"We all kind of remember what happened (in 2014)...I think that was very disappointing to all of us here, not just the last play but the last five minutes of the game, that we never finished the game like we needed to, and it was a tough way to lose a game." - Nick Saban
Finish. Just finish. In Nick Saban's tenure at the Capstone, the word has represented the modus operandi of a team that has won multiple championships while building a reputation as one of the fiercest four-quarter football teams the modern era of college football has ever seen.
But...there have been notable exceptions to this standard of endurance and mental focus. 2012 Texas A&M, the 2011 regular season meeting with LSU, the 2010 debacle at the hands of the Auburn Tigers (all of which, oddly, occurred on the Tide's vaunted home field).
And then there was Auburn 2013. Never was a Tide loss more excruciating, not only because of its cultural, braggin' rights significance in the Great State, but because on the verge of historical greatness, Alabama did something it has rarely done under Saban...it faltered and cracked at the end, unable to land the late-round power punch that would have sent a plucky but unworthy challenger crashing to the canvas like a dropped sack of Russet potatoes.
Last year's Iron Bowl was a horror, a nightmare, a coming together of everything Alabama fans loathe most: losing to little brother, at Bryant Denny, on a freakish last-second play, to erase Alabama's shot at a third consecutive national title.
Simply, for Bama fans, it was the Apocalypse.
Make no mistake, that sting landed true upon the players and coaches as well. That mental toughness that had become the trademark of the Tide since 2008 wavered, fluttered like a torn banner in the smoke-filled wind following defeat on the battlefield.
Many prophesied it was the end of an era, the crimson-stained high water mark from which Alabama's greatness would break and begin to ebb into the gulf of history whilst the new garish-orange Neptune arose, HUNH trident firmly in hand. Many said Saban's reign of terror was over, that his defense-first, smashmouth philosophy was as useful among the faddish modern offenses as a brontosaurus in a funny car drag race.
Those prophesies were nothing more than chatter, as 2014 has proven. Alabama, the current number-one ranked team in the College Football Playoff rankings, may have altered its philosophy ever so slightly, but the dominance remains the same. Saban and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin have retrofitted that brontosaurus with twin-ion engines and a proton torpedo named Amari Cooper. The coach and his team have changed their tactics, but not their driving motivation and desire to treat every play as if it has a life of its own. Though Saban will never succumb fully to the latest offense fads, like other survivors down through the eons, he has adapted enough to keep himself in the alpha position.
And so Alabama finds itself in a familiar position...one game away from closing out the regular season in the top spot. And again, in a familiar refrain, the only stumbling block between the Tide and a possible run at history as the first ever CFB Playoffs champion is the loathed enemy to the southeast.
So it begins again...this, the next chapter in a storied series of games so important to those who follow the Tide and Tigers that individual games earn names of their own, i.e. "Kick Six" and "Punt, Bama, Punt." Will this chapter be another in that memorable line etched into the Halls of Mutual Hatred and Rivalry? Or will it be something akin to Alabama's 49-0 demolition of the Tigers in 2012?
The most likely result will be somewhere in the middle, as the Tigers are limping into the final game of the season, battered, bloodied and bruised. Likewise, the Tide suffered a staggering number of injuries in its match-up last week against undermanned Western Carolina, with arguably its three most critical players outside of Blake Sims and T.J. Yeldon (Cam Robinson, Amari Cooper and A'Shawn Robinson) finding themselves in the locker room in an abundance of caution following slight injuries.
This Saturday's game has many undercurrents: rivalry, revenge, championship implications. But chief among them, for those who both play in this game and follow its combatants, is the epic sway between light and dark (the timbre of which is, of course, is decided by one's own loyalties.) For this game is not a game...in the Great State, and among its expatriates beyond the borderlands, it is life.
Rest assured, there will be blood...let's take a deeper look.
