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Hope for the Best: Auburn

The climb to the top of the mountain gets steeper for the Tide, and it begins this week against a hated rival in what could be a game for the ages

NCAA Football: Alabama A&M at Auburn
Will it be Shaun White or Jeremy Johnson (pictured) who will get the start at QB versus Alabama?
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Undefeated. Untarnished. 11-0. That’s where the Crimson Tide finds itself after the rigors of the SEC schedule and an out-of-conference slate that included a rising USC team that knocked off then-undefeated Washington.

The road has been rugged, to say the least. Sure, Bama cruised through games against conference opponents like Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. But that’s not to say there weren’t hazards along the way…that much is known. In pursuit of that perfect record, Alabama had to stare down its former conqueror Ole Miss and win in a blazing shootout in which the victory wasn’t locked away for certain until the final moments. The Tide had to survive another slugfest, a defensive war, with LSU several weeks ago that was a gritty and tough a game as any champion has ever had to endure.

And now, on the brink of yet another SEC Championship game, the Tide stands as the only unblemished program in the nation, a paragon of gridiron excellence, a gladiator that has defeated all comers to date. A third consecutive trip to the College Football Playoffs is all but a foregone conclusion, as even if the Tide suffers a loss in its final two contests, surely Alabama has designated itself as one of the four best teams in the country.

But that crown will not be bestowed without a few final pitched battles. The SEC East Champion, Florida, awaits. First, however, the Tide must defeat a familiar foe that has in recent memory upset Alabama’s title hopes in unlikely fashion, and left the Crimson Tide with another painful moment for sports commentators to regale ad nauseum.

In this time of high Tide, Auburn has been little more than an occasional afterthought, save for two season (2010, 2013). It’s true the Tigers have made two appearances in the National Championship Game since Saban has been in Tuscaloosa. It’s almost as if there is some strange symbiosis between the two teams that propels not only Alabama, but their cross-state rival, to greater things. Granted, Auburn only seized the brass ring in one of those chances, while Alabama has gained four additional championships under Saban. But considering that their century-old football program has only one other championship (0.5 if you’re a hater) in the span of time before Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, a case could be made from a statistical standpoint.

The Auburn of 2016 has been a recovery project, to be sure. Just as many were ready to write off Gus Malzahn following the 2015 season, a campaign which saw his hind parts squarely affixed to the hottest of seats, the former high school Brainiac found a way to stitch together what has ended up being a pretty decent team. The Tigers aren’t back to form offensively with quarterback Shaun White (or whomever Malzahn has stuck behind center throughout the season) at the helm, but they are still one of the leading rushing teams in the Southeastern Conference. The big difference this season is that the oft-mocked Tiger defense has become a force to be reckoned with. Kevin Steele, a former Saban assistant who also spent time at LSU, has done a masterful job hemming together the talent left by three previous coordinators over a four-year span. He has created a spread-killing defense that is built to squelch exactly what Alabama does so well, and it is that come-uppance that may make this game closer than the nearly 20-point spread issued this week by Vegas.

How can Auburn, a team that lost to a mediocre Georgia team, possibly beat the once and future king of college football? Will Alabama really falter in the final stanza of what has been a dream season, with a legendary defense and a freshman quarterback who has taken the Tide offense by storm? Does Auburn have enough offense to squeak past the Tide defensive partition, even if the Tiger D does its job and holds Hurts and the offense in check?

Those answers are upon us, as we wait on the prickly points of pins and needles. For now, let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Auburn defense

Quite simply, this is where the game will be won or lost. Unlike previous recent match-ups between the two teams, this year’s edition of the storied Iron Bowl is unlikely to devolve into a high-scoring, gun-slinging offensive shootout. While both teams have prolific offenses, particularly when it comes to the running game, both teams likewise have stonewall defenses that are excellent against the run.

Auburn’s rush defense is ranked 17th nationally, giving up a mere 117.7 yard per game. That number is not Alabama defense-low, but it is respectable when one considers that the Tigers have played the likes of Texas A&M, LSU, and Georgia. Using advanced metrics, the picture is even clearer, as Auburn is ranked 15th in rush defense S&P+, which is a good indicator that their defense against teams that run the ball prolifically has been pretty sturdy.

