The casual football fan simply places too much emphasis on rivalry games. Not in regard to their importance to a fan base, but in the sudden supposed levelness of the playing field between two, as if some hatred quotient is enough to even the scales between David and Goliath on a regular basis.
While the phrase is thrown around in regard to the annual Iron Bowl, it really has little meaningless. Sure, there are upsets in the series. But generally (2013 aside) the better team wins the contest.
There's no question which coach has the better team heading into the 2015 Iron Bowl. Nick Saban's Alabama is the second-ranked team in the nation, a juggernaut that, rather than being broken by an early loss to Ole Miss, has only become stronger, a gridiron Doomsday (to use the character from the Superman comics.) Beat Alabama, and they come back stronger, remedying the weakness that led to their previous demise, becoming more and more bulletproof with each rare defeat.
Conversely, Gus Malzahn's Auburn Tigers came into the season with the bluster and swagger that led many to forecast them as the eventual SEC Champion in 2015. After all, the Tigers dropped a healthy chunk of change on defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who Malzahn referred to as "the greatest defensive mind in all of football." Such a move (it was believed) would certainly complement a Tiger offense that was able to easily hang points on the Tide's defense in last year's Iron Bowl. After all, the defense had been Auburn's Achilles heel throughout Malzahn's tenure.
Such has not been the case, however, as the Tigers have struggled to a mere two SEC wins on the season. Auburn enters the game with Alabama ranked no better than 82nd nationally in most defensive categories, and they have been in the SEC's bottom three defensively on the regular. Even the Tiger offense has seen a drop-off in 2015 without an elite dual-threat quarterback under center, as pre-season Heisman favorite Jeremy Johnson was unceremoniously benched earlier in the season after throwing more interceptions than touchdowns.
Despite all of the pre-season prognostication to the contrary, these are two teams very much headed in opposite directions at this point. The Tide continues its streak of 10 win seasons, once again inserting itself into the National Championship conversation. Auburn, on the other hand, has fallen to the cellar of the SEC, making the Tigers the better of only Vanderbilt and Mizzou.
All this aside, only a fool would consider the task facing the Tide this week as a walk in the park. Though the nature of the rivalry will most certainly not propel the Auburn Tigers to some superhuman level of football accomplishment, neither will they be an easy out. Auburn's offense is not the beast of the last several seasons, but it still packs a wallop of a running game. And while the defense has struggled considerably this season, there is enough talent in the front seven to cause problems if the Tide enters the game with a lack of focus.
Whether or not Auburn will able to do enough to do enough to stop Alabama in its championship tracks is up for debate. But one thing that is not in question is that the Tide will have its hands full in front of a raucous home crowd that, during its last Iron Bowl congregation, saw the improbable and unbelievable carry their underdog Tigers to a shocking victory.
Could that possibly happen again? Is this Alabama team better suited to dominate the Tigers than the last one that walked into Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2013? Or will Auburn become the unlikely sweetheart of a nation that has grown wretchedly tired of crimson football dominance?
Time will tell...let's take a closer look.
The Alabama offense versus the Auburn defense
Alabama is fresh off of three of its best offensive performances of the season against LSU, Mississippi State and the unfortunate Charleston Southern Buccaneers. Gone are the passing game misfires that haunted the Tide earlier in the season. No more will one see a running game struggling to make room for Heisman front-runner Derrick Henry. The offensive line has seemingly gelled, quarterback Jacob Coker and his receivers have developed excellent chemistry, and the aforementioned Henry is running through defenses like a pissed-off rhinoceros.
Truth be told, the only team that could likely stop Alabama in the Iron Bowl will be wearing crimson and white: specifically, if the Tide doesn't commit offensive hari-kari in Lee County this Saturday, then there's little doubt they will ultimately win a battle of attrition in the second half of the game.
The Tigers are simply not good defensively. One has to really twist the metrics of defensive measurement to find anything which Auburn does really well this season. They are ranked 83rd in total defense, 82nd in pass defense, 82nd in run defense and 71st in scoring defense. The Tigers allow an average of 180.9 yards per game on the ground, which is close to what Alabama generally averages on the ground offensively.
