No fancy introductions needed this week, you know exactly what this game is all about. Alabama comes in at 11-0 with their sights on a national championship, while 7-4 Auburn has proven to be a pleasant surprise in the debut campaign of Gene Chizik. Nothing more really needs to be said, so let's just straight into the match-ups.
Alabama Offense v. Auburn Defense
When the Alabama offense takes the field in Jordan-Hare Stadium, it will have the luxury of facing probably the worst defense it has faced all season in conference play. Auburn ranks dead last in the SEC in scoring defense, and even though they still have two games remaining, they have already allowed more points this year than any other defense in the history of Auburn football. First year defensive coordinator Ted Roof has probably done as well as reasonably could be expected with the group he inherited, but the issues for this defense run deep in terms of both top-end talent and quality depth. Specifically, there is almost no top-end talent on this unit, and absolutely no depth whatsoever. You do the math. The end result has been about what you would expect given those two harsh realities.
At the point of attack, Auburn's defensive line is led by senior Antonio Coleman, arguably one of the most underrated players in the conference. Coleman is great off the edge -- see the 7.5 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss -- and he will play on Sunday. Opposite Coleman you generally find a rotation between Antonio Carter and Michael Goggans. Carter is good off the edge, but struggles against the run have kept him from being a full-time starter, and while Goggans is bigger than Carter and brings a better force against the run, Auburn loses some of its pass rushing ability off the edge with him in the game. Coleman is the clear breadwinner here, and he's the one that makes the unit go. Thanks to his efforts, Auburn is fairly respectable seventh in the conference in sacks, which is about as good as they are in any defensive metric. It's not a great pass rush by any stretch, but it's at least respectable.
The real issue for Auburn is an inability to stop the run, and a lot of that is the result of a lack of run-stuffers on the defensive line. Coleman isn't particularly good against the run, and the same goes for Antonio Carter. Playing inside they have Mike Blanc and Jake Ricks, and while they are decent players, both are a bit undersized and they tend to get swallowed up by good offensive lines. And when you mix that with the fact that there is no quality depth on the line, it just gets ugly in the running game. Auburn is 88th in the country in run defense, and it's not hard to see why.
The real train wreck of the Auburn defense, however, is at linebacker, where everything that could have gone wrong for the Tigers has gone wrong. They came into the year with no depth at the position, and it hasn't gotten any easier since. Josh Bynes is the leader of this group, and while he's an outstanding physical specimen, he has struggled this year with injuries and adjusting to a new scheme. He hasn't made the plays behind the line like he did a year ago, and even though he has still been the strength of the linebacker corps, he has been a disappointment this year. Meanwhile, Eltoro Freeman was a five-star JUCO recruit that Auburn was hoping to be an instant impact player, but he has really struggled this year and only has a couple of good games to date. At any rate, he's not likely to play in this game after suffering a concussion and a leg injury against Georgia. Craig Stevens has quietly had a solid year, but he effectively rounds out the depth chart. Aside from him, all you have left is Jonathon Evans... he backs up all three position, but he's really undersized and probably only an average player even on his best day. After Evans, it's nothing but the walk-ons.
The train wreck doesn't look to fix itself by Saturday, either. Again, Freeman is seemingly unlikely to play against the Tide, and with him out Bynes will likely have to move over to middle linebacker. With him there, Stevens and Evans will get the start opposite him, and either they will literally play every snap or Auburn will be forced to give walk-ons some meaningful playing time.
The situation in the defensive backfield really isn't a lot better. Cornerback Aairon Savage suffered a season-ending injury prior to the opener and Harry Adams was kicked off the team in late October. The attrition has left Auburn only three cornerbacks on scholarship. With that in mind, Walt McFadden and Neiko Thorpe will get the start for Auburn, and D'Antoine Hood will see a good bit of time too. McFadden is a pretty good player in his own right, and while Thorpe has shown some good things, he's still a young guy who has made a lot of mistakes as well.