But the raw numbers don’t really indicate why this will be a difficult match-up for Alabama. The only other defense of late that is ranked as highly as Auburn’s in terms of rush defense is LSU. As we saw several weeks ago, the Tigers of purple and gold were able to largely limit the Tide rushing attack, with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda leveraging stellar talent alongside an innovative, anti-spread scheme to keep Hurts in the pocket and largely stop Alabama’s mighty running game (which is currently ranked 13th…good for 249.8 yards per game). He let his elite edge rushers bookend the pocket, disrupting the lateral stretch runs that the Tide offense uses to set up so much of what they do. Instead of pursuing Hurts with reckless abandon, they instead attacked the mesh point, disrupting the timing which is the lifeblood of the spread zone read rushing attack. It was largely successful, as short of two or three pivotal plays that set up the only scores in a 10-0 game, LSU rendered Bama’s offense impotent.

Auburn is built to have the same kind of success, only through a different path altogether. The Tigers have weapons at end and tackle, as the defensive line is the strength of the defense. Montravius Adams (6-4, 309 pounds), Dontavius Russell (6-3, 308 pounds), and Carl Lawson (6-2, 253 pounds) are all potential NFL prospects (two of them are sure things), and in Steele’s spread-killer defense, they have thrived in their new roles.

Against pro-style teams, they can bring the pain in the pass rush and stuff the run between the tackles. But against spread teams, Steele uses the talent in innovative ways to attack what the spread does best, thus turning the strength of the spread offense back upon itself. Where many spread teams evacuate one side of a formation to create overwhelming numbers to the playside, Steele will have a wave of defenders offset that numbers advantage by attacking the weakened side of the offense to run the play down from behind. He can do that because he has elite speed and talent at the end in Lawson, and sure-fire block eaters in the center in Adams and Russell who can hold the point and let the pursuers run free.

Unlike what LSU did, Auburn’s defense will not focus on the mesh point per se. Of course, they’ll disrupt it when the opportunity presents itself, but where LSU put a target on it, Auburn will instead play a numbers game on the edge. They’ll pull a bait-and-switch with Lawson as the read defender, as he is athletic enough to sell an inside bite to the QB before breaking out and running down the laterally-tracking QB on zone read keeps. He can also stay at home to force the inside give, knowing that the Tiger scheme has those internal gaps filled with two-gapping linebackers and roving safeties.

The system has a great many moving parts, but the result is that it robs from the spread zone read offense the advantage of time created by a QB’s quick reads and subsequent reactions. The longer the defense can force the quarterback to hesitate at or behind the line of scrimmage, the more likely the play will generate a minimal gain. In a way, the Auburn defense is not as aggressive as the one LSU employed: it’s the run defense equivalent of a “mush rush,” in some ways. With Auburn’s D, there’s always the chance that the QB will find a receiver breaking open the longer the play goes, but with athletic defenders who can run a play down from sideline to sideline, typically, there isn’t enough time to execute a scramble passing attack with consistency.

What can Alabama do to take advantage of such a defensive game plan? There are several vectors to Tide success on offense, but they all start with sticking to the run early to gain intel and diagnose what the Tigers plan to do to counter the Tide O. Lane Kiffin has proved himself capable of probing an opposing defense for weakness, then exploiting it to the fullest extent. Expect Alabama to try some runs early, whether they are runs to the edge, or the inside zone stuff with the running backs that works well to counter defenses. Kiffin will watch what Auburn does. He’ll figure out which players react to particular movements in the Tide offense. As the picture becomes clear, he will be able to scheme against those movements, put Auburn on their heels, and attack vacated areas revealed by the tendencies both in the passing and running games.

For example, if Auburn consistently keeps the read defender at home and draws a safety down to provide run support and stretch the edge running play wide, there are plays to be made on bubble screens between the hashes. Kiffin can build these options into RPOs for Hurts to use if he reads those Tiger reactions at the snap, and even if they aren’t game-breaking explosive plays, they will help string together the sorts of long drives that will ultimately place the nails in Auburn’s coffin. If Steele wants to use man-1 blitzes to press the Tide on third-and-longs, then there will be opportunities for Hurts to option to a zone read run and gain a mismatch with a big back on a safety, or take advantage of likely skill position mismatches when, say, a Tiger linebacker is asked to cover ArDarius Stewart.

Once Kiffin has a handle on what the Tigers are trying to accomplish, there will be plays for the Tide offense to make. The question will be whether Hurts, who will be playing in his first Iron Bowl (albeit in front of a friendly crowd), will be able to execute in the moment, particularly when opportunities present themselves for big plays to be made in the passing game. In recent weeks, the young quarterback has shown off his arm, even hitting receivers in stride deep across the field and over the middle. Even still, he has work to do on his reads and decision-making, which is to be expected for a freshman. If he can take the same kind of step forward against Auburn that he’s taken against the previous two foes, then the freshman could have a tremendous day against a Tiger defense that, while not anemic against the pass, is not an elite secondary.

