Following the conclusion of the weekly post-game workout this past Sunday, senior Alabama defensive end Damion Square addressed his fellow teammates in a team meeting and counseled them about the week ahead. His message was simple and succinct: Upsets outside of Tuscaloosa do not change what you must do. Oregon and Kansas State only learned the hard lesson we learned the week before. Forget the distractions. Focus on your job and execute for sixty minutes. Nothing else matters. With a 3-8 Auburn team coming to Tuscaloosa and the attention of many outside the program focusing solely on Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, one can only hope that Square's message resonated with his teammates.
Of course, the trainwreck that has become Auburn football largely speaks for itself. National championship season notwithstanding, Gene Chizik has proven to be every bit as terrible of a head coach as his detractors claimed. In hindsight, the airport heckler was nothing if not a sage. With eight losses on the books, Auburn looks poised to finish with its worst record since the Harry Truman administration, and there is a reasonable, and arguably even highly persuasive, case to be made that this team is the worst Auburn since the arrival of Shug Jordan over sixty years ago. At this late point, Chizik and company are lame ducks, the NCAA is once again investigating the program, and the relative "highlights" of the season include an overtime victory against Louisiana-Monroe and competitive losses against Clemson and LSU.
Offensively, following the departure of Gus Malzahn, Gene Chizik made the executive decision in the offseason to ditch the spread and transition the offense to a pro-style attack, and to that end hired Scott Loeffler. That transition, however, flamed out quickly amid a lack of production, and in the closing stages of the season it is somewhat difficult to pinpoint exactly what the Tigers are if not a melange of concepts. Quarterback play, in particular, has been considered the main culprit, though by no means the sole source of the ineffectiveness. Kiehl Frazier won the starting job at quarterback out of fall camp, but quickly played his way to the bench, only to see back-up Clint Mosely do the same. True freshman Jonathan Wallace, more of an athlete playing the quarterback position, now leads the Tigers, and in doing so becomes the fourth different starting quarterback for Auburn in the past eleven months. Wallace has shown some promise, and certainly can be an effective runner, but in his only real competition to date, against Georgia, he could only dink and dunk in the passing game and could never work free as a rusher, which ended with the Tigers being shut out 38-0.
Regardless of who has been under center, however, the problem areas permeate throughout the remainder of the offense. The offensive line was thought to be a potential weakness coming into the season due to relative youth and inexperience, and those concerns have proven true and have in fact been magnified by injuries and suspensions. Likewise, the hope in the wide receiver corps was that Quan Bray and Trovon Reed would become difference-makers, but both have fizzled and have struggled to make an impact, and while Emory Blake has been very good, his contributions have generally proven far too little given the struggles of the remainder of the passing game. The season-ending hip injury to tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen extinguished one of the few offensive bright spots, and while tailbacks Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason have the ability to be effective, the struggles of the offensive line and the non-existent passing game have all but eliminated their presence against quality defenses.
Meanwhile, the Auburn defense under first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has been better than their offensive counterparts, but not substantially so and in truth have struggled greatly at times in their own right. Defensive end Corey Lemonier can be a superstar, but he has been buried by the struggles elsewhere on the defense, and even in his case his play has often been sloppy and inconsistent. Combined with fellow defensive end Dee Ford, both can rush the passer with great effectiveness, but neither are particularly stout against the run, and the play of the interior linemen simply hasn't lived up to the recruiting hype, which has resulted in a defensive front that consistently gets pushed around by opposing offensive lines in the running game.
Defensive line issues notwithstanding, the biggest issue for Auburn is that the defensive line is arguably the best unit on the entire defense. The linebacker corps features players who are either undersized, lacking athleticism, and in general who simply get lost in the mix. Freshman linebacker Cassanova McKinzey has shown some promise, but he may miss tomorrow with a foot injury, and middle linebacker Jake Holland has a sprained ankle, so injuries are also an issue. The defensive backfield, too, has fought through injuries and in general has struggled against quality passing attacks. Freshman Joshua Holsey starts at cornerback, and opposite him Chris Davis has been battling through a concussion the past few weeks, so fifth-year senior T'Sharvan Bell and Jonathon Mincy will have to play large roles. Finally, safeties Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead have compiled a lot of tackles, but neither have been able to affirmatively make significant plays in pass defense on a consistent basis, and in fact neither have registered an interception on the season.
Meanwhile, Alabama comes in at 10-1, ranked #2 in the nation, and needing only wins against Auburn and Georgia to advance to the BCS National Championship Game. To be sure, 'Bama is not as good this season as it was in either 2011 or 2009, but for the most part the Crimson Tide has been a viable power, with an effective pro-style offense being complemented with a defense that has generally held strong, despite some issues in pass defense in recent weeks. Truth be told, the bigger issue at this point in time for Alabama is injuries, with several players being limited on both sides of the ball, including TJ Yeldon, Kevin Norwood, Amari Cooper, D.J. Fluker, John Fulton, and others all battling through various ailments.
All told, any remotely cogent analysis of tomorrow afternoon's contest reveals a lopsided affair in favor of the Crimson Tide. When making overall unit comparisons, Alabama leads at every unit except for, arguably, special teams. Likewise, when comparing on-field match-ups, again Alabama takes the clear edge everywhere outside of special teams. 'Bama comes in as a 33-point favorite, and that large of a betting line is no major surprise given the foregoing.
Having said that, though, an outright blowout isn't necessarily to be expected, and regardless of the shortcomings of the opposition, Alabama still needs to successfully execute. While Auburn may not have much, rest assured that Alabama will get their best shot of whatever they have, whatever that entails. Auburn does not have the talent to be a high-end team -- given their longstanding attrition and lack of development -- but the talent level is better than the current record indicates, and prior to the horrid start and emotional implosion, this was a team talented enough to win reach seven or eight regular season wins. The notion that the record books should be thrown out in the Iron Bowl runs contrary to the historical record, and if Alabama plays as it should then 'Bama should win with relative ease, but Auburn is unlikely to come into Bryant-Denny Stadium and simply roll over for the Tide.
As has been the constant theme of recent weeks, Alabama must continue to improve, get healthy, and remain focused on the task at hand and not be sidetracked by distractions. The SEC Championship Game against Georgia looms large, but that fight must remain for another day, if that day is to arrive at all. In the interim, 'Bama must take the aforementioned Square's advice, focus on what is before them, and take down Auburn before any attention can turn to Atlanta.
Hope for the best.