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Hope for the Best: Auburn edition

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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: UL Monroe at Auburn
A win over Bama could really help Malzahn’s career, regardless of where he is next season.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Unconquered. 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 team many considered a preseason contender in FSU.

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 closest SEC neighbor Mississippi State and win a heart-stopping cage match of a game in which the victory wasn’t locked away for certain until the final 25 seconds. The Tide had to survive another slugfest, the most recent annual battle in a longstanding war, with LSU several weeks ago that was a gritty and tough a game as any potential champion has had to endure in 2017.

Now, on the brink of yet another SEC Championship game, the Tide stands as one of only four unblemished programs in the nation, a paragon of gridiron excellence, a gladiator that has defeated all comers to date. A fourth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoffs is not only possible, but likely. Even if the Tide suffers a loss in its final two contests, Alabama has probably designated itself as one of the four best teams in the country (though admittedly, the Committee has proven itself somewhat fickle this season).

That crown will not be bestowed without a few final pitched battles. The SEC East Champion, newly-minted contender in Georgia, awaits. First, 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 voodoo-powered seasons (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 team of 2017 has been surprisingly resilient, to be sure. After a rocky first half of the season that featured losses to a rebuilding, Deshaun Watson-less Clemson and a subpar LSU team, Auburn put itself back on the map with a victory over then-number-one ranked Georgia. 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 in 2017. The Tigers are back to form offensively with pre-season Heisman quarterback Jared Stidham at the helm, and they are still one of the leading rushing teams in the Southeastern Conference working out of Malzahn’s Power Spread scheme.

The big difference this season is that the previously oft-mocked Tiger defense has become a force with which to be reckoned. Kevin Steele, a former Saban assistant who also spent time at LSU, has done a masterful job in his two-year tenure of 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 led Vegas to install Alabama as only a four-point favorite heading into the game.

How can Auburn, a team that lost to a mediocre LSU squad, possibly beat the once and future king of college football? Will Alabama really falter in the final stanza of what has been a surprisingly efficient season, with a banged-up but still stout defense and a dark horse Heisman-candidate quarterback who has taken the Tide offense to the next level this season? 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 16th nationally, giving up a mere 118.8 yard (actually one yard more than at the same point last season) per game. That number is not Alabama-low, but it is respectable when one considers that the Tigers have played the likes of Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU, and Georgia. Using advanced metrics, the picture is even clearer, as Auburn is ranked first in rush defense S&P+, which is a good indicator that their defense against teams that run the ball prolifically has been relatively 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 Mississippi State, and even they only just made it into the top-25 (25th in rushing defense). As we saw several weeks ago, the Bulldogs were able to largely limit the Tide rushing attack, which would indicate that as good as Bama has been on the ground, they can be stopped if their offensive line struggles. Auburn has the kind of defensive front – large, physical, and veteran – that gave Bama fits against MSU a few weeks ago, making the prospect of such an outcome in the Iron Bowl appear at least feasible.

Even LSU fared well against the Bama ground game, with Tiger 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 ninth…good for 270.3 yards per game, or roughly 30 yards better than the average last year heading into the Iron Bowl). Aranda 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 closely contested game, LSU frustrated Bama’s usually potent offense.

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. Derrick Brown (6-5, 315 pounds), Dontavius Russell (6-3, 310 pounds), and Jeff Holland (6-2, 2549 pounds) are all potential NFL prospects, and in Steele’s spread-killer defense, they have thrived in their new roles.

Against traditional 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 Holland, and sure-fire block eaters in the center in Brown and Russell who can hold the point and let the pursuers run free.

Unlike what LSU did in the past two years, 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 Holland 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 keeps. He can also stay at home to force the inside give when Alabama is in a zone look, 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 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. Bama OC Brian Daboll has proven himself capable of probing an opposing defense for weakness, then exploiting those weaknesses. Expect Alabama to try some runs early, whether they are runs to the edge, or some of the inside zone stuff with the running backs that Alabama retained from last season that works well to counter defenses. Daboll 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 myriad screens and the newly-found slants between the hashes. Daboll 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 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 Josh Jacobs.

Once Daboll 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 in rowdy Jordan Hare Stadium, 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 progressing quarterback has shown off his arm, even hitting receivers in stride deep across the field and over the middle on well-thrown, tightly-contested slants. If he can take the same kind of step forward against Auburn that he’s taken throughout the 2017 season, then Hurts could have a tremendous day against a Tiger defense that, while not anemic against the pass (they’re ranked 62nd in pass defense, 11th in team passing efficiency defense, and first in pass defense S&P+), is not an elite secondary in terms of personnel.