One other key will be the play of Alabama’s offensive line. As previously stated, the strength of the Tiger defense is its front four, which is as good as any team in conference not named Alabama. With Lawson, Adams, Russell, and freshman Marlon Davidson (6-3, 273 pounds), the Alabama line will have its hands full in protecting Hurts. The Tigers have shown they can dominate the point of attack against solid offensive lines, and Lawson is an elite NFL-talent as a pass rusher (he has nine sacks on the season and 12.5 tackles for loss).

They will come after Hurts…there’s no doubt about that. Against other elite pass rushers this year, Alabama has had a mixed bag of results. They largely neutralized Myles Garrett in the A&M game and Derek Barnett against Tennessee, but then gave up three sacks last week to UT-Chattanooga. It is possible that there may be some flux in the middle of the line as well, with the right guard position a bit of a question mark. Korren Kirven got the last two starts after sophomore Lester Cotton held the position for the previous several weeks. Against UTC, Kirven was injured, as was starting left tackle Cam Robinson. Saban said this week both were expected to play, as the two linemen suffered shoulder stingers against the Mocs last week. Though the injuries are believed to be minor, against a defensive line like the one the Tigers field, a small injury could become a liability.

The Tide’s true freshman right tackle Jonah Williams has been excellent throughout the season, but he’ll likely draw the nasty duty of matching up against Lawson on the edge. Williams doesn’t seem to struggle against lighter, faster ends like his counterpart Robinson has at times, but handling Lawson play-in and play-out is a tall task indeed. The freshman will need to play the best game of his career to date to keep the Tiger Buck in check. That said, to his credit, Williams faces off routinely against the likes of Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson, and Jonathan Allen in practice, so he may be well-prepared for dealing with the likes of Lawson. In truth, it would be surprising if Lawson doesn’t get a sack or two, as his tools are truly next-level.

For Alabama, the overall strategy is the same as it has been all year: string together long, time consuming scoring drives that lean heavily upon the run. Take the explosive plays in the passing game when they present themselves. Grind. Let the defense do its job, and keep control of the ball and field position to keep the D fresh. It’s a simple recipe, no matter what spices Kiffin throws into the pot to achieve those ends. If Alabama can march the field consistently and produce even field goals on the scoreboard in the first half, the prospects for a Tide win will be great as the Tigers’ depth becomes an issue late, as was the case when Bama played LSU.

The Auburn defense has proven itself this season, and the Tigers are a worthy adversary. What they do is simple schematically, and they play aggressively and with speed as a result. They can disrupt what Alabama does best, and the Tide won’t be able to rely on brute force to get the job done this time around against the Tigers. Kiffin will need to be on top of his play-calling game, and Hurts will need to take yet another step forward as a passer to keep the Auburn defense honest. These things are all within the realm of possibility, so there’s no reason to panic.

But, the outcome could also be the kind of defensive stalemate that unfolded in Baton Rouge, with a single explosive play from either offense being the deciding factor. Auburn definitely has the defense to confound Alabama if Kiffin is out of synch, if he has trouble diagnosing tendencies, if Hurts struggles on his reads, or if the offensive line can’t stave back the Tiger penetration from the pass rush. The Tiger defense is the key, as their performance will determine whether or not Auburn stays in the game. The Tiger offense will not shred Alabama’s D, so the whole venture for the Plainsmen rests upon their defense keeping Alabama’s offense in check, putting the ball in the hands of the Tiger O, and keeping the score close late into the game.

The Alabama defense versus the Auburn offense

This portion of the game will be a little more certain, as the Tide defense at this point is a known commodity. Alabama continues to lead the nation in rushing defense in all metrics, allowing an astounding 68.9 yards per game on the ground. The Tide has played the same excellent rushing teams the Tigers have played, and the result is a 40+ yard differential in average number of yards allowed. What Alabama is doing defensively against the run is historic, and there’s no reason to believe that a banged-up Auburn offense with a pittance of a passing game can do much to offset that trend short of a miracle.

