The regular season is winding down. Eleven games are in the books for the Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers. Both teams have fought, battled and sacrificed, all for the 2017 season to come down to one game, the most fierce rivalry in all of college football, the Iron Bowl.
The University of Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) sits atop all major polls, including the one that matters, the College Football Playoff rankings. The Auburn Tigers (9-2, 6-1 SEC), have inched closer and closer to the top of the polls, and find themselves battling for a spot in the fourth annual College Football Playoff. For one of these teams this game will lead to glory and honor. For the other, the trail leads to agony and defeat.
Saturday’s match-up in Jordan-Hare Stadium will be just the second time in Iron Bowl history the SEC West will be decided by who wins the game. Sound familiar? If not let’s flashback to 2013. Does Kick-Six ring a bell? Much like the miracle 2013 season for Auburn, the winner of this game will head to Atlanta to play the Georgia Bulldogs in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the SEC crown on the line. More importantly, the winner of this game will be in the driver’s seat to finish in the top four and play in a semi-final game in New Orleans or Pasadena.
“The Iron Bowl is a tremendous rivalry game and there’s a lot of passion on both sides. Lots of people are interested in it and it’s got lots of ramifications this year,” said Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban. “As a competitor, this is always a game you look forward to having the opportunity to play in. Our team has put themselves in a position where they have an opportunity to accomplish something in terms of taking the next step that we need to take to be able to have a chance to win the West or have an opportunity to play in the SEC Championship Game.”
Unlike 2013, this game has a different feeling. Every player, every coach and every fan knows what is on the line, but the atmosphere is unique compared to that cool day in Auburn four years ago. Auburn is not playing “spoiler.” The word is not “we can upset Alabama” it seems to be “we will beat Alabama.” Auburn has not needed the magical play that causes everyone to scratch their head and ask what just happened. The Tigers, in the last stretch of the season, simply resemble a dominant football team.
While the Tigers trajectory heading into the Iron Bowl is pointing up, the Tide’s trajectory is in question. Many are still high on the top-ranked Tide, while some think the Tide has receded in recent weeks. Questionable performances, if SEC wins can be considered questionable, against Mississippi State and LSU lead many to believe Auburn will have the upper hand on Saturday. Injuries may be the main cause for the lack of confidence in the most dominant program in the history of college football. Alabama has lost four linebackers to injury among others. All four linebackers are undoubtedly NFL caliber players. Alabama may also be thin along the offensive line as left guard Ross Pierschbacher suffered a high ankle sprain against the Mississippi State Bulldogs two weeks ago.
History shows Auburn has a great chance to win this game. Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban has never beaten an Auburn team that finished a season nine or more wins. He is actually 0-6 against Auburn teams with such success, dating back to his days at Louisiana State University in the early 2000s. Auburn currently sits at 9-2.
While both teams have the same goal, survive and advance, the pressure is still on Alabama to win. Everyone counted Auburn out in mid-October. After a second loss on the season to LSU on Oct. 14, auburn faithful wanted head coach Gus Malzahn burned at the stake. Local media, national media, fans and boosters all wanted to see Malzahn out the next day. Today, the mood has changed. Malzahn managed to salvage the season and has his team in prime position to do something special. The question is this, will he take advantage of it?
As football is the ultimate team sport it is important to look at all aspects of this game. Let’s break down the most important Iron Bowl in history position by position.
Coaching advantage: Alabama
While Malzahn has done a tremendous job in saving the season and getting his team back on track, let us not forget who is on the other sideline. Nick Saban, whenever he decides to retire, will go down as the greatest coach in college football history. In a day where the parity in the FBS is so great, he has done what no other coach has been able to do. Five national titles, four in the last nine years, 70+ straight wins against un-ranked opponents, and the most wins as the top ranked team in college football history are just the beginning of his long list of accomplishments. So far, all Gus Malzahn has to show on his resume is a miracle-like season in 2013 and three average seasons to follow.