Alabama offense versus the Auburn defense
For all of the ink the Auburn offense has gotten under the leadership of head coach Gus Malzahn, there are interesting facts to consider this week as the nouveau riche Tigers face off against the Once and Future King from Tuscaloosa.
For instance, Alabama's offense is not far off of the explosive offense fielded by the Tigers in their run-first, fast-paced spread attack. In regard to overall scoring offense, Auburn ranks 28th, the Tide is 29th. Despite the chatter that has bubbled from talking heads since Malzahn rose to prominence, there's no dividing sea between the two teams, at least not on paper.
The Tiger offense, which relies heavily on converting third downs to employ its race-car strategy, ranks second in the NCAA, converting on 54.73 attempts. The Tide offense, again, follows closely behind, ranking 4th in the nation in third down conversions. Very similar output despite the dissimilar input.
Possibly the most intriguing misconception is that the Tigers have a far more productive offense than the one employed by Alabama under first-year coordinator Kiffin. The Tigers, for all the hype, rank highly in total offense at 22nd. But Alabama comes in at 20th in the same category.
Perception...it can be misleading. While the man-on-the-street would give Auburn's offense the nod in terms of explosiveness and efficiency, the truth of the matter is that Alabama stands toe-to-toe with the Tigers in overall offensive statistical categories. While their methods of achieving those results may differ dramatically, the fact remains that there is no tilting deck offensively that leans in Auburn's favor. If anything, this will be a prize fight between equally matched heavyweights, with both possessing knockout power and a chipping, persistent jab.
When Alabama is on the field offensively, there will most undoubtedly be opportunities to exploit a fair-to-middlin' Tiger defense. While the Auburn unit has improved somewhat in two years under veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, the croak of discontent from the Auburn faithful has grown louder in recent weeks, as the Tigers have fallen to rival Georgia, a mediocre Texas A&M team, and Mississippi State. In each occasion, it was the Tiger defense that let down the offense, setting the mark for the offense too high by allowing teams to slash through its porous false armor like a lightsaber through warm butter.
The Tigers are not devoid of defensive talent, with likely future NFL Draft picks like Montravius Adams, Gabe Wright and Cassanova McKinzy filling out the front seven. Despite that talent, however, teams have been able to smash the Auburn run defense repeatedly, as evidenced in the games against the Bulldogs from the east and the west. Josh Robinson and Dak Prescott gutted the Tiger front, and freshman Georgia running back Nick Chubb ran through Auburn's yard like neighborhood kids cutting the corner.
Make no mistake, Kiffin and the Alabama offense are well aware of the shortcomings in Auburn's 38th ranked rushing defense. Yeldon rested last week so that he would be fresh for this game after injuring his ankle against Mississippi State, so one has to believe that he will be the hammer to the nail of the Auburn front seven. Depending on the status of several dinged up offensive linemen, Alabama will likely leverage its deep backfield and improving line to wear down a relatively shallow Auburn run defense, a tactic which will most assuredly create opportunities in the passing game as the contest wears on.
As rough as the Tigers have been in run defense as of late, the Tiger pass defense, ranked 78th in the nation, is even worse. While the Tigers do have some veterans (like Jonathan Mincy and Robenson Therezie) in the defensive backfield, that roster has not proven its ability to keep opponents from executing their respective air attacks at will. Amari Coper, if healthy, will shred the Tigers' pass defense. While the Auburn pass rush is disruptive with Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright leading the unit, Alabama has had great success in pass protection throughout the year. When flushed, quarterback Blake Sims has been nothing short of electrifying, whether using his fleet feet to scamper for 3rd down conversions, or finding the right receivers through his progressions and keeping drives alive. Auburn does field the 29th ranked third-down defense in the country, but Alabama has thrived on third down this season, ranking fourth in the nation in conversions. In other words, the levy will break in this game, one way or the other.
