"That's no moon...that's a space station..." Obi Wan Kenobi, "A New Hope"
If football seasons were Star Wars movies, the season being enjoyed by our "friends" to the east in Lee County would definitely be identified as A New Hope. For what, precisely, has the school across the Plains done this year but rekindle rebellion in the SEC West, and, as it turns out, possibly the BCS NCG?
No, the parallel is all too clear. A plucky band of rebels and outcasts, a newbie head coach, a fallen former SEC player who found new fame through the JuCo route, remaining players who were soundly thrashed in 2012 as part one of Auburn's worst defenses ever. In other words, the untested, the defeated, the broken, the bereft. But here they sit, cobbled together by Gus Malzahn and his able staff, with a chance to knock off Darth Saban and his mighty Death Star all in one galactic quake.
But for this band of misfits, there will be a much greater task awaiting them. There is no design flaw in this Alabama machine, no easily-accessed exhaust port into which they fire the proton torpedo of a prolific rushing attack. No, they will find no portal, they will find only C.J. Mosley and a legion of Crimson-clad Stormtroopers awaiting them. While Bama may have its weaknesses, those weaknesses would be the envy of many teams, and they are not of the variety that could be easily exploited by these Tigers, not this year.
You see, what Nick Saban has expertly crafted goes beyond strength of physical numbers, though Bama's wave after wave of 4* and 5* attackers also trump the Tiger ranks in that regard. It is the Tide's machine-like mindset, their make-their-ass-quit M.O., their control of both the light side of intelligent sportsmanship and the dark side of football's distilled human aggression that makes Our Dark Lord's dominion over college football so far-reaching and absolute.
Alabama faces this challenger this week, this upstart who wants so badly what Bama has seized in its own Force-like grasp, refusing to relinquish it to any foe not willing to go to such extremes to land the death blow on the current ruler of college football. While Bama is the Empire in all its glory, is it conceivable that a scruffy band of rebels who have no business in a fight with the Tide can really fire that hail-mary shot heard ‘round the college football world?
These Tigers have been tied to the whipping post for many years during the Saban tenure at Alabama, and except for their one shining moment in 2010, they've been relegated to being one of several perennial "also-rans" of the SEC West. Alabama has not been a merciful conqueror in any of these games, but have rather delivered early and consistent death blows in all of the recent match-ups between the rivals so bitter they'd make Angostura taste like honey. Even Our Dark Lord himself, in a rare glimpse of his private feelings of disgust for Auburn, allegedly famously screamed "Don't you know I hate these guys?" to implore the Tide to execute. Despite the recent pre-2013 failings of the Auburnite, however, a new regime has positioned Auburn in a place that no one expected to see them for some time: one game out of the SEC title game...if, that is, they can find a way to cast Saban's Sith into the abyss.
Try they will, these Tigers, you can rest assured of that. Look no further than their last contest, another rivalry game with Georgia, to see that the team in orange and blue will not give up. Not easily. At least they haven't yet. By the same token, these Tigers have not seen the type of full-frontal assault that they'll see on both sides of the ball with this Crimson Tide, and one would think they will be caught somewhat unprepared, in shock and awe, if you will. Talking heads who make their livings selling the excitement of college football have hyped this game to preposterous levels. Anyone with football eyes can see that the Vegas spread carries with it some validity, as the Tide fares well against SEC foes, has the defense to shut down the Tigers' one-dimensional attack, and Bama has been nearly unstoppable on the road during Saban' tenure.
All of these things should give Tide fans some level of comfort entering Saturday's game...but for some reason, the angst persists. Maybe it's the Ghost of Rivalries Past, of "Punt, Bama, Punt", or "Run, Bo, Run!" These are the scenarios that haunt fans of the Crimson Tide as this pivotal contest draws near. What if, of all teams, Auburn is the squad that, inferior as they may be, are able to knock the Tide from its date with destiny in Pasadena? Life for Bama fans in our home state would be miserable, a replay of 2010, a year of shame that persisted until the men in crimson once again took what was rightfully theirs and hoisted the crystal trophy anew.
It's the "what if's" that are creating our current angst, and whether founded or the mere meanderings of a fan base preparing for the impossible with knitted brow, the Tide has more reason to worry about this year' Auburn squad than the last couple.
Regardless of the "should be," the Iron Bowl always seems to see, at least to some degree, the emergence of the "could be." Think back to the 2009 game. Bama should have steam-rolled a depleted and mentally beaten Auburn team that had no business on the field with any quality SEC foe, let alone the Crimson Tide. However, because of the importance of the game to all parties involved, it took last-minute heroics from Mark Ingram to help the Tide draw victory from betwixt defeat's snapping jaws, keeping alive the Tide's chance at its first national championship since 1992.