At safety, things really aren't much better. Mike McNeil looked to be a star this year but he hasn't played a snap in 2009 thanks to a broken leg suffered this Spring, and starting opposite McNeil was Zac Ethridge. Unfortunately, though, Ethridge suffered a season-ending neck injury against Ole Miss, and that has forced Auburn to search the bench looking for starters. Demond Washington and Darren Bates, both first-year players, will start at safety thanks to the attrition, and while both have shown some good things at times, they have also had their rough spots as well.
All in all, this is just a bad unit. They rush the passer relatively well, but they cannot stop the run and they have no depth whatsoever. The depth situation is so bad that the likes of Ball State and Furman put up 30+ points when the second and third team defenses went into the game, so that should tell you all you need to know. Those guys have given their all, but just being brutally honest it's probably the worst Auburn defense I've seen in my lifetime.
Offensively for Alabama, this is really where you have to win the game. We've got a Heisman Trophy candidate at tailback and a strong rotation behind him, so there is no reason why we shouldn't gut these guys and move the ball up and down the field. Likewise, they don't match up with us particularly well at the skill positions either. What more can you say? Even LSU and Georgia put up 30+ against these guys, and frankly if we don't do the same we have no one to blame but ourselves.
Alabama Defense v. Auburn Offense
The real show for the 2009 Auburn Tigers has been on the offensive side of the ball, and it is there that Auburn has gotten the job done. And if you look at this group from the outset, what makes it so difficult is that they don't fit conventionally into any one category. The only thing I can compare it to was the Houston offense we faced in 2007 with Art Briles... the Cougars pretty much did whatever Briles felt like doing at the time, and that is effectively what we have with Auburn and Malzahn. There is not really a rhyme or reason to the flow of the structure of the offense. And the hell of it is that, despite the success, if you look at Auburn in terms of pure talent on the offensive side of the ball, and it's not an overly impressive group.
The offensive line is a solid group, but not a spectacular one by any stretch. Left tackle Lee Ziemba has a great frame and very good athletic ability, but he has been plagued by false starts all year long. Ryan Pugh at center is easily the dirtiest player in all of college football -- don't be surprised to him at least try to take one of our guys out again this year (he went after Luther Davis last year) -- but when he's not trying to end careers he's a fine center. The guards, though, are somewhat cogs. Neither Mike Berry or Byron Isom are bad players, but neither are really difference-makers either. Likewise, Andrew McCain at right tackle is below average. A legitimate run of injuries would kill this group simply because there is no depth whatsoever, but they've been relatively fortunate on the injury front.
Quarterback Chris Todd has surprised everyone by his solid play this year, but even so I don't think anyone would really dub Todd a high-end player. He doesn't have very good mobility, and that limits the dual-threat options that Malzahn would surely like to employ, and he has one of the weakest arms in the SEC even after having shoulder surgery this past offseason. His strengths are his decision-making ability and his accuracy, but even those have gone incognito at times this year. As a whole he has put up a strong season statistically, but credit for that likely goes more to Malzahn for putting him in good situations than it does any inherent ability on Todd's part.
The backfield does have its fair share of talent. Ben Tate is no Mark Ingram -- despite what he might like to tell you -- but he's a fine player in his own right. He's a senior with a lot of raw talent, and he'll play on Sunday. Likewise, Onterrio McCalebb is a highly-talented player, and honestly the only reason we didn't pursue him out of high school was because he had poor academics (he had to do a tour of duty at Hargrave before qualifying). When healthy, those two form quite the potent 1-2 punch.
On the outside at receiver has really been the issue. Darvin Adams has stepped up and became a legitimate playmaker -- and he may in fact be the breakout player of the SEC -- but aside from Adams it just hasn't developed. Terrell Zachery and Mario Fannin have shown flashes of brilliance, but they've also had stretches where they have gone almost completely incognito as well. Likewise, tight end Tommy Trott has really never been able to live up to the recruiting hype that he had coming out of Montgomery in 2005, and he doesn't give them the threat that they would like.