If the Bama running game is the sword Saban and Kiffin will wing at the Auburn defense, then the passing game will be the spear, the projectile that can strike from afar with lethal potency. The Tiger secondary is suspect at best, and Kiffin enjoys creating mismatches upon which Sims can capitalize. Whether slinging the ball to Cooper in man coverage, getting the ball to the newly-explosive Ar'Darius Stewart when Cooper draws double-coverage, or finding Christion Jones, O. J. Howard or running backs Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Jalston Fowler down the seam, there will be plenty of chances for Sims to further impress those who doubted his credentials coming into 2014. If Sims can manhandle the Auburn defense and exact revenge from above, his name will forever be etched in Alabama football lore.
Despite Alabama's offensive weapons and the dearth of defense for the Tigers, there are a couple of critical areas which Auburn can use to hold Bama in check. For instance, when the Tide gets inside the 20 yard line, the Tiger defense stiffens substantially. The Tigers have the third best red zone defense in the country, allowing opponents to convert only 68.89 percent of attempts. Alabama will need excellent play-calling inside the red zone, and the Tide must show its ability to run the ball on short yardage to keep drives from stalling deep in enemy territory.
In past years, this game came down to whether Bama's defense could hold the Tiger offense. This year, Bama can keep pace with Auburn's offense, regardless of whether the Tigers have success against the Tide defense.
Alabama defense versus the Auburn offense
Make no mistake about it, Auburn has a potent offense. That much is a given. But is this variant of the offense as strong as the previous incarnation? Nick Marshall has showed improvement in his passing, and the Auburn line has built upon last year's success despite the loss of key pieces. The addition of D'haquille "Duke" Williams (38 reception, 609 yards, five TDs) has given the Tigers another potent receiving weapon alongside the explosive Sammie Coates (25 receptions, 511 yards, two TDs). The Tigers have the weapons to score on almost anyone in the country, though the loss of Tre Mason has been difficult for the Tigers to amend. Cameron Artis-Payne (252 carries for 1410 yards, 11 TDs and an 11.5 yards per catch average as a receiver) is a nice back, but Mason's running style was perfectly suited for the offense Malzahn runs, as evidenced by his performance and Heisman invite in 2013.
Despite all of the offensive artillery, however, the rub for Auburn this Saturday is not to be found on its roster. Because for all of the talent the Tigers bring on the offensive side of the ball, the Alabama defense is just that much better at everything.
At the beginning of the season, no one really knew what to expect from this year's incarnation of Saban's perennial meat-mallet. Sure, the talent would be there following a string of recent top-ranked recruiting classes, but that talent was largely unseasoned and untested.
2014 has brought the chance for that talent develop, and develop it has through 11 games. Alabama's defense is now considered one of the pre-imminent units in the nation, especially against teams that favor the run (as Auburn does.) Going into the final game of the regular season, Alabama has the second ranked run defense, a spot it has maintained (give or take a spot) for much of the second half of the season. There is simply no doubt that if there's any team that can keep the Auburn running attack in check, it is the Alabama Crimson Tide. After all, this Tide defense is only two weeks removed from destroying yet another explosive run-first spread attack in Mississippi State, and for much of that game, the Tide defense dominated the line of scrimmage.
Not only is the Alabama defense stellar against the run, but overall, the Tide D has shown dramatic improvement over last year's veteran squad. The secondary has not been the whipping boy it was last year, shouldering much of the blame for Alabama's defensive struggles. Cyrus Jones has developed into Bama's best corner, and Landon Collins has done nothing to dissuade those who forecast he will be the top safety taken in the 2015 NFL Draft. Alabama is currently ranked fifth nationally in overall defense, and second in scoring defense.
Marshall (136-of-228, 59.6% passing, 1858 passing yards, 751 rushing yards, 26 TDs and 6 INTs) is a legitimate threat, just as he was last year. He has the ability to make plays when the pocket breaks down, both with his feet and with his arm. Alabama will need precision focus to snuff out those opportunities, and doing so will require gap-sound, assignment football (which, coincidentally, represent the best weapons against the smoke-and-mirrors of the HUNH offense Auburn runs.)