Auburn is an excellent rushing team, as they generally are under Malzahn’s leadership. They are ranked fifth nationally with 297.8 yards per game, though their rushing S&P+ ranking is only 41st. Kerryon Johnson (6-0, 211 pounds) and Kamryn Pettway (6-0, 240 pounds) have proven themselves an electric tandem of backs, and they have carried the Tiger offense this season behind an excellent, veteran offensive line led by senior center Alex Kozan (6-4, 310 pounds). Pettway has been the more punishing of the backs, a 240-pound sledgehammer who is at home slicing between the tackles in Malzahn’s power spread offense. The sophomore has accounted for 1106 yards this season (6.4 yards per carry) and averages over 138 yards per game. However, Pettway has missed the previous two games, and the results have not been positive. The Tigers did well against lowly Alabama A&M last week, but against Georgia, the Tigers sans Pettway were unable to muster any momentum on the ground en route to a loss between the hedges.

Johnson is pencilled in as the starter with Pettway’s status in question, though he too is a little banged up. Johnson has been the lightning to Pettway’s thunder this season, accounting for 823 yards (82.3 yards per game), 5.0 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns. Johnson is a solid back with speed and agility, but part of what has made the Tiger rushing offense so explosive this season has been the ability of Malzahn to go with the hot hand and bang back and forth between the two stylistically-different runners depending on the opponent. With Johnson limited, even if a dinged-up Pettway can play, it won’t be enough to overcome the already-insurmountable obstacle posed by the Tide defense.

If the Tigers had a proficient passing game, the prospects may be a little brighter. Again, due to injury, there’s no telling who will get the start against Alabama. Will it be the pedestrian Shaun White (6-0, 200 pounds), the starter for much of the year who has been efficient but lackluster for most of the season? Or will it be senior Jeremy Johnson (6-5, 234 pounds), the former Tiger starter who has been relegated to a back-up role this season. Johnson had a good outing against Alabama A&M, but does he have what it takes to slash and burn Bama’s elite defense? Even if White can go, does he have what it takes to move the ball through the air against Bama’s top-20 pass defense? Neither prospect is a good one if you’re a Tiger fan.

To make matters worse, Alabama’s front seven is a sack machine, and they will likely be angry after a rather poor showing last week against an FCS opponent. The game marked the first game of the season in which the Tide didn’t record a single-sack, and even if the Mocs focused on preventing sacks over winning the game, that performance likely didn’t sit well with the Tide leadership up front. They will have a collective chip on their shoulder this week, a fact that will be amplified by the nature of the rivalry game. Allen said this week he still has memories of the championship the Tigers “stole” from Bama in the 2013 Kick-6 game, so it’s clear the ember still burns hot when it comes to beating Auburn.

Though the Tigers have a really solid, experienced line, Alabama’s front has made mincemeat of equally as talented, equally as experienced lines this season. There’s no way Alabama D line will allow itself to be shown up by Auburn’s front seven…not now, not ever. The forge in the heart of the Alabama defense will be superheated for this game, and the results will be an Auburn backfield constantly under duress.

Auburn will try to run, but if they stay true to form this season, they will likely fail. And when they do, they won’t have a passing game to fall back upon (Auburn is ranked 108th nationally in passing offense with 175.7 yards per game, with a passing S&P+ rating ranked 39th). Even their mighty rushing game poses little threat, as Alabama has become familiar with a very similar system run by the Tide offense every day in practice.

If White plays, Auburn may complete short passes, but it won’t be the explosive type that will be needed to make Alabama release their grip on the line of scrimmage. That said, Alabama could play a lot of nickel if they wanted to, since the “nickel rabbits” package will allow the Tide to get ferocious pressure with four or five rushers on every down without paying a price on the back end. (Such is the beauty of a roster laoded with 4- and 5-star players coached up by the best staff in college football.)

If Johnson gets the start, Alabama could also start another non-offensive touchdown streak, as Johnson has proven himself turnover prone in past seasons. He’s not faced a defense like the one he’ll meet Saturday, and the prospect of him retaining the wherewithal to make reads and run through progressions under fear for his life is not great.

The best hope for the Tiger offense is that the Auburn defense can keep the game close going into the closing stanza of the game. At that point, a single Crimson Tide mistake could spell the difference in the game. A single breakdown, a single blown assignment, a single broken tackle. Those mistakes could change the game if the score is close, as was the case for Alabama against LSU. Auburn has a good team overall, but they’re not on Alabama’s level. If the Tide defense can lock down the Tiger running game, harass the passer, and generate a few turnovers, then the Bama offense can get away with a middling performance en route to a Tide victory.