Again, if you look at this offense on paper, it's nothing particularly impressive. They've got a fairly decent line and a good rotation at tailback, but they've got issues at quarterback and at wide receiver, and there is no depth. Based on that, you would probably think that Auburn would normally be an average-at-best offense, but that hasn't been the case. All the credit in the world goes to Malzahn, and he has done nothing short of a fabulous job down on the Plains. There is no question whatsoever that he is the SEC Assistant Coach of the Year. He has taken an average-at-best group with no depth and made them one of the most prolific offenses in the country.
Defensively, Alabama has its work cut out this week. Auburn is confusing as hell on offense, and the end result for much of the year has been that they have generated a ton of big plays via defensive confusion and busted assignments. I'm sure we've devoted a much larger chunk of time than normal to assignment work this week just because of that. Our defensive players will have to be fully aware of their assignments at all times, otherwise Auburn will generate some easy big plays at our expense. More so than just about anyone else, Auburn pushes you to the edge of in terms of forcing you to play disciplined football, and they have largely struggled when opposing defenses have played sound, assignment-based football.
At the very least, this is a unit that gives you a lot of legitimate challenges, and it's a dangerous group. The Auburn offense of a year ago was worst than anything Mike Shula ever put on the field, but Malzahn has legitimately transformed them into one of the best offenses in the country, and they will give us some problems this Saturday. They are probably the best offense we've seen since Arkansas left town, and unlike last year this group will definitely score some points on us.
Putting It All Together
All in all, Alabama is clearly the better team in this game. Regardless of how you look at it -- high-end talent, quality depth, position match-ups, etc. -- Alabama is the better of the two teams. There are a lot of reasons as to why we are a 10-point favorite going on the road.
On the other hand, though, this game is far from a breeze. Last year in his column I wrote that because of Auburn's complete and total lack of an offense, Alabama would have to create a path to victory for them to win. This year, though, that's far from the case. Auburn has an explosive offense that can legitimately score a lot of points, and that can clearly put this game in jeopardy. We're favorites for a reason, but this game isn't the open and shut case that it was a year ago.
And for Auburn, that is really how they win they likely look to win this game. Offensively, they are clearly going against a very good unit, but we've struggled with spread teams in the past and they have to hope to score some points offensively. Defensively, they look to have a hard time stopping us, but we've been our own worst enemy at times and we may very well do that come Friday. And that's Auburn's hope. Hope that they have some success offensively, and that their defense plays well enough / our offense shoots itself in the foot enough to squeak out a narrow victory.
At the least, a blowout like we saw last year should not be expected. Any Alabama fan legitimately expecting a repeat of 36-0 is likely fooling themselves. As I mentioned yesterday, blowouts in this rivalry are quite rare, and it would be a major surprise to see something like that happen again this year. On the other hand, though, it's not like Alabama necessarily needs it. We control our own destiny at this point, and we don't need style points. We just need to win and stay healthy doing so, and as long as you do that the exact margin of victory is irrelevant.
For Alabama, a hot start would be nice. We have been slow starters all season, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and you have to hope that changes this weekend. Whenever you face a team with no depth, a hot start practically breaks their back from the outset because they don't have the depth needed to mount a comeback down the stretch. If Alabama can do that, victory is almost assured from the very beginning. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to do that all year, and I really don't see any reason that would definitively lead me to believe this week would be any different.
All in all, we're the better team here, and we should get the win. We should be able to score enough points on their weak defense to keep them at bay, and our defense should give them some hard times offensively. But Auburn is like the other SEC teams we've faced this year. They have their own set of strengths and they present their own unique set of problems for you, and you must respond accordingly. If we move the football like we should on offense, don't shoot ourselves in the foot, and play sound, disciplined, assignment-based football on defense, we should win this game. If not...
Hope for the best.