fought game. ... We're going to have to be on our A-game this week to try to get another win."