Looking even closer, one can see that Auburn seems ill-equipped to take advantage of Alabama's own weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball. For example, the Tide's third down conversion rate has been nothing short of horrid this season, putting Alabama at 92nd nationally in that metric. Auburn's third-down defense is equally as putrid, however, as the Tigers have the 116th ranked third-down defense, allowing conversions 46.6 percent of the time. Also, Alabama has not done a great job of limiting defensive penetration, ranking 99th in tackles for loss allowed. But Auburn's defense is 119th in team tfls and 98th in sacks. It appears that against Alabama, the Tigers can't win for losing.
Given this statistical disparity, there appears to be little Auburn will be able to do to stop Alabama. However, a closer examination of the stats show that there may be at least some reason for pause. The Tigers have had their three best defensive outings of the season in their three most recent games (granted, one of them was against lowly Idaho). While the Tigers have averaged 417.9 yards per game allowed for the season overall, they have only yielded an average of 341.7 yards per game to opponents in the month of November.
This upturn for the Auburn defense has come largely due to the return of Buck defensive end Carl Lawson, who missed six games this season to injury. Lawson is the pivot point for the defense, and when he's in the line-up, his rising tide raises all ships along the front seven and across the defense as a whole. The improvement of freshman Carlton Davis at corner has also been instrumental, as the Tigers have suffered a rash of injuries to their already-undermanned secondary. Davis' solid play has helped the Auburn defense become stingier, thought admittedly, that bar was set rather low by a defense that has been among the worst in the conference for much of the year. But even this "better" Auburn defense is lacking when compared to the firepower Alabama brings to the table, and the Tigers will be hard-pressed to have sustained success against Alabama's battering ram-styled pro set attack.
Though Henry will likely be the most common tool of Tiger dispatch, don't discount the match-up problems Alabama's receivers can create in the passing game. Kiffin is a master of exploiting mismatches, and the offensive coordinator won't even have to be that creative to create the aforementioned against an Auburn defense that is most certainly outmanned. Calvin Ridley is a match-up nightmare for any defense, and even if the Tigers put senior corner Jonathan Jones in charge of holding the slippery receiver in check, that is likely to be a battle Ridley wins most of the time.
If Kiffin can get his receivers, or tight end O.J. Howard, matched up against any Tiger linebackers, the potential for a big play is there to be exploited. McKinzy, senior Kris Frost and senior Justin Garrett are all suspect at best in coverage, and they quite simply don't have the skills to go toe-to-toe with Bama's receivers without feeling the burn.
Don't underestimate the fact that, chances are, Muschamp won't be able to play much man against Alabama's receivers. If he does, he will do so at his own risk. The Tigers simply don't have elite cornerback talent, and they will probably struggle against Bama's receivers as they have against other opponents throughout the season. If that holds true, the Auburn defense will be forced into zone coverages, which will make their pass rush and run defense even more suspect and prone to busts against the Bama offense.
What does this mean for the Alabama offense? Lawson will make his plays, and Muschamp will likely use him and veteran senior linebacker (and alternate Buck end) Cassanova McKinzy to attack the weak point in the Alabama offensive line, namely the right side. Right tackle Dominick Jackson has been banged up, and while the play on that side of the line has improved throughout the year, there are still breakdowns in play at times.
That said, there's only so much the Tigers will be able to do to slow down the Alabama running attack, as there's no mystery to what Alabama will attempt to do. They'll line up, use their superior size along the line, and attempt to brutalize the defensive front seven as they have for the second half of the season. When Derrick Henry gets the ball, he will follow his blocks and pound away until a broken tackle or mismatch in the second level allows him to break one of his trademark long runs. When the Tigers cue heavily on the run, Lane Kiffin and Coker will dial up strikes to Ridley, Richard Mullaney and ArDarius Stewart.
Carl Lawson or not, the Tigers will play above their heads for a quarter or two but will be unable to take the physical beating they'll be asked to endure. There's nothing complicated about what Alabama will attempt to do to Auburn...it's really the grid-iron equivalent of MMA's "ground-and-pound," brutal and bloody. Given the short-comings of the Auburn defense, the Crimson Tide will likely have success, especially as the game wears on. The Tiger defense is not one that currently has the depth to win a battle of attrition, and Alabama will most assuredly drag the Tigers into the deep end of the fourth quarter to see if they sink or swim.
The Alabama defense against the Auburn offense
In previous seasons, this is the match-up in which the Tigers may have been favored. Given the seemingly unstoppable nature of the Malzahn variation of the hurry-up no-huddle offense, one would think that even a defense traditionally as solid as Alabama's would struggle to keep the dipsy-doo dunka-roo tempo offense from running rampant. Last year, Alabama ceded more points to Auburn than it did to any other opponent, and the Tigers put up an unheard-of number of yards against an Alabama defense, that by all accounts, was pretty damn good.
