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The Iron Bowl Preview

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I know we all just want to sit around and get real fat eating Ben & Jerry's while talking about what Perez Hilton just posted, but alas we do have a football game looming, and with that in mind here goes the Iron Bowl preview:

 

General Overview

To say that the 73rd Iron Bowl is one that no one really expected would be quite an understatement, to put it mildly. Coming into the season, most Alabama fans were merely looking for incremental signs of improvement in Nick Saban's second year at the Capstone, while on the other side of the state many felt that Auburn was poised for a big season. While Alabama was almost unanimously predicted to be third in the SEC West and in the 8-4 / 9-3 range, Auburn was the favorite to win the SEC West, and many people (myself included) felt that they could perhaps even make some noise on the national scene.

Sufficed to say, things haven't quite gone to plan for either team.

Far from incremental improvements, Alabama wasted no time re-exploding onto the national scene in year two of the Saban process, announcing their return immediately with thumpings of Clemson and Georgia.  The returning players improved immensely, the much-ballyhooed recruiting class was every bit as good as advertised, if not better, and it ultimately showed on the field. After a strong season, Alabama now comes into the Iron Bowl in a manner that would have shocked even the most extreme of crimson homers... 11-0, undefeated, the unanimous number one team in the country, champions of the SEC West, and in complete control of a potential national championship destiny.

Auburn, on the other hand, has suffered the exact opposite fate. A couple of early season wins looked good enough, as did the first three quarters of the LSU game, but from there the season has been a complete and utter train wreck. After choking late to the Bayou Bengals, the losses came in bunches... Vandy, Arkansas, West Virginia, Ole Miss, you name it... the Tigers even struggled over lowly Tennessee-Martin. Finally, a close loss to Georgia on the Plains means that Auburn will come into the Iron Bowl with a losing record for the first time in almost ten years. Simply put, anything that could have gone wrong for the Tigers this year has gone wrong.

For Alabama, the stakes are clear. A potential national championship is clearly on the line, but for the players, this game is in many ways about more than just that. Being quite frank, as I have said before, the Auburn game is a bit of a meaningless game for us in the sense that it really should have no impact on our post-season destination... you beat Florida and you go to the national championship game, you lose to Florida and you go to the Sugar Bowl, and both of those scenarios will play out regardless of the outcome of the Iron Bowl. For Alabama, however, the motivation perhaps has more to do with retribution than anything else. Many players on the current team have talked about the November slate being the Revenge Tour, and Auburn is clearly the number one priority on that list. For those that will take the field this Saturday, national championship inspirations will be temporarily sat aside... there's a far more personal stake at hand on this Saturday. This game, more so than anything else, is about redemption for a roster full of players who have yet to experience the thrill of victory over a hated in-state rival, in arguably the nation's greatest football rivalry.

For Auburn, the situation is perhaps a bit more muddled. Clearly they will play hard because of the magnitude of this game, but even a win only brings a December trip to Shreveport, something no football team truly gets excited about. Moreover, aside from having to deal with the obvious possibility of likely losing to Alabama -- something no one on the Auburn roster has ever done before -- a great uncertainty looms regardless of the outcome of the game. Several of Auburn's better players have openly pondered declaring early for the NFL Draft, and of course no one knows what will happen with the new offensive coordinator. Furthermore, with a sound loss to Alabama, even the future of Tommy Tuberville himself is not set in the stone; I don't think his tenure will end with a loss, mind you, but by the same token I don't think I can definitively say that either. Bottom line, for Auburn, no one really knows what Sunday morning will bring.

Alabama Defense v. Auburn Offense

Clearly the biggest struggles for Auburn this season have came on the offensive side of the ball, and with good reason. The offensive guru Tony Franklin was a good football mind, but clearly the rest of the staff never bought into what he was selling, and it was simply an exercise in trying to shove a round peg into a square hole. With Franklin's firing, we have seen somewhat of a new look from the Tigers. Kodi Burns is now the undisputed starting quarterback, and we have seen them work more out of the I-formation and with two-tight end sets as well. In short, being overly generic about it, since the dismissal of Franklin they have largely moved back towards a more traditional Auburn offense.

More traditional, however, is not to say more effective. Even with the revert to the old elements of Auburn football, point production has still been almost non-existent for the Tigers. For whatever reason, it has just been ugly on the Plains, and frankly the offensive production they have had this year in conference play is some of the worst I've ever seen. Just look on a game-by-game basis of their offensive net scoring for their seven SEC games this season:

Mississippi State: 1 (field goal minus a safety)

LSU: 14 (one touchdown came, naturally, via a Jarrett Lee interception)

Tennessee: 7 (one touchdown came via a Volunteer fumble in the end zone)

Vanderbilt: 13

Arkansas: 13 (one touchdown came via a kick return, and another via a safety)

Ole Miss: 7

Georgia: 13

You can crunch the numbers, and you see that Auburn is only averaging about nine net offensive points per game. By comparison, even Shula in his Waterloo of a season in 2006 averaged around fifteen points per game. In other words, if you want to know just how bad the Auburn offense has been this year, if they could have just gotten Shula-esque offensive production, it would have been a vast improvement over what they have had. As an Alabama fan, think about that. It has been that bad.