Special Teams

Alabama continues to see consistency from punter J.K. Scott, and if this game does turn into a defensive battle ala LSU, his services will be as critical in this game as they were in Baton Rouge. Never underestimate the ability of a punter with a leg like Scott’s from changing the tone of a game. He can single-handedly flip the field on an opponent with one swing of the leg, and in Alabama’s overall strategy, field position remains a critical component. Against a sure-to-be-stingy Auburn defense, Scott will once again be a weapon if he can help keep the Tide from becoming pinned in its own end of the field. Also, Auburn’s offense on a short field can be stress-inducing, so his work will help the Tide defense continue their reign of terror as well.

Adam Griffith has done what’s been asked of him for the most part as of late, and one can hope that his history in this game will have him extremely dialed in and ready this week. In a defensive struggle, a solid kicker is a definite plus, and Griffith must be on top of his game if the Tide is forced to resort to field goals to get an edge on the scoreboard.

Trevon Diggs appears to be seated in as the Tide’s primary punt returner, and it’s only a matter of time before he puts his explosive speed and athleticism to good use. One can hope this week serves as an introduction to the kind of future he likely has before him as a returner.

Auburn is fortunate enough to have one of the top three place-kickers in the nation with Daniel Carson. Carlson is money-in-the-bank when it comes to kicking prowess, as he is extremely accurate and has a cannon of a leg. He’s hit 22-of-25 on the season, with two of his three misses being blocked kicks. He has a long of 53, and Carlson hasn’t truly missed (as in, missed without a block) a kick less than 50 yards all year. Carlson is the standard kickers aspire to reach, and if the Iron Bowl becomes a defensive battle of wills, the place kicking advantage is decidedly in Auburn’s favor.

Kevin Phillips handles the punting for the Tigers, and he’s having a workmanlike year, averaging 41.6 yards per punt with a long of 68 yards. Handling the return duties on punts is receiver Marcus Davis, who is averaging 7.1 yards per return, and he is backed up by safety Stephen Davis, who has returned four punts for an average of 10 yards per return. Kicks are returned by Kerryon Johnson (24.6 yard average) and Rudy Ford (15.9 yard average).

It’s time for the Tide’s final ascent to the top to begin. But before they can plant their flag atop the SEC and continue on to the summit of collegiate football, they must first scale one last rocky crag, one remaining precipice that is nearly as old as the programs that will participate in this Saturday’s edition of the Iron Bowl.

The game has produced unexpected outcomes before, and despite the large point spread that favors Alabama, all signs point to this edition being another grudge match. However, it will be a game that is the polar opposite of 2014’s defenseless shootout, as both defenses this season have far too much talent, and too much pride, to allow that kind of dynamic to develop.

While many consider the Tigers a little overrated as a three-loss team, one need only look at the stats and the schemes Auburn uses to envision a scenario in which this game is much closer than expected heading into the final stages. Not only does Auburn match up quite well against Alabama’s strengths, but they will also have the advantage of being able to play loose. After all, they have nothing to lose, everything to gain. A loss, and their bowl stock won’t slide too much. They have already lost any chance at a claim on the SEC West title. But a win over Alabama…that would transform Auburn’s year from a middlin’ campaign that likely saved Malzahn’s job, to a jewel in the crown of the program that could easily erase the three losses suffered in the eyes of the Auburn faithful.

For Alabama, the stakes are infinitely higher. The Tide is playing for perfection, something only one other Saban-coached Tide championship team has ever achieved. Alabama has secured its place in the SEC Championship Game, but a loss to Auburn would make the SECCG a must-win in order for the Tide’s playoff hopes to move forward. If the Tide beats Auburn, even a loss in the championship game would still leave them in the top-4 teams when the committee makes its final selections.

Then there is the subject of pride, or bragging rights. This Alabama team has tasted the sour mash of loss to the cross-state rival in the recent past, as the Tide lost in eviscerating fashion in 2013 on the final play of the game. The leadership of this Tide team knows what it means to lose this game, and one can believe they’ll leave nothing on the field so long as victory remains in their grasp.

Will Auburn do the unthinkable this weekend and bask in the joy of spoiling the perfect season of their most hated rival? Will the Auburn defense replicate the effort of LSU in holding the potent Alabama offense to the flames? Can the Auburn offense be productive enough against Alabama’s stellar defense to muster a win in even the most low-scoring of games?

Or will Alabama prove Vegas prescient with a dominant three-score victory powered by the Tide’s running game? Can Hurts continue his steady improvement as a total quarterback and take advantage of the opening presented by the Auburn secondary? Will Alabama’s defense pitch another shutout against the despised Auburn Tigers to cement its place in Crimson Tide lore?

Those answers and more await us on Saturday afternoon. The stakes are now higher than they’ve been at any point this season…hope for the best.