This season, however, the Tigers have not been the Gus Bus juggernaut of past campaigns. Without an elite dual-threat quarterback, the Auburn offense has become a paper Tiger: an offense that still manages impressive rushing yards but has not translated yardage totals into touchdowns, and more importantly, wins.
While their numbers on the season have not been as dreadful in regard to offense as they have been for the defense, 2015 has marked something of a drop-off for the Auburn unit many consider the team's strength. With a revolving door at quarterback manned alternately by Sean White and Jeremy Johnson (the latter of which many thought was the heir apparent to the Cam Newton-Nick Marshall throne at Auburn), the Tigers have not been able to muster the kind of passing attack they've enjoyed in past years. The Tigers are the 109th ranked passing offense in the nation (with 176 yards per game). While Auburn's offensive strength has indeed traditionally been the rushing attack, the Tigers use that rushing attack to create explosive plays in the passing game. This year, that dynamic does not seem to be in play.
Because of the lack of a mobile quarterback who is a legitimate running threat, the Tiger run game has also seen a reduction in productivity (thought the Tigers still rank in the SEC's top three in rushing). Though still in the nation's top 50 at 31st, averaging 200.9 yards per game on the ground, they do not possess the explosive power running game that they have fielded in past years. Though backs Peyton Barber (5-11, 225 pounds) and Jovon Robinson (6-0, 230 pounds) are both able, it's been the Tiger offensive line that has struggled at doing what the Auburn lines of the past several seasons have done well. Granted, there have been injuries along the line, and that could continue to haunt the Tigers against Alabama. Sophomore center Austin Golson (6-5, 304 pounds) may not be full-speed, if he can play at all. Junior left tackle Shon Coleman (6-6, 313 pounds) is also banged up, though he is expected to start. This is not good news for a Tiger line that will face what is easily the most dominant front seven in the Southeastern Conference, if not the country.
Injuries aside, the line will struggle against Alabama's wave-upon-wave of aggressive, gap-sound defensive linemen. There simply isn't a more physical, technically sound, NFL-ready starting defensive line in all of college football than the one the Tide fields this season. A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen will likely be playing in their final Iron Bowl, and even without that motivation throughout the season, the trio has been unstoppable. Opponents simply can't double one without the other two making them pay. Throw in the Tide's linebacker of choice, whether it be Ryan Anderson, Denzel Devall, Tim Willaims, Rashaad Evans or D.J. Pettway, and Alabama has the tools to consistently create a wave of pressure with a four-man rush.
Regardless of which Tiger quarterback starts the game (and all indications are that it will be Johnson), he will have a tall task in dealing with a front seven that will bully offensive linemen, bat balls, and create constant, unrelenting pressure. Malzahn can try to move the pocket to help his passer, but it will be of little consequence. The Alabama secondary is drastically improved since the early part of the year, and along with the ferocious pass rush, it's hard to imagine a scenario not involving black magic that would result in a prolific passing performance from the Tiger offense.
It's true that in his last three starts, Johnson has become more of the kind of quarterback Malzahn has traditionally used in his offense. In his last three games, the quarterback has been 40 for 58 passing with three touchdowns to one interception. But even then, he hasn't faced the onslaught he'll see this Saturday. The Tiger wide receiving corps really only has one standout in Ricardo Louis, who has amassed 44 catches for 675 yards and three touchdowns. No one else even comes close to that level of production. Outside of Louis, the Tiger receivers are pedestrian at best. There's little reason to believe that they'll slice through the Tide's sixth-ranked pass efficiency defense. The Tide will be able to confidently count on their defensive backs in man coverage, which makes the Alabama pass rush that much more effective and terrifying.
If the Tigers are going to move the ball against Alabama, they're going to have to come on the ground. And that, quite honestly, is a fool's errand against the Tide's second-ranked run defense. No team, regardless of scheme or back, has been able to do much of anything positive when running the ball. The Tigers' tailback tandem is not unlike Tennessee's combo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara (one a banger, the other a speedster)...and Alabama effectively shut them down. Robinson has the build of Leonard Fournette in addition to a similar physical running style...and yet Alabama rendered him ineffective as well. Whether it's been Fournette, Georgia's Nick Chubb, Tennessee's Hurd and Kamara or Arkansas' Alex Collins, the Alabama front seven has slammed the door shut on them all.