For all of the talk about schemes, though, the bigger problem that Auburn has is an overall lack of ability. Kodi Burns was a Mr. Everything recruit, but he's clearly a below average passer and a below average decision-maker; only his mobility could truly be considered an asset on the field. Beyond the quarterback position, the talent simply isn't there. None of the wide receivers are particularly good, which is of course compounded by having a poor passer at quarterback, and the offensive line is average even on its best day. The tailbacks are clearly the strength of the offense, but even so players like Ben Tate and Brad Lester, when healthy (which all too often this year they have not been) constitute a steep drop-off from their predecessors, such as Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, and Kenny Irons. The only other true strength on the offensive side of the ball is the tight end position, but that strength is largely mitigated with Tommy Trott tearing his ACL against Georgia.

Bottom line, as much as Auburn people have spent time blaming the Franklin scheme for their offensive debacle, the harsh truth of the matter is that they aren't very talented on that side of the ball, and offensive production isn't going to be very good regardless of what scheme they run and regardless of who happens to be offensive coordinator. If a traditional scheme was really the cure for Auburn's offensive ills, Al Borges would have never been fired in the first place.

On the other hand, however, the Alabama defense has played quite well all season long. We still aren't the elite pass rushing team that Nick Saban wants us to be, but we are clearly moving in the right direction, and in the meantime we have been very stingy. We should finish up second in the SEC in scoring defense, and many of the points that have been scored on us have honestly come in garbage time towards the end of blowouts and thus have been effectively insignificant. The pass defense has been good, the run defense has been very tough, and even the pass rush, in all fairness, has generally been pretty effective. All in all, it's just one of the better defensive units you will find around.

Moreover, Alabama will benefit from the continued return to health of Terrence Cody. Though he returned from the initially gruesome-looking knee injury for the LSU game, Cody clearly wasn't 100%. He did look better against Mississippi State, and even he went on the record saying that the off week helped his knee immensely. He probably won't be truly 100% until the bowl game, or perhaps even the spring, but even so he's getting better and better, and thus the anchor of our defense should be largely back to his old ways for the Iron Bowl.

Putting it all together, the Auburn offense hasn't been able to score many points all year long, and they shouldn't be able to score many points on Saturday either. Our defensive front seven, especially with Terrence Cody's health improving, should be able to shut down the Auburn running game, and you have to like our chances of forcing Kodi Burns to be able to move the offense by throwing the football. The standard caveat that anything can happen certainly applies, but Auburn hasn't scored more than 14 net offensive points all year long in conference play, and to be quite frank there is no objective reason to think that will change on Saturday.

Alabama Offense v. Auburn Defense

For all of the struggles that Auburn has experienced on the offensive side of the ball, the defense has remained relatively stout. The unit may very well not have performed like many thought it would at the beginning of the season, but it has certainly played well enough for Auburn to win most of the year.

Coming into the season, most thought that the defensive front seven would be a major strength, but the defensive backfield would be a problem because of injuries. As is usually the case, however, it hasn't quite worked out that way. The secondary has actually played pretty well, but honestly the defensive line has disappointed a bit. They haven't been able to rush the passer like most expected that they would, nor have they been as impressive against the run. Sen'Derrick Marks and Antonio Coleman have played well, but to reiterate the theme of this section, perhaps not as well as many had hoped.

Nevertheless, Auburn has been stingy on the defensive side of the ball, and are still one of the better defensive units in the nation. The biggest problem for the Tigers defensively has not been so much of their own doing, but that they spend an absurd amount of time on the field because of an incompetent offense, and furthermore because of the incompetent offense they must be thoroughly excellent through all sixty minutes of the game for the Tigers to get the victory. To their credit, they have done that at times this year -- frankly, the defense is the sole reason as to why they won the Mississippi State game, and furthermore they are the only thing keeping this Auburn team from getting blown out with consistency -- but that's just such a hard standard to meet week in and week out against the conference's best teams, and predictably they have always came out on the losing end this season when they have faced those teams.

Alabama, on the other hand, continuing the entire theme of the season, has seen an offensive outburst that has surpassed anything we've seen in ages. Coming into the Iron Bowl, we're averaging over 31 points per game in conference play, which ties with the Homer Smith-led 1989 Alabama offense for the most prolific point production the Tide has posted in the post-Bryant era.

With the Tide, we're a very well-known commodity on the offensive side of the ball, and quite frankly we're not going to surprise anyone. Everyone who has followed us even from the fan's perspective knows exactly what we like to do... dominate and control the game at the line of scrimmage with the rushing attack, and then occasionally hit the tight ends and Julio Jones down field with an efficient passing attack. We don't have a true difference-maker at the quarterback position, and we really only have one proven wide receiver. And we don't do trick plays, we don't run the spread, we don't throw the ball all over the field, we don't give you an option look, we don't run the Wildcat, etc. Simply put, we're just going to line up in traditional formations and try to shove it right down your throats, and we're going to bet that our eleven can outperform your eleven. We know that you know what we're going to do, but we don't think you can stop it anyway. That's the 2008 version of Alabama football.

