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The Auburn Preview

General Overview

I suppose not really needs to be said regarding this rivalry. It's the Iron Bowl. End of story, no further explanation needed. Both teams desperately want to win if but for nothing more than, let's just be honest here, they hate each other.

Intense rivalry aside, however, this game is very important for both teams for a variety of reasons.

Alabama has hit a major slide late in the season. Just like in 2004 and 2006, Alabama reached six wins early in 2007 with no major trouble before proceeding to fall apart down the stretch. The Crimson Tide comes into the Iron Bowl at a mere 6-5, losers of three straight games. After the annihilation of Tennessee, a trip to the Cotton Bowl seemed to be very probable, but at this point the Tide is not even guaranteed a bowl trip in general. Though bowl eligible, that does not mean you will actually get to a bowl considering the high number of bowl eligible teams in the SEC this year, and let's be quite frank, no one wants to go back to Shreveport. Then there is the whole five-game losing streak to Auburn, and no one wants to end the regular season with four straight losses. With a win Alabama not only gets bragging rights, but also secures a decent bowl game and hopefully builds momentum for the 2008 season. And I don't think I need to expound upon exactly what a loss would mean.

Auburn, too, has struggled. After running the Pythagorean projections for 2006, I stated back in July that this upcoming year would be the worst season for the Plainsmen since 2003, and that has since came to fruition. The Tigers have had a respectable year, but it has been far from one to remember, and they are now 7-4 after an embarrassing blowout loss in Athens. Alabama is only going to get stronger in the future, so Auburn needs to get their shots in now while they can. For better or for worse for the Tigers, a loss at home to Alabama in Saban's first year will raise serious question marks for Tuberville about his ability to compete with the Nicktator. And then there are all of the coaching carousel rumors. Winning here won't make that go away of course, but winning can help cure all problems to a degree.

Bottom line, both teams have a lot to play for in this one. Plus, you know, they hate each other.

Alabama Offense v. Auburn Defense

Defensively, Auburn is a good football team all the way around. I'm not sure this unit is as good as some of the ones the Tigers have had in the past several years under Tuberville, but it's still quite good in its own right. All in all, it's a well-coached unit that has a good deal of talent to boot. They've struggled at times this year, but honestly they've played pretty well all year long, and they have really been the key that has prevented an implosion on the Plains this season.

All in all, these guys are just a good unit defensively. The defensive line is good, and the same goes for the linebacker corps, so it's tough to run the football effectively. The secondary, too, is pretty good and it makes it tough to throw the football down the field. There is no question about it, the Alabama offense has its work cut out for them.

Offensively, the Crimson Tide has struggled greatly as of late. John Parker Wilson had a terrible day against LSU, a horrific day against Mississippi State, and then a decent day against a terrible Louisiana-Monroe defense. His struggles in effectively throwing and protecting the football have been well documented -- Wilson is 91st in the country in passer rating, and has had countless costly turnovers this season -- and unfortunately that is unlikely to change at this point in the season. The receiving corps, on paper, is very talented, but production has not been what it needs to be. D.J. Hall generally plays very well when he can actually get on the field, i.e. when he's not suspended, but opposing teams have come to realize that they must take him away. They've done that the past few weeks, and we haven't been able to have a second receiving option to step up. Keith Brown is entirely too inconsistent, though very talented, and Nikita Stover has been a major disappointment this year. Matt Caddell has finally turned the corner and played productive football, but he hasn't exactly set the world on fire.

The running game has honestly been even worse as of late. It looked good against Tennessee, but we've really struggled to run the football the past three weeks. The offensive line hasn't played well at all, and the running backs are nothing particularly special. Fortunately, however, we get three suspended players back this week, and that should help things. Marlon Davis and Antoine Caldwell are likely to start at right guard and right tackle, and that will help solidify the side of the line where most of the struggles have originated. The return of Glen Coffee, too, will help things, as his return will give us an inside presence, hopefully allowing us to run the football successfully between the tackles. Moreover, Auburn has struggled to rush the passer this season -- I know, surprising -- as the Tigers are tied for 90th in the country in sacks. After the previous two Iron Bowls, that should make Alabama fans feel a bit better.

No one should be fooled at difficulty of the situation, however. The offense will likely play better this weekend against the Tigers than it has in the past few weeks, but Auburn has a very good defense and they don't allow very many points. As is per usual with the Alabama offense, the potential is there but nevertheless it seems unlikely that we put a lot of points on the board. The Auburn defense is stout, and given Auburn's fine punter Ryan Shoemaker and the likely absence of Javier Arenas due to a high ankle sprain, the Tide is likely going to have to march very long distances to score points unless our defense gets some turnovers deep in Auburn territory.

Make no mistake, the Alabama offense will have to play extremely well to get a significant number of points on the board.

Alabama Defense v. Auburn Offense

The Auburn offense is in reality very similar to the Alabama offense, and it too has struggled greatly at times this season. The Tigers currently sit ninth in the SEC in scoring offense, and that's not counting that the Auburn defense has either directly or indirectly put a lot of points on the board in their own right.

