Kevin C. Cox
Alabama embarrasses Auburn in a lopsided blowout for the ages to win the SEC West for the third time in five years, but the real test awaits in six days in Atlanta.
A few initial impressions from the early aftermath of Alabama's 49-0 win over Auburn:
Make no mistake, the postmortem analysis of this beatdown is every bit as grisly as the scoreboard indicated. Yesterday constituted the largest margin of victory and most points scored in this series since 1948, and the on-field comparison only revealed what has been readily apparent the past several months: Recent national championship notwithstanding, the gap between Alabama and Auburn is perhaps the greatest it has ever been in the modern history of the rivalry. To be sure, Auburn has a decent level of talent, so that gap can (and may) close relatively quickly, but even so it will take some time and it will almost certainly be under new leadership on the Plains. Auburn was just thoroughly dismantled in every phase of the game yesterday, and arguably even Florida Atlantic and Western Carolina put up tougher fights. Frankly, the final was 49-0 only because that happened to be the particular outcome that Alabama chose; the Tide could have effectively named the score yesterday.
Offensively, the Auburn defense could never muster a challenge until the 'Bama back-ups made their way to the field, with the Alabama offense scoring a touchdown on each of its first seven possessions before the Tigers finally got a stop via a fumble recovery with under two minutes remaining in the third quarter. Alabama had a nice mix of the run and the pass, and in general moved the ball with ease regardless of what it chose to do. For much of the time the first-team offense was in the game, there was a relative lack of explosive plays, but Alabama avoided the negative plays and when push came to shove on third down the Auburn defense simply could not get off the field, as Alabama somehow converted on its first 11 third down opportunities.
Defensively, the overall outcome was as hoped for and in general the performance along the way was good. Auburn not only never scored but in fact never even threatened to do so, going three-and-out on five of its ten full possessions. On the whole, Auburn mustered only seven first downs and 163 yards of total offense on 47 plays, while turning the football over three times. Auburn has suffered badly from an anemic offense all season long, and yesterday afternoon Alabama largely did to them, albeit to a slightly greater degree, just about what everyone else has done to them in the eleven games prior to the Iron Bowl.
Having said that, however, unfortunately the Alabama pass defense remains a legitimate concern and can arguably even be considered a weakness at this point in time. The final stat line for Jonathan Wallace, who went 5-14 for 72 yards with two interceptions, purports to indicate a dominant performance on behalf of the Tide, but the game film tells another story. 'Bama allowed two big completions right down the middle of the field in the early stages, and after the game Nick Saban was clear that both were the result of execution deficiencies and not blown assignments or poor play calls. More concerning, though, was that on several other passing attempts, it was the incompetence of the anemic Auburn passing game that led to incompletions, and the opportunities for passing game success was certainly there. For example, on the interception by Robert Lester, Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah was wide open down the seam for what should have been an easy throw, but a pass that sailed high resulted in an easy interception for Lester instead of a big play for the Tigers. Likewise, Wallace failed to see a wide open Emory Blake streaking deep on what would have been an open touchdown pass, and instead sailed a ball high over the head of Trovon Reed, which extinguished Auburn's only real scoring threat. In the same vein, an easy third down conversion pass resulted in a punt when Wallace bounced an open throw in the flats to a wide open Quan Bray.
For the most part, nothing is working particularly well for the Alabama pass defense at this juncture of the season. The front four has been unable to generate much of a consistent pass rush in their own right, and when 'Bama has gone to the blitz the pressure has largely been untimely and ineffective. With the pass rush therefore stymied, the Alabama defensive backs have been forced to cover in space on the back end, and it simply has not been able to do so with any real degree of consistency. Combined, the end result has all too often been quarterbacks with time to deliver the football to open receivers, and unless Nick Saban and company can find a last-second answer very quickly, Aaron Murray will do to the Alabama defense what Zach Mettenberger and Johnny Manziel did. Rest assured, Murray won't leave on the table in Atlanta the numerous opportunities that Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier did yesterday.