All in all, when you put the two units together it should make for some very good football. The Auburn defense is a good unit, and the same thing goes for the Crimson Tide offense. I do imagine we'll score our fair share of points, but you can probably rest assured that Auburn won't make it easy on us. We'll have to earn every point we can get the hard way, and make no mistake about it, this unit will most be a very close match for our physical style of play. If there is one thing you can say for Tommy Tuberville's Auburn defenses, it's that they have never been one to shy away from good ol' fashioned smash mouth football.

 

Putting It All Together

When you put it all together, it's clear who should be the winner of this game, and that's Alabama. Putting personal feelings aside, Alabama is a national championship contender, Auburn likely won't even make a bowl game in an era where missing a bowl game is almost a theoretical impossibility, and the game is being played in Tuscaloosa. Moreover, Auburn has a lot of players banged up, and one of their few offensive weapons (Tommy Trott) will miss the game. Alabama, on the other hand, has continued it's run of good injury luck, and no one should miss the Iron Bowl (or even be significantly limited, thanks to good health reports on Roy Upchurch, Earl Alexander, and Terrence Cody). Objectively speaking, there is simply no debate about the matter, Alabama should win with relative ease.

Of course, though, it's almost certainly not going to be that easy. The Iron Bowl is probably, year in and year out, the most physical game you will see played in all of college football, and players on both sides always play every snap like it is their last. Even when there is a huge disparity between the two teams, the games are still generally closely played and heavily contested.  In 1992, for example, Alabama was on its way to a national title, while Auburn ultimately didn't even make a bowl game, but nevertheless early in the third quarter the game was still tied 0-0 with Auburn driving into Alabama territory. On the other hand, in 2004 an undefeated Auburn team came into Tuscaloosa to play an ultimately 6-6 Alabama team -- complete with a third-string quarterback (Pennington), a fifth-string tailback (Johns), a back-up fullback (McClain), and true freshmen wide receivers and tight ends (Hall, Brown, and Davidson) -- yet nevertheless Alabama carried a 6-0 lead into the third quarter.

The moral of the story is that though the best team usually wins this game, the margin is almost always a close one. In all honesty, there hasn't been an Iron Bowl where one team ran away with it from the start since Bear Bryant Alabama in the mid-1970's, and honestly that is probably not going to change this year. Auburn will play with a lot of heart, and a good defense should keep the game very close for a while.

For Alabama, though, the real trick is to simply not beat ourselves. You know I always like to make the fundamental point that points win games, and with that in mind the Auburn offense -- barring a massive, unforeseen surge in production -- should not be able to score very many points against the Tide. As a result, all we really need is limited offensive production, and then to protect the football and cover in the kicking game. As long as we can avoid giving Auburn those cheap points with turnovers and breakdowns in special teams, then they really shouldn't be able to score very my points. If we can force them to go 60+ yards to get the football in the end zone, given Auburn's offensive incompetence, that's a winning strategy every time for the Tide.

Simply put, with all due respect to our in-state rivals, I just do not believe that Auburn can beat us... they can certainly walk away with the victory, to be sure, but they need us to beat ourselves. They need us to create them a path to victory. This is not a situation like what we had in losses such as 2005, 2002, 1989, or even 1972 (the infamous Punt 'Bama Punt game), which were all situations where Auburn fielded fine teams in their own right (those four teams have a combined record of 38-10). This is a very poor Auburn team, and one that frankly shouldn't be good enough to get the job done in their own right. They, quite frankly, need us to hand them the game on a silver platter for them to seize victory.

Bottom line, we just need to come out and play good, hard, smart football. We need to protect the ball and not give up big plays on special teams. We probably won't be able to score a lot of points on Auburn thanks to their sound defensive unit, but with the incompetence of their offense (mixed with the quality of our own defense), it shouldn't take very many points to win this one. All in all, it will likely be a close, hard-fought game, but nevertheless, objectively speaking, the Tide is clearly the better team and should thus finally end the hated streak.

Nevertheless, anything can happen in this game, never forget that. No Iron Bowl in my lifetime has ever came easy, regardless of who ultimately ended up on top, and I highly doubt this one proves any different.

Hope for the best.

ed. by todd - OTS has said pretty much everything i was going to say, but i did work up this fancy chart comparing the teams in the major statistical categories (league and national rankings wise, anyway) and it would be a shame for it to go to waste, so i'm just going to add it in here.

Rush Offense
Pass Offense
Total Offense
 Scoring Offense
2 (23)
10 (100)
6 (58)
2 (30)
6 (64)
9 (98)
8 (98)
10 (107)
333_medium
2_medium
333_medium
333_medium
Rush Defense
Pass Defense
Total Defense
Scoring Defense
1 (3)
7 (27)
1 (3)
2 (6)
8 (45)
6 (26)
6 (24)
3 (10)
333_medium
2_medium
333_medium
333_medium

 

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