So, it all comes down to this: Good versus Evil/Alabama versus Auburn to decide the SEC West division champion with even greater championship stakes on the horizon for Alabama. A month ago, this looked like it might be the national championship playoff in all but name, as it was in 2013. However, Auburn has dropped two games in November - and has looked mediocre doing it. Thus, the Tigers come into Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday in the role of spoiler - with the chance to eliminate Alabama from the SEC and national championship picture for the second year in a row.
Despite the complaints by some in the Auburn fan base, second-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's defense has improved significantly over last year - when the Tigers were national runners-up despite one of the worst defenses in the conference. Auburn averages allowing 40 fewer yards and over a point less per game this year compared to last. In addition, the Tigers are the second-best team in the league in red-zone defense, only allowing opponents to score on 69 percent of red-zone drives.
Still, Auburn ranks somewhere between 7th and 12th in the SEC in the other major defensive categories, and will likely be missing defensive end and team sack leader DaVonte Lambert due to a leg injury he suffered against Samford last weekend. Given the team's overall weakness against the pass (allowing 232.6 yards per game), Lambert will be a significant loss if he doesn't play.
With Lambert missing from the lineup, senior tackle Ben Bradley (6'1", 305 lbs) is the only upperclassman in the front four. A junior-college transfer in 2013, Bradley has three tackles for loss this season. Joining Bradley in the other starting tackle spot is sophomore Montravius Adams. Adams (6'4", 306 lbs) is the leading tackler on the defensive line with 38 stops - good enough for sixth on the team. He also has eight tackles for loss and three sacks on the year, and is a disruptive force that will likely be double-teamed often on Saturday.
Gimel President, a 6'4", 259-lb sophomore at end, is the second-leading tackler on the line. President has 25 tackles including four for loss. He also has five quarterback hurries. Sophomore Elijah Daniel, who has seen action in all eleven games this season, will fill in for Lambert at the other end position. Daniel (6'2", 263 lbs) has a sack and 3.5 tackles for loss this year.
You cannot watch Auburn football for long without hearing the name Cassanova McKinzy. The Junior middle linebacker has lead the team in tackling for the last two years. McKinzy, at 6'3", 245 lbs, moved to the Mike position from Will (weak-side linebacker) this season and hasn't missed a beat despite his added play-calling responsibilities. McKinzy has 80 tackles this year, including ten for loss, and 1.5 sacks.
Junior linebacker Kris Frost (6'2, 234 lbs) played Mike last year, but swapped with McKinzy to move back to the Will position - one he had played as a freshman. Frost shares the starting role with junior Justin Garrett (6'1, 224 lbs) in the official depth chart, but Frost has had most of the action this season. He has 70 tackles, including eight for loss in 2014.
Robenson Therezie (5'9", 212 lbs) is an undersized linebacker who plays the star hybrid role. Therezie's 36 tackles put him seventh on Auburn's defense. He has also broken up six passes and made 3.5 tackles for loss.
While Auburn's secondary is statistically the weakest unit on the defense, six of the team's top ten tacklers are defensive backs - indicating that ball carriers and receivers are generally successful at getting to the second level against Auburn's front seven. Oddly, three of the starters have (almost) the same first name - which can be confusing to fans and play-by-play announcers alike.
Senior Jonathon Mincy (5'10", 196 lbs) is Auburn's shutdown corner, and arguably the best player in the secondary. Through eleven games, Mincy has made 58 tackles and has broken up eight passes. He also has 5.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Sophomore Johnathan Ford (6'0, 199 lbs) is the Tigers' second-leading tackler. A former running back who moved to the secondary before last season, Ford is settling in to the safety role nicely. Ford, an SEC Academic Honor Roll member, has 75 tackles (including 48 solo) and two interceptions on the year.
Jonathan Jones, a junior, has stayed healthy this year after a short season in 2013 due to a broken ankle at the end of fall camp. The 5'10", 182-lb corner has five interceptions on the year, which leads the team. His 29 tackles put him at eighth on the team.
Finally, free safety Joshua Holsey isn't named some variant of "Johnathan." Holsey has played boundary safety and corner in previous seasons. The junior (5'11", 192 lbs) has 40 tackles on the season, good enough for fifth on the team. He has also broken up two passes.
No one would mistake Auburn's defense for an elite unit, but the Tiger D is better than last year's group and is collectively capable of outstanding defensive efforts at times (i.e., Kansas State, LSU) this season. Of particular concern for Alabama is that Auburn is decent in third-down efficiency and excellent in the red zone. The Crimson Tide will need to move the ball steadily and slowly down the field in order to keep the ball away from the Tigers' offense. That seems to call for a run-heavy scheme, which Alabama previewed last week to some extent against Western Carolina. Look for the Tigers to stack the line in response and force Alabama's Blake Sims to pass downfield to beat them.