Another problem that Auburn has endured this year is the lack of the usual HUNH rapid-fire tempo. Malzahn and his ilk use the tempo like a tack-hammer to chip away at opponent endurance and resolve. It's a small strike against a defense, but incrementally, over the course of a game, the tactic takes its toll. That weapon, in large part, has been neutralized this season for the Tigers, as they've been forced to slow their hurry-up attack due to inexperience (and poor play in many instances) at the quarterback position. When Malzahn's offenses have been slowed, historically, those offenses are among his least prolific.
The Malzahn offense relies on one other factor to be able to control tempo, and that is first-down success. When the Tigers are able to gain chunks of positive yardage on first down, they can then "race-car" their opponents by rushing to the line and popping plays in quick succession. If the Tigers are stymied on first-down, their offense is simply not built to recover that set-back short of an explosive play on a subsequent down.
For whatever reason, the Tigers have struggled to generate the needed yardage on first-downs, as they are currently ranked 119th in first-down offense. It likely won't get any better against an Alabama defense that thrives off of putting opponents in second- and third-and-long situations. This represents just one more way on which the Tigers won't catch a break, as the Tide is ranked fifth nationally in first-down defense.
While statistics don't provide crystal-ball accuracy at predicting the future, this particular set indicates that there is really not a match-up that favors the Tigers against Alabama. Their strengths play into the Tide's strengths at best, and where the Tiger offense is weak, Alabama is strong in spades.
In short, despite all of Malzahn's flash-and-dash, there's little chance the Auburn offense will be able to accomplish what none since Ole Miss have been able to do against this Alabama defense. And if the Tide's defense dominates as it has through the month of November, then it will not matter how successful Alabama's offense ends up being...it will be enough.
The last time Tide place kicker Adam Griffith kicked a ball in Jordan-Hare Stadium, his work ended in a highly-publicized debacle the likes of which hasn't often been seen in the history of football.
But one wouldn't know it in reading about the kicker's newfound swagger after recuperating from an awful early season slump. Griffith has gotten progressively better, and while he likely won't be in a position to kick any game-winners this Saturday due to the Tide's likely dominance on both sides of the ball, it will be important to see if Griffith has indeed kicked to the side the scars of Iron Bowls past.
Alabama's return game has suddenly become a strength, generating two touchdowns last week on returns by Cyrus Jones. In the last two games, Jones has returned three punts for scores, and although two of those came against outclassed Charleston Southern, it is encouraging to see what was previously an afterthought become a weapon for this Alabama team that is already armed to the teeth.
Playing in Jordan-Hare Stadium is never a breeze, but this Alabama team plays exceedingly well on the road. With a chip on its shoulder and an enemy crowd roaring in its collective ear, this Tide team plays its best football. Count on the Auburn faithful to start the game off loud, but if Bama plays its game and executes to a standard, that same crowd could be filing to the exits by the middle of the third quarter.
Sure, there's a chance Alabama could falter. The turnover bug could bite. There's a chance the Tide could be staggered by early big plays on offense. There's even a chance that Muschamp and Company could devise a scheme to bottle up Henry for a few quarters and frustrate the wrecking ball back.
But are any of those things really likely? If one studies the statistics and the respective strengths and weaknesses of each team, it would appear that Auburn's chances of knocking off the Tide this weekend are something akin to a snow cone's chances on an Alabama sidewalk in August.
Quite simply, this is just not a very good Auburn team, and the Tide is peaking at the right time of the season with a defense that will likely go down in Alabama history and a running back that is the lead horse in the ace for a Heisman. Sure, stranger things have happened in this game over the eons. But so great is the disparity between these two teams, it would take a catastrophic meltdown for Alabama to lose this game, regardless of where it is played.
That said, it is the Iron Bowl, a series in which shocking moments bestow names on their respective contests for posterity. "Punt, Bama, Punt", "Wrong Way Bo," and "The Kick-6" are the reason this game is what it is. If things go as they should, Alabama will clinch another SEC West title. If Alabama struggles, turns the ball over, fails to capitalize on Auburn errors or plays with anything but razor-sharp focus...well, bad things (as unlikely as they may seem) could indeed happen.
And who wants to spend the rest of the season in "what-could-have-been" mode, watching giddy sportscasters roll footage of the next giant-killing freak play ad nauseum? Not me...hope for the best.