Auburn-Texas A&M Preview

The Associated Press

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn thinks no college football player compares to Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel on the offensive side of the ball.

Manziel was officially the best last year, partly due to his superb performance against the Tigers.

The reigning Heisman Trophy winner will try to torment No. 24 Auburn again and help the seventh-ranked Aggies to a fourth straight victory Saturday.

Manziel leads the SEC with an average of 305.8 passing yards, and his 14 touchdowns tie him for third. The sophomore quarterback also leads the team with 427 rushing yards while averaging 6.5 per carry and scoring five TDs.

"He's the best offensive player in college football. He's very good within their system but he's probably even better once things break down," Malzahn told the team's official website. "He's a great backyard player. He makes very good decisions and puts a lot of pressure on the defense.

"It's almost like watching a video game sometimes with the stuff he does."

That certainly was the case in the Aggies' first SEC meeting with the Tigers last Oct. 27, when Manziel scored five touchdowns - three rushing - while shredding Auburn's defense in a 63-21 road victory. He completed 16 of 23 passes for 260 yards and added 90 on the ground on nine carries.

Manziel showed off his playmaking ability in last Saturday's 41-38 win over Ole Miss. He ran 18 times for 113 yards and two TDs while connecting on 31 of 39 passes for 346 yards and an interception before Josh Lambo's 33-yard field goal as time expired.

Manziel seems to have found another reliable target after Travis Labhart unexpectedly had career highs of eight catches and 97 yards. The senior wide receiver caught three passes for 52 yards and a touchdown prior to that breakout performance.

"This time of year, if you're going to continue to win, you're going to have to have guys that play at a high level that maybe before the year you didn't talk about," coach Kevin Sumlin said.

"Travis has been a guy who is another great story for us. I know for a fact four weeks ago our quarterback felt as comfortable with him as anybody. So when he went in the game, for him to have the type of success he had was a surprise to a lot of people, but not to guys on the team."

Success through the air may be tough for the Aggies (5-1, 2-1) since Auburn (5-1, 2-1) has allowed four scoring passes while collecting seven interceptions.

The Tigers are coming off their best performance of the season, pounding FCS program Western Carolina 62-3 last Saturday. They dominated the Catamounts in every facet, totaling 712 yards while holding them to 173.

Despite that offensive display that helped move Auburn into the Top 25 for the first time since November 2011, there will be a change under center with Nick Marshall returning from a knee injury, moving freshman Jeremy Johnson to the bench.

Like Manziel, Marshall gives the Tigers a serious threat out of the pocket, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. The junior's rushing ability was evident in a 30-22 win over then-No. 24 Mississippi on Oct. 5, when he scampered for a career-high 140 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries.

"Nick is great on his feet," running back Tre Mason said. "He can do some of the things Johnny can do. He's great on his feet, if not even better. That guy is just a complete athlete and people need to look out for him because he's going to be making plays himself.

"He's a great leader. He's a great athlete. He's somebody we need going into this game to make his plays and get this 'W.'"

Marshall, though, hasn't been very efficient passing, completing 59.2 percent of his attempts for 902 yards with four scores and four INTs. He hasn't had a TD pass since tossing two in a 24-20 win over Mississippi State on Sept. 14.

Facing Texas A&M, however, could help. The Aggies gave up an average of 321.5 passing yards and 13 touchdowns over the past four games.

The run defense hasn't been much better, surrendering 165.3 yards over that span, and Mason had 80 with a touchdown on 12 attempts in last year's meeting.

The junior enters with 209 yards while averaging 5.8 per carry with five touchdowns over the past three games.

Still, Malzahn feels limiting Manziel's impact in the running game could be key to proving Auburn deserves to remain among the elite.

"That's something that each defense tries to scheme up," Malzahn said. "He finds a way to be effective no matter how you play him.

"The only thing that we've talked about, the only thing on our mind, is this year. It's a huge challenge for us. It's another measuring stick for our program and where we're at this year."