Concerns over the Alabama pass defense notwithstanding, for Auburn yesterday was nothing short of an absolute disaster in every phase of the game. Even on special teams, where the Tigers arguably held a slim advantage in the overall match-up, Auburn stumbled badly. Punter Steven Clark averaged only 34 yards per punt with multiple shanks, and even with eight kickoff return opportunities, the longest return on the afternoon for the Tigers was a meager 25 yards. Alabama punter Cody Mandell only went on the field twice, but on his two punts he netted almost 49 yards per boot, and Auburn did not generate a single return yard. Not that it would have made a difference had it gone the other way, but the special teams struggles only underscores how disastrous of a performance it was for the Tigers.
The only dark spot on an otherwise bright and glorious afternoon for the Crimson Tide was the injury suffered by wide receiver Kenny Bell, who broke his left tibia after being rolled up on a long run by T.J. Yeldon. Bell will require surgery and the insertion of hardware to stabilize the fracture and aid in the re-growth of the bone, and Nick Saban indicated in his postgame press conference that it would be "five or six weeks" before Bell could begin running again, so the injury is all but certainly season-ending for the Louisiana native. The loss of Bell, who was the Tide's second leading receiver on the season and its best deep threat, will not be without a negative impact, but in any event Marvin Shinn and, in particular, Cyrus Jones will have to shoulder meaningful roles in Atlanta and in the bowl game to compensate for his absence. Hate it most for Bell, who by all accounts is a fine teammate and one of the better players on the roster.
In other quick hitters, Jeoffrey Pagan looks better and better with each passing week. Great performance from the starting offensive line, though the struggles of the second team unit is a bit of a worry with 'Bama looking to replace three starters next season. Geno Smith was the third cornerback yesterday, and not John Fulton, who has been battling through turf toe. Brian Vogler has seen his playing time increase in recent weeks. Nick Perry was back in the starting lineup yesterday, and was on the field the majority of the game. Given the punt return miscues in recent weeks, no great surprise that every punt yesterday was either downed or caught via fair catch. Not sure why Kenyan Drake decided to opt for multiple stutter-steps in the open field when he could have likely outran the Auburn safeties for a touchdown. Back-up nose guard Brandon Ivory twisted an ankle late in the game, but the injury is not thought to be serious. Auburn couldn't muster a single point, but nevertheless found their way to three personal foul penalties with a number of illegal hits. Tip of the hat to Tre Mason for going over 1,000 yards on the season -- no small feat on a 3-9 team. Auburn never advanced beyond the Alabama 41-yard line yesterday afternoon. Yesterday marked the 14th time in series history that Alabama pitched the shutout against Auburn. With the win in the Iron Bowl, Alabama earns 11 regular season wins for the fourth time in the past five years.
On the whole, just a glorious day to be a supporter and follower of the Crimson Tide. No matter which school or franchise an individual swears allegiance to, it's only on the rarest of occasions that he gets to enjoy such a lopsided beatdown of its biggest rival on par with what Alabama did to Auburn yesterday afternoon. On such an occasion, the best advice is perhaps to sit back and soak it all in, because it's unlikely any of us will see something like this again.
In closing, however, understand that the above adulation should be appropriately tempered in the harsh light of sobriety by the following: Auburn, in its present form, is not the measuring stick for Alabama. Stated differently; Alabama is a national power; Auburn is a trainwreck of a program, dredging along at a historical depth, which in the coming weeks will likely experience a complete revamp of the athletic department in anticipation of an extensive rebuilding effort. As such, beating up on a bumbling rival is certainly invigorating, but the goal for Alabama is not so much to embarrass a rival (wonderful as though that may be), but to instead defend a national championship. To that end, the measuring stick is not Auburn in late November, but instead Georgia in the SEC Championship Game, where the winner will meet Notre Dame in a monumental clash in the BCS National Championship Game, while the loser will be unceremoniously exiled to not-so-lovely-early-January Orlando to face an also-ran from the under-performing Big Ten in an afterthought game with all of the excitement and importance of a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Can this Alabama team defend its crown, or will it go the way of the 2010 squad? We'll find out in Atlanta in six days.