The same scenario, however unlikely it may seem, could play out this year as well. Auburn has one of the most bizarre offenses fielded in recent memory. Traditional in some ways, but quite unconventional in others. A spread running team with a HUNH mindset that has no problem fighting a battle with one arm behind its back, leaning on the running game almost exclusively while shelving the strong arm of Nick Marshall. Make no mistake, these are no Gene Chizik's Tigers...no, they are a far more worthy foe for the Alabama Crimson Tide this year as they seek a third consecutive BCS title. But how good are their chances at knocking off Bama? Let's take a closer look...
- The obvious match-up of primary concern will be the battle between Auburn's rushing offense, ranked second nationally and number one in the SEC, versus Alabama's traditionally stout run defense, which is currently ranked fourth in the country. This is where the rubber will meet the road for both teams, and the ability of one to impose its will on the other on this point will go a long way to determining the outcome of this game. Auburn is not a scrub team that has built lofty statistics by playing cupcakes. Rather, they've faced several decent defenses on their rise this season, though admittedly none of them match the caliber of the run defense fielded by the Crimson Tide. For Our Dark Lord, run defense is a given, a bread-and-butter mainstay that never seems to change, regardless of the rotation of players into and out of the program. The defensive line, despite the criticism it has taken for the lack of sacks produced, has been very good against the run, particularly the kind of zone blocking tactics that Auburn will use prolifically. Though different in terms of execution and offensive philosophy, the Bama defense practices against one of the country's best zone blocking teams every day, and Auburn can't bring more to the table in this regard than the Tide offense shows the defense day in and day out in practice. However, Malzahn is a master of deceptive formations and misdirection, if not in the traditional football sense. He will run multiple plays from the same sets, somewhat limiting the pre-play reads offered to opposing defenses. Alabama is a defense that adjusts well at the line, but the shiftiness of Auburn's offensive formations and execution could somewhat dampen the effect of Alabama's superb film study. As a battle-hardened Dark Lord of the Sith, Saban knows this and will rely not only on scheme, but also the individual performances from stalwarts like C.J. Moseley and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix to have the savvy to play assignment football and implement the plan as devised. Against Auburn, failure to do so could result in open running lanes and big plays. However, the challenge offered by Auburn's offensive machinations is somewhat similar to that presented by Texas A&M, giving Bama at least a glimpse of what to expect. If Alabama can clog the interior running lanes, keep Nick Marshall between the tackles, and limit the Tiger running game, then much of the defensive game plan will be in hand. If Bama can force Marshall to hand the ball to one tailback or another while clogging the middle, Alabama's swarm of defenders should be able to strike true. A frustrated running game would hamstring the Tigers early, as despite Marshall's supposed downfield arm strength, he's proven himself inconsistent at best in delivering the football on short and intermediate routes. If Bama can take away his first progression on pass plays, Auburn's offense becomes the Black Knight of Monty Python fame...an opponent unable to defend itself or wage an effective attack. Quite obviously, stopping the run will be of the utmost importance to Alabama's defense.
- When the Tide has the ball, the Tigers will find themselves in a "pick your poison" situation. Let's face it, the Auburn defense is not one that strikes fear into the hearts of its opponents. If not for the Aggi, the Vols, Arky and Kentucky, the Tiger defense would be the worst defense on the Tide's schedule, statistically speaking. They have a few players of note, such as Dee Ford and Gabe Wright on the line, Robinson Therezie at safety. The Tigers have a little depth on defense as well, though not of the caliber enjoyed by the Tide. New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is known as a solid, old school defensive coach, and he has made a silk purse out of a sow's ear with Auburn's defensive talent this year, marking a dramatic improvement from last year's historically bad unit. The rub, however, is that despite this improvement, the Tigers still rank near the bottom of the pack in many defensive facets. Overall, they are h 70th ranked defense in FBS, and 1th in the SEC. They average 406 yards allowed each game, giving up 150 yards per game rushing and an average of 254 yards through the air. In either respect, Alabama has the tools o exploit this apparent weakness for their gain, whether throwing or passing. When Auburn has faced big, physical backs this year, the results have not been positive. Jeremy Hill and Rajion Neal victimized the Auburn run defense, with each man going well over the century mark in their respective contests with Auburn. While Auburn's front 7 is fair-to-middlin', there is nothing to speak of in the defensive backfield to give AJ McCarron and his ample corps of receiving weapons any pause in executing the game plan against Auburn. The Tigers will undoubtedly sell out to stop the run, and they will do so at their own peril. If T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake can get things going behind a rolling offensive line, there won't be much Auburn can do to avoid an eventual defeat. The Tiger team is simply not built to allow an opposing offense to monopolize clock and pound the ball, as even drives that do not net touchdowns will keep the Tiger' most potent weapon, namely it's offense, off of the field. Despite Alabama's likely insistence on establishing the run, look for the ply action game to flourish, as stacking the box to stop Yeldon and Company will result in a surgical shredding of the Auburn secondary at the hands of McCarron. Even if all five of Auburn's defensive back starters have stellar games, it will be difficult for their sub-par linebacking corps from covering the likes of OJ Howard and Jalston Fowler. As Gary Danielson has said about Alabama throughout the season, they re a team that has multiple ways to win a game, whereas Auburn is ultimately relegated to one plan of attack. If Bama can use its offense to methodically break the back of Auburn's defense, there will be little the Tigers can do to avoid the inevitable.
