It's time once again to find out about an upcoming opponent from the people that know them best. This week, Chris Fuhrmeister of College and Magnolia was kind enough to answer our questions.
1. It would be hard to describe the coaching job that Malzahn has done this year as anything less than remarkable. How surprised has the Auburn fan base been by the ridiculously fast turnaround?
If I recall correctly, the biggest Barner I know on the Internet predicted the Tigers to finish 9-3 this year, so yeah, this season has been pretty stunning. I think everyone believed Auburn would have some varying degree of success, but no one expected Malzahn and his staff would be able to get so much out of so many players who looked awfully incompetent last year. Personally, I figured 7-5 would be the ceiling, and I would have been thrilled with an eighth win in a bowl. I think the offense has been consistently better than I had hoped, and the defense is light years ahead of where it's been in the last two years.
2. It's no secret that Auburn has been predominantly a run team this year (70/30 run/pass play calls, and 65/35 rush yards/pass yards). Despite the fact that opponents know the run is coming, Auburn is averaging 6.41 yards per carry (best in the conference and #4 in the country). What specifically has made the Auburn rushing attack so potent?
Auburn has a trio of solid running backs, a quarterback who makes quick, good decisions on option plays and a really talented offensive line. Tre Mason rushed for 1,000 yards in last year's offense, so that alone should tell you how good he is. Mason isn't the fastest guy, but he runs with power and has great vision and cutting ability between the tackles. And even when he's bottled up, it seems like he always gains two or three extra yards than he should.
Corey Grant, who y'all might remember as a former Bama player, fits in the Onterio McCalebb speed-back role. He's a step slower than O-Mac, but he runs stronger and can take on tacklers. Cameron Artis-Payne hasn't gotten a lot of run lately, but he's a big bruising back who can come into the game fresh and pick up important yards. Mason leads the team with 1,153 yards, but Grant (557) and Artis-Payne (568) have both been major contributors.
Marshall has really become a weapon on the ground, and since he's been unleashed in the running game, Auburn's offense has really taken off. He's up to 823 yards and nine rushing touchdowns, and the highlight of the year was a 214-yard, two-score performance against Tennessee. It seems like he always makes the right read to either hand off or keep, and he has the wheels to break off a big play. Combine that four-headed monster in the back field and put it behind an O-line that features seven former four- or five-star prospects on the two-deep, and you've got a recipe for success.
3. The reliance on the rushing attack was especially pronounced in the three games leading up to the Georgia game, with only 34 total passes in those games. Against Georgia, Marshall attempted more passes (26) than he had in any game since September. Do you expect a similar game plan with a bit more emphasis on passing against Alabama?
I think Auburn has to have success through the air to beat Alabama, and I think Gus knows that, too. The Tide defense is too good to get beaten by a one-dimensional offense, but if Auburn is balanced, the Tigers can keep the 'Bama D on its heels. Everyone knows about Ricardo Louis' miracle touchdown catch to beat Georgia, but he was having a nice breakout game before that moment. Sammie Coates is the No. 1 target, and he'll get open from time to time behind the safeties. His 22.9 yards per catch leads the SEC, and he should have a chance to make some big plays.
However, Auburn's passing game has been too inconsistent at times. Marshall isn't the most accurate quarterback in the world -- he's completing 58.4 percent of his passes -- and the receivers have had their fair share of drops. I think Auburn can get some receivers open on Saturday, but I don't know whether or not the Tigers can execute on passing plays.
4. Is there a specific unit matchup where you think Auburn has a clear advantage? Is there a specific unit matchup that concerns you most?
There probably isn't a matchup where Auburn is clearly on the advantage, but the Tigers' running game, especially between the tackles, should be able to hold its own against the vaunted Alabama rush defense. I know the Tide ranks first in the SEC and fourth in the nation by allowing just 91.3 yards per game, but they haven't faced a run game that comes close to Auburn's It's not going to be a 300-yard day, but if the passing game opens things up, I could see Auburn picking up 200 yards on the ground.
On the flip side, I'm terrified of what Alabama is going to do to Auburn's linebackers. Jake Holland has drawn plenty of vitriol from fans, and Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost haven't really excelled, either. The Tide could have a big day with simple runs and short throws over the middle.
5. Is there a specific player that your average fan may not know that they should watch out for in this game?
I feel like most folks should know about him, but because Jay Prosch doesn't do a lot that shows up on the stat sheet, he may be flying under the radar. Auburn's H-back/fullback/whatever has been a big part of the Tigers' run success this year, clearing out linebackers with crushing blocks. And every now and then, he comes open on short yardage situations when the opposing team is totally focused on stopping the run. In the win against Texas A&M, he had a catch-and-run for 56 yards on a third-and-2 play deep in Auburn territory. He'll definitely be crucial in run blocking against 'Bama, and he could come up with his own big play out of nowhere.
6. What are your best case/worst case predictions for this game? How do you think it will ultimately play out?
Best case: Auburn wins a close one. Worst case: Alabama jumps out to a quick two- or three-score lead, Auburn can't execute in the passing game, and the Tide win in a blowout.
I was in Jordan-Hare Stadium when Ricardo Louis melted Auburn fans' minds, so I no longer have reason to doubt Auburn's ability to pull off the seemingly impossible. And while rational logic is trying to tell me otherwise, I think the Tigers are going to win. The offense will be able to have success on the ground, and Gus will pull out all the stops to create big plays -- don't be surprised if Jeremy Johnson comes in at quarterback and has a significant impact on the game. Because of what happened in the fourth quarter against Georgia, I think defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows he has to get aggressive and try to force Alabama into mistakes. It's a risk that could lead to some big plays for 'Bama, but the reward is big plays created by his defenders.
Auburn will do just enough through the air to keep the Alabama D somewhat honest against the run, and while the Tigers D will give up a bunch of yards and points, a couple of forced turnovers will end up being the difference. I can't believe I'm saying it, but Auburn 34, Alabama 31.
7. Bonus quickie: After dealing with this question for weeks over at Roll Bama Roll, I have to ask: how are you enjoying the Malzahn to Texas rumors?
I'll be honest: I really haven't put too much thought into this one. I might be in the dark/not paying attention, but it doesn't seem like this is really on the mind of most Auburn fans right now. However, it's pretty obvious that if Gus continues to have success, he'll show up on the short list for most major openings. I'm just hoping the Bag Man has deep enough pockets to keep him around for a while.