Quarterback advantage: Auburn
Honestly, this is a toss up, but we will lean on the pillars that define your traditional quarterback. Arm strength, accuracy, and pocket presence force you to lean towards Jarrett Stidham. Stidham leads the SEC in completion percentage at 67%, and is third in yards per-game. He has drastically improved in the latter half of the season. Stidham has gotten more comfortable with hip Lindsay’s offense has been the cornerstone of this team since the loss to LSU.
However, this may not be your traditional game, and this has not been the traditional season for Alabama quarterbacks. Jalen Hurts has sparingly played in the second half of many games this season. An important stat to look at is passer rating. Hurts and Stidham have identical passer ratings, sitting right at 161. Intangibles, as much as pure skill, play such a large roll in big games. Intangibles favor Hurts. His ability to make plays out of nothing and move around the pocket leaves defensive coordinators’ playbooks in shambles. Defenses cannot prepare for what happens when a play breaks down, but must weather the storm and avoid letting one off script play lead to more big plays throughout the game.
“I’m very impressed with their quarterback,” said Malzahn. “He can make bad plays really good plays. I don’t think there are very many quarterbacks around the country that can turn bad plays into good plays like him. I don’t know if you can call a bad play with him at quarterback.”
Offensive line advantage: Auburn
After giving up 11 sacks to Clemson the Auburn offensive line looked abysmal, but the Tigers saved the season upfront after shuffling more experienced upper class men into the rotation. Recently the Auburn line has given Stidham time to complete passes down the field, allowing Lindsay to open up the playbook.
This race was close, but the Alabama offensive line without its starting left guard could be in some trouble. J.C. Hassenaeur was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the week for his performance against Mercer, but Mercer is not the Auburn Tigers. Alabama offensive line has given the Tide the number one rushing offense in the conference at 270 ypg, but without Pierschbacher the Tide could be in trouble. Also, the two men on the right side, Matt Womack and Lester Cotton, grade out very poorly in pass protection. Expect them to have trouble with one of the nation’s top pass rushers in Jeffrey Holland.
Running back advantage: Alabama
As previously stated the Tide has the conferences number one rushing attack in spite of a sub-par offensive line. Junior Damien Harris leads the conference in yards per rush with 8.22 yards per carry. That is also good for eighth nationally. The rushing attack for Alabama does not stop there. Alabama’s wealth of riches at the position will be any other running back corp shame. Harris, Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs, Najee Harris, and Brain Robinson may all see the turf in this game. All of these backs, outside of Jacobs were among the top recruits in their respective recruiting classes.
Understandably, an argument could be made for Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson to be the best back in this game. Johnson leads the SEC in rushing touchdowns with 16 and yards with 1,172 but he has done that on 220 attempts. Harris has 11 scores on just 101 carries. Johnson should definitely be on every Heisman voter’s radar, but in this game take Alabama with such a deep rotation at the position.
Wide receiver/ Tight end advantage: Alabama
This one is not close. Alabama’s Calvin Ridley is the best route runner in college football and will be the first receiver selected in the 2018 NFL draft. Jalen Hurts has also shown confidence in other receivers like Cam Sims, Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, and Devonta Smith. Alabama also like to throw it to running backs on swing passes.
Auburn’s go-to man is Ryan Davis. Davis leads the team in yards with 564 and receptions with 58. Darius Slayton and Will Hastings do not see the ball as much, but are always threats to make the big play.
Defensive line advantage: Auburn
Auburn wins this argument 100% of the time. Yes Alabama has a star studded defensive front with Daron Payne, Raekwon Davis, and Isaiah Buggs, but Auburn just looks bigger, faster and stronger along the front line. Alabama runs a 3-4 scheme while Auburn runs a 4-3. Auburn’s front four, led by Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown, and Dontavius Russell, is terrifying. These players’ ability to shuck an offensive lineman and go make plays on the ball is incredible when you watch the film. Although Alabama leads the conference in rushing yards allowed, much of that had to do with its linebacker play before injury. We will discuss that in a minute.