- There probably hasn't been a game this season in which turnovers will play a bigger role. If the Tide continues to show a lackadaisical attitude with the ball, bad things could happen. Even if Bama does as expected and completely shuts down the Tiger offense by the second half, a fumble inside the 10 here, an interception at the middle of the field there, and fans of the Tide could find themselves in an unexpected, and unwanted, close ball game. Ball security will be of the utmost importance for the Tide, particularly in the running game. Both Yeldon and Drake have turned the ball over numerous times this year, and at some of the most inopportune moments. Against a riled up, home-standing Auburn team, turnovers will give the Tigers a false sense of hope, one that could easily be parlayed into a score with their quick-strike offense. I can't stress this enough, the team that wins the turnover bate bears the strongest chance of success, and though turnovers can be overcome by disciplined teams, such a task is magnified exponentially in the backyard of one's hated rival.
- Injuries may once again play a role this week for the Tide, as several players were limited or held out of action against Chattanooga last week to improve chances of health in this week's game. Yeldon, McCarron, Vogler and ArKo are all banged up, and each man is a key piece to Alabama's offensive puzzle. Add into the equation the possibility that starting center Ryan Kelly has reinjured his knee, and there is at least some level of trepidation about the number of injuries heading into this Saturday's game. Tide fans can have faith in Chad Lindsay, as he's proven himself a worthy back-up. But there' a reason Kelly re-took the starting center position after recovering from his previous injury, so the Tide could be without another starter pending Kelly's recovery. The Iron Bowl is always a physical battle, and injuries can change the dynamic as well as the ultimate outcome. Let us hope that these injuries are fleeting and that a fully-arrayed Crimson Tide takes the field this week on the Plains.
- This game, is of course, a grudge match. Lots of emotion will be swirling on both sidelines, as Auburn never expected to be in the position to not only beat a hated rivalry but claim a divisional title just one year removed from a horrible losing season. Bama will be playing for all the marbles and a chance at becoming legendary, plainly stated. As if the stakes weren't high enough, for in-state players and upper classmen, this game carries more meaning than the average Saturday match-up on the gridiron. It's about pride, it's about a reckoning, it's about going out on top as a senior class and defending what they've worked so hard to earn. It's about bragging rights for the fans and to a certain extent, the players. It's about keeping a hated foe in its proper place and keeping the rightful order of things in the SEC. This game is for all the marbles in the SEC West his year, with even greater stakes for the winner's taking. But it is also a cultural flashpoint whose light will bathe over the known football cosmos for the next 365 days, a breast-pinned medal for the winner, and a decaying albatross hanging about the neck of the loser. The stakes have never been higher, but nor have the rewards for the victor. Bama has been in this spot before, on many occasions. In most of those instances, they have shown the steely ice-water resolve to snuff the opponent unceremoniously like a robotic executioner. Auburn is untested in this regard, true, as the perpetually young Tigers have played few games of circumstance against teams capable of exploiting their weaknesses this year. In the one similar match-up, LSU quickly put a boot on the throat of the Tigers and made them submit, despite their second half protestations and attempt at a comeback. But these things are couched in the realm of logic, and if we've learned anything about the Iron Bowl, and in particular the Auburn Tigers low these many years, it's that logic holds little sway over the things that transpire in Lee County.
Again, the Tigers are a worthy adversary as the Tide attacks the final stretch of its back-loaded schedule that has become far more difficult through the course of this season, at least in terms of perception. A trip to the SECCG and by right, the BCSNCG, is not a sure thing for the Tide, and an old familiar foe waits to block the narrow mountain pass that leads to the pinnacle. Will this be the Tide's coming-out party after a year of latent criticism and Bama fatigue? Or will it be the year that Gus Malzahn makes his money and sends Bama on a long, cold ride back home to Tuscaloosa?
Will Saban's pull the trigger on his fully functioning Death Star, leaving nothing left to cry over in Lee County but so much still-rolled toilet paper? Will Malzahn find the deflector shields quite operational when his little friends arrive? Or will, by chance, some random proton torpedo fired off the arm of a rejected former UGA defensive back find a way to hit its mark and leave Saban's creation splintered into so much galactic detritus? We will soon find out, as I can hear the Death Start powering up now.
Either outcome is possible, though only one is tolerable. As always, prepare for the worst...but hope for the best.