Williams, the juco transfer who has provided the Tigers with offensive firepower in the passing game, is injured but is listed as "Probable" for this Saturday's game. This development will dictate much of what Auburn can do on offense in the air, as despite the presence of the steady and spectacular Coates, Williams adds another dimension to the Tiger attack, and one that Bama will struggle to contain (much like Bama's own Cooper.) If Williams is 100% by Saturday, the Bama secondary will struggle in keeping both he and Coates from making explosive plays. Williams possesses the kind of next-level talent that Bama has on its own sideline in Cooper, and if the secondary devotes too much attention to him, Coates will most definitely make them pay. Auburn's wide receiving corps is deep, with Ricardo Louis (18 catches for 189 yards, two TDs) and Quan Bray (30 catches for 334 yards, three TDs) filling out the roster. Any of the players can do work in man coverage, so Bama will need to mind the balance between keeping Williams in check and preventing Aubrn's other weapons from being utilized effectively.
Revenge. It is a powerful thing. Revenge can motivate one to play above his own head, to extract extra effort on behalf of past wrongs in the name of settling scores. But it can also be a liability when it clouds the vision and dims the focus, allowing rage to take over where discipline left off.
Make no mistake, revenge will be on the minds of Bama players, coaches and fans as they attempt to take their pound of flesh from the Tigers that castrated their title hopes and historic attempt at three consecutive championships in 2013. Will that revenge be a motivator, that extra push Bama players needed during preparations this week, the additional focus required to execute every play, whether in practice of the live-fire game, to a standard? Or will it cause them to tighten, to play stiff, to lose their paths? The way Alabama handles that dynamic will foretell a great deal about the ultimate outcome of the game.
One can't help but point out that Alabama has a decided home-field advantage against the Tigers this year. Alabama won its most recent match with Auburn at Bryant Denny Stadium in 2012, and thus far in 2014, Alabama has played its best in front of the home crowd. BDS will be loud, and Auburn will find it difficult to shift to adjust to Bama's multiple defensive fronts in the moment. Sims is a different quarterback in Tuscaloosa, and with Auburn's struggling pass defense, one can forecast that Sims could have a banner day.
The lessons of the past have taught Alabama that the initial stanzas of both games and seasons become meaningless when a team cannot finish. This Alabama squad has shown it has the knowledge and endurance to finish its opponents, as through games against LSU, Mississippi State and Arkansas, the Tide was tested late and prevailed. There's little Auburn can do that the Tide has not yet seen and conquered. That said, the same could be said about last year's Auburn squad, and the 2010 team that blew a 24 point lead to Auburn at BDS.
If ever the Tide needed a sense of urgency and a determination to finish, this Saturday would represent that scenario. With a win, Alabama will clinch the SEC West and ensure itself a shot at the inaugural College Football Playoff. A win against Auburn puts Bama one win away from the final four, and that will create a great deal of pressure on the 18-22 year old men upon whom Alabama's championship hopes will rely. How will they handle that tension? If this year has been an indicator, this Alabama team is made of different stuff than last year's unit.
Finally, the state of the Tide roster is a bit of a concern after a brutal spree of injuries against Western Carolina. No fewer than five players left the field with assistance (Cam Robinson, Amari Cooper, Brian Vogler, A'Shawn Robinson, Jalston Fowler) following minor injuries, and as mentioned above, Yeldon was dinged up enough that he was held out of work against the Catamounts. Against WCU, Bama saw little drop-off despite the roster juggling. But Auburn is a strong SEC opponent, regardless of rivalry. Can Alabama continue to play at a high level if injuries take their toll?
Much rides on this Iron Bowl, as has been the case in five of the last six seasons. Will Bama take this opportunity to drive the sword deep through the heathen armies from the east, pinning them to the door of the Hall of Champions? Or will it once again see its hopes slaughtered with the swing of Malzahn's HUNH saber?
Time will tell...hope for the best.