Linebackers advantage: Auburn
If this were week one, Alabama would walk away with the award with no questions asked. When the Tide took the field against Florida State, it had four-to-five guys at this position that were legitimate NFL draft picks. Today, however, it has one left standing. Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis, both dominant pass rushers have not seen a snap since the opener in Atlanta due to a torn bicep and a torn ligament in an elbow. The rumor is one, if not both, could return sometime this season. Against LSU, Alabama lost two more linebackers in Mack Wilson and Shaun Dion Hamilton. Wilson and Hamilton were excellent in pass coverage and dominant alpha-dogs in the run game. Hamilton is out for the season with a knee injury, but Wilson may be ready for Saturday’s game. In the game Saturday, Alabama will be playing with three or four backup linebackers against a team that uses many moving parts. A true freshman in Dylan Moses will anchor the middle of Alabama’s defense while Auburn native Rashaan Evans prowls around the field at inside and outside linebacker.
“Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller are in the functional phase of rehab and are not cleared medically to play. Mack Wilson has not practiced yet and has not been medically cleared to play, so whatever is out there, I’m giving you the facts from here. I’m not saying that those guys are out for the game and I’m not able to say whether they’ll be able to play in the game,” Saban explained.
Not to say Auburn wins this category be default, but they do. Tre Williams will be a little banged up in this game with an arm/shoulder injury. Sources close to the team told SylacaugaNews.com Williams was heavily favoring an arm after the win over Louisiana Monroe. Jeffrey Holland, however, will be the most dominant player on the field every time he steps into a defensive formation. Holland is a right tackle’s worst nightmare, bringing the perfect combination of size, speed, strength and athleticism off the edge. Expect Holland to dominate Alabama’s Matt Womack throughout this game and put a tremendous amount of pressure on Jalen Hurts.
Secondary advantage: Alabama
While both teams have good numbers in passing defense categories, Alabama relies in its cover skills much more than Auburn. Auburn relies on defensive linemen and linebackers to help out its secondary in passing situations. Alabama’s Levi Wallace is one of the nation’s best corners, and Anthony Averett on the other side of the field is not too bad either. Names like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Hrrisson should ring a bell as well. Both will play in the NFL, and both will be relied upon heavily in this game to make up for Alabama’s lack of pass rush.
Auburn does have household names in its secondary. Tre Matthews, Carlton Davis, Stephen Roberts are all respectable players and you will always find them around the ball, but Alabama has the advantage in the secondary.
Special teams advantage: Auburn
This may sound crazy, but placekickers in this game are one in the same. Alabama’s Andy Pappanostas has a better field goal percentage than Auburn’s Daniel Carlson, but if you have watched any important Alabama game in the last decade you know Alabama will come up short somewhere in special teams. On Saturday, it may be in the punt return game.
The Tide’s return game has been a revolving door of bodies. It started with Trevon Diggs, then Henry Ruggs was given an opportunity. On Saturday, Xavian Marks will be the return man, and he has been anything but sure handed this season. The sheer fact that Auburn always seems to play great on special teams, regardless of pressure packed situations, means always has the advantage here.
Who wins: Alabama
This will be an Iron Bowl to remember. It gets no bigger than two teams fighting for the SEC and a spot in the College Football Playoff on a Saturday afternoon in November. We have seen Alabama come up short in a situation just like this in 2013, but this game has a different feel. Many expect Auburn to win this game, and a disrespected Alabama team is something to be scared of.
Stidham and Hurts will both have their hands full at QB, and expect Kerryon Johnson to have a big day on the ground as the feature back for the Tigers. In this game though, expect Hurts’ intangibles to come though in the clutch.
Jordan-Hare Stadium will be the loudest it has been in years, but Hurts never seems to be rattled. We have also never seen Stidham on this stage. Yes, he dominated the Georgia Bulldogs, but Georgia looks weaker and weaker as its marque, Notre Dame, continues to struggle.
All things accounted for, even with injuries all over the field for the Tide, take the 4.5 point favorite Alabama Crimson Tide on the road in an Iron Bowl that will be talked about for decades.
The 2017 edition of the Iron Bowl will kickoff at 2:30 on Saturday, Nov. 28, on your local CBS affiliate.