In terms of the passing game, Auburn simply doesn't have much of one. Brandon Cox is a senior, but he has struggled greatly this season. He's not mobile, and he struggles to stretch the field vertically. Moreover, he has struggled under pressure this season, and has turned the ball over even more frequently than Wilson. About the only thing that Cox has going is that he is generally accurate when he is throwing the short and intermediate routes. Moreover, the Auburn receiving corps is nothing particularly special. Rodgerigus Smith is easily the team's best receiver, but his statistics are far from gaudy and he's had a lot of games this season in which he has been a complete non-factor. Montez Billings and Robert Dunn are generally the team's next two receivers, but honestly the bulk of the Auburn passing attack goes through Smith and then the backs and tight ends. Beyond that, Auburn has struggled greatly to protect the passer this season. Despite only 291 pass attempts on the season, Auburn has allowed 22 sacks, and in a few months when I run the numbers on adjusted sack rates, the Tigers are almost certain to be near the bottom of the conference in that category.

The running game, of course, is the key for the Tigers, and it too has struggled in 2007. Brad Lester and Ben Tate are pretty decent tailbacks, but honestly they are playing nowhere near the level that we saw out of Kenny Irons when he was healthy, and certainly not near what we saw from Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, or even Rudi Johnson for that matter. The running game certainly improved when Lester returned mid-season from his academic-related suspension, but it really never took of like many expected. Last week's game against Georgia showcased Auburn's struggles to run the football as the Tigers gained only 83 yards off of 35 attempts.

All in all, the Auburn offense just isn't much. It turns the ball over a good bit, the passing game is bad and the running game has been so-so at best. It has not been the type of year that the Tiger faithful hoped for on the offensive side of the ball.

The Alabama defense, on the other hand, despite being the major concern coming into the season, has played good football particularly down the stretch. The Tide shut down an explosive Tennessee attack, played well against LSU, shut down Mississippi State, and looked good again when ULM came to town. The unit is not filled with particularly good players for the most part, but nevertheless they have played well.

The run defense for the Crimson Tide has been particularly impressive. Darren McFadden and company had a big night when they came to Tuscaloosa, but nearly everyone else has been held at bay. We slowed UGA's Knowshon Moreno, held Florida State's Antone Smith to 15 yards, and held both LSU and Mississippi State's power running games to well under three yards per carry. Even Calvin Dawson of ULM, a back who has ran over everyone and who will play on Sunday one day, was held to well under three yards per carry and had a long carry of a mere 15 yards. The secret to the Tide's run defense is largely solid defensive line play mixed with a very big linebacker corps. The smallest linebacker we have, Zeke Knight, weighs in at around 240 pounds, and when you have that much size in the front seven it makes it very difficult for the opposing running game.

The Alabama pass defense hasn't been quite as good as the run defense, but it has been been pretty good for most of the season. At the moment the Tide is sixth in the conference in passer efficiency defense, and that about sums up the Tide. It's not a great team in terms of pass coverage, but it's certainly not a bad one either. Good quarterbacks can certainly take advantage of the Tide, but you have to like the match-up between a bad Auburn passing attack and a pretty good Alabama pass defense. Logic dictates that bodes well for us.

All in all, you have to feel pretty good about our chances against the Auburn offense. They don't throw the ball well at all, and we have a pretty good pass defense. They can run it fairly well, but our run defense has been good, and has limited rushing attacks better than what we'll face this Saturday.

Just like with the Alabama offense, it seems that the Auburn offense will have a tough time putting a significant amount of points on the scoreboard.

Putting It All Together

When you put it all together, both teams are actually quite similar. The overall records are roughly the same, both come into the game on the heels of disastrous losses, and neither team is playing particularly well. Moreover, both offenses have struggled in terms of point production and protecting the football, both defenses have played well, and both special teams units have been solid. Considering how similar both teams are, objectively speaking we should all expect a close game. Moreover, it figures to be a low scoring game. Both teams are likely going to have very difficult times moving the football down the field, and that will likely result in a low scoring game.

And apparently I'm not the only one who feels that the game will be close and low scoring. According to the odds-makers, Auburn is a mere six-point favorite, and the over / under on the game (45 points) is tied for the lowest over / under of any game on the slate this week. Moreover, the fact that the game is likely be played either in the rain or on a very wet and sloppy field only likely means it will be that much more of a low-scoring game.

So how will it play out and who will win? Well, if I knew the latter I'd be headed to Vegas right now, but I think we can objectively get a good grasp on the former. I imagine that the game will be very close and low scoring, and at the end of the day it will come down to which offense can best muster a bit of point production and which team can protect the football the best. Protecting the football, in all likelihood, will be key in this one, and it will be a very difficult thing to do considering both team's propensity to shoot themselves in the foot and the bad playing conditions.

To wrap it up, it's going to be a close, low-scoring game, and the winner is almost certainly going to be the team that finds a way to not beat themselves.

Hope for the best.