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 Holland, Brown, Russell, and sophomore end Marlon Davidson (6-3, 282 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 Holland is an elite NFL-talent as a pass rusher (he has nine sacks on the season and 12 tackles for loss, and 19 quarterback hurries).

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. While Alabama’s “sacks allowed” metric isn’t terrible (they’re ranked 49th nationally, allowing 20 sacks total in 2017), those sacks have too often been drive-killers that resulted in aborted series at key moments in games. Alabama’s line appeared to be improved earlier on in the season, but it may have been a function of withering competition rather than improvement of performance. It’s not that the line is lacking in talent or experience. Rather, quite the contrary is true. But at times, they’ve suffered a degree of inconsistency, and far too often, elite edge rushers (whether they were light ends, linebackers, or safeties) have managed to squirt through and add pressure where there should have been a clean pocket.

The Tide’s best lineman has been left tackle Jonah Williams, but he’ll likely draw the nasty duty of matching up against Holland on the edge. Williams doesn’t seem to struggle against lighter, faster ends as much as previous Bama left tackles, but handling Holland play-in and play-out is a tall task indeed. Williams 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 Bama’s elite edge-rushing athletes, so he may be well-prepared for dealing with the likes of Holland. In truth, it would be surprising if Holland 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. Allow J.K. Scott to do J.K. Scot type things in the field position battle. It’s a simple recipe, no matter what spices Daboll 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 and MSU.

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. Much like his players, Daboll 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 Starkville two weeks ago, with a single explosive play from either offense being the deciding factor. Auburn has the defense to confound Alabama if the offense is out of synch, if Daboll 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 Auburn stays in the game. The Tiger offense will not shred Alabama’s D even with the considerable injuries the Tide has suffered on that side of the ball, 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

The battle on the other wise of the ball will be more straightforward, but nonetheless daunting. Auburn will seek to execute its Power Spread running game with an immobile quarterback and absolutely no tailback depth behind Kerryon Johnson, and Alabama will hope for the best where true freshman middle linebacker must step into the fray following an unprecedented barrage of injuries.

That said, the Tide defense continues to be a difficult puzzle to solve for most offenses that depend on the run. Alabama continues to lead the nation in total defense (244.1 yards allowed per game), allowing a respectable 87.4 yards on the ground (good for second behind Wisconsin). The Tide has played the same excellent rushing teams the Tigers have played, and the result is a 30+ yard differential in average number of yards allowed. What Alabama is doing defensively against the run in 2017 is the same thing it’s been doing for years, and there’s no reason to believe that a banged-up Auburn running game with modest air support in the passing game can do much to offset that trend.

Auburn is an excellent rushing team, as they generally are under Malzahn’s leadership. They are ranked 18th nationally with 244 yards per game (50 yards less per game than in 2016 at this point), though their rushing S&P+ ranking is only 23rd. Kerryon Johnson (6-0, 212 pounds) is the lone experienced survivor in the Auburn backfield thanks to injuries, and along with Stidham’s injection of a passing game, the RB/QB combo has carried the Tiger offense this season behind an excellent, veteran offensive line led by senior left tackle Austin Golson (6-5, 312 pounds). The line is hearty and stout, four seniors and a sophomore bolstering the AU front.

Everyone knows what to expect out of the Tiger offense. It will be run-heavy. They’ll let the line do the work up front. They’ll put Johnson in the pistol, sometimes with a lead-blocking fullback, and try to gash the middle of the Bama D. For a change of pace, they’ll use sophomore scatback Kam Martin (5-10, 182 pounds) and his speed to break to the edge, whether through the running game or with screens. Then Stidham will set up the play-action and hope to catch Bama’s secondary sleeping with one of his Hail Mary-style downfield passes. There will be lots of motion, lots of misdirection, all in an effort to obfuscate with eye-candy and keep the Tide defense on their heels.

The Tigers may have improved chances this year due to Stidham’s addition to the Auburn backfield, as he has displayed some acumen in the passing game that his predecessors lacked. That said, he isn’t Johnny Football 2.0, and even his sharpness as a passer could be argued. The Auburn wide receivers aren’t necessarily an elite group, though the new quarterback at least distributes the ball well (six of the top eight receivers have in excess of 200 yards receiving on the season). Still, the Tigers bring the nation’s 62nd ranked passing offense into the game (231.9 yards per game), with the advanced metