Alabama once again makes the road trip to the Plains tomorrow afternoon with BCS Championship hopes firmly on the line, potential Heisman Trophy candidate leading the way at tailback, and as a heavy favorite to take on what appears to a greatly overmatched Auburn team looking for any way to pull off the upset. Sound familiar?
Fortunately for 'Bama, this Auburn squad may not be as good as the 2009 version and the Tide is not hindered this time around by the short week for preparation. Gus Malzahn somewhat took the league by storm two years ago with all of his moving parts, but in year three opposing defenses have seemingly figured things out to a degree. To be certain, there are a handful of standout players at the skill positions -- Michael Dyer, Onterio McCalebb, Emory Blake, Phillip Lutzenkirchen, etc. -- but ineffectiveness at quarterback and weakness on the offensive line have ground this offense to a virtual halt against the better competition. The Ted Roof defense has inexplicably resembled a swinging gate yet again, and an offseason coaching change looks likely. With blowout losses in recent weeks to LSU and Georgia, 'Bama will unload off the bus tomorrow afternoon as a 21-point favorite, an almost unheard of line for an Iron Bowl.
Having said that, though, a word of caution: Alabama has not exactly played like the 1972 Dolphins in recent weeks, and in fact post-LSU performances against Mississippi State and Georgia Southern have been relatively middling. While 'Bama has returned to national championship contention during that time, that has far more to do with outside chaos than anything that the Crimson Tide has done on the gridiron, and injuries have clearly slowed this team in recent weeks, with as many as six meaningful contributors missing significant time, so while Alabama is clearly the better team, Auburn is clearly the healthier team.
Furthermore, a bit of a harsh reality for those who bleed crimson and white: For all of the negative things that can be said about Auburn, 'Bama has not played well against this team the past two years. Ted Roof's defense may be a running joke, but it has largely stopped the Alabama running game the past two years and the 'Bama passing game has been rendered inconsistent. On the opposite side of the football, Gus Malzahn has had more success against the Nick Saban defense than any other coordinator in the conference.
I say all of that to say this: This game is not an afterthought and it should not be treated as such. Auburn is overmatched, but no pre-emptive forfeit is coming and to the contrary they will fight with everything they have until the final second. The Iron Bowl is routinely the most intense, physical game in the country, and victory in this contest rarely comes easy for either team. While true upsets tend to be quite rare and on the whole the better team tends to win the overwhelming majority of the time, this is a rivalry with a long history of nailbiters in games that should otherwise be glorified formalities. Expecting Alabama to show up and easily stamp its ticket to New Orleans tomorrow afternoon is probably more wishful thinking than anything else.
Trent Richardson figures to be the key for the Alabama offensive attack, and just like two years ago Auburn will do everything they can to stop him. While it's a soft defense up the middle that has struggled to stop the run this season, expect them to bring heavy fronts and do all they can to stop the run with stunts, run blitzes, and raw numbers, rolling the dice that Alabama cannot make them pay on the back end. That strategy worked two years ago on Mark Ingram, and it could work against tomorrow on Trent Richardson. Rest assured, nothing will be given to Richardson, and if the struggles of the Alabama passing game continue he'll have to fight for every inch.
The biggest weakness of this Auburn defense is clearly in the defensive backfield, which was only further compounded in recent weeks by a season-ending knee injury suffered by T'Sharvan Bell. Unfortunately, though, the Alabama wide receiver corps is also weak and in general the passing game has proven to be ineffective several times this season, so can a weak Alabama receiver corps take advantage of a weak Auburn secondary, or will weakness merely cancel out weakness in a display of bad football? If 'Bama cannot find some success in the passing game, Richardson could easily be limited and the 'Bama offense, for all of the struggles of the Auburn defense, could once again sputter and the Tide could find itself forced to win an ugly, low scoring game. As has been written many times in this space in recent weeks, for Alabama to legitimately win a national championship -- as opposed to merely getting back in contention for one due to all hell breaking loose outside of Tuscaloosa -- at some point 'Bama must find some semblance of an effective passing game, and the road trip tomorrow to Auburn is as good of an opportunity as any to rectify all of the problems in the passing game.
Defensively, the Alabama defense has been nothing short of suffocating, and now looks to rebound after arguably its worst performance of the year against the Georgia Southern triple-option. The experience last weekend against the Eagles figures to come in useful tomorrow against the Tigers and all of the moving parts of the Gus Malzahn offense, but clearly Auburn will have much greater talent for which to execute with and accordingly this is a different game all together. The defensive line was decimated by attrition last week -- Josh Chapman, Jesse Williams, and Nick Gentry were all notably absent -- and they will need to return to form again this weekend. The Auburn offensive line has struggled all season, and the hope is that 'Bama can circumvent the intricacies of the Malzahn attack by simply dominating them at the line of scrimmage.
The biggest key for Alabama defensively, though, will be preventing the cheap points. The Auburn offense is not routinely effective such that they can consistently move the ball down the field on long drives to score points, but Malzahn's trickeration and misdirection often eliminates that as a concern. Two years ago the Alabama defense generally held strong, but a couple of key mistakes led to two easy Auburn touchdowns, and at day's end Auburn had 21 points on the scoreboard despite something of a struggling effort. That could easily happen again tomorrow, and with the concerns over the Crimson Tide offense, that is something the 'Bama defense must prevent. Big plays must be treated like anathema. The 'Bama defense must avoid the mental errors and force Auburn to march down the field slowly and methodically to earn points.
All in all, while a blowout would certainly be welcomed, expecting such in a rivalry like this generally leads to disappointment, and while 'Bama looks to be the better team there are still a plethora of concerns for the Tide on the eve of the Iron Bowl. The obvious hope is for a repeat of 2008 tomorrow afternoon, but most should be prepared for the possibility of something more closely resembling 2009.
And finally, with respect to the BCS, this is the final chance that Alabama has to state its case for the human voters, and after the clock reads 00:00 in Jordan-Hare Stadium, for better or for worse a helpless feeling will permeate throughout the entire Alabama nation. The laughable weakness for Stanford and Virginia Tech in the computer pulls renders them largely harmless to the Tide, but the strength of Oklahoma State in the computer polls means that the Pokes can pass Alabama in the BCS while remaining behind the Crimson Tide in both human polls. In fact, Oklahoma State only needs to poach about 25% of the human vote to pass the Tide in the overall BCS rankings, so in its final opportunity 'Bama needs to uniquivocally state its case tomorrow afternoon that, regardless of what happens next weekend in Stillwater, the Tide deserves a berth in the BCS Championship Game, effectively forcing the hand of even the most fervent anti-rematch proponents. Make no mistake about it, by winning the battle ugly tomorrow afternoon on the Plains, in the process 'Bama could very well lose the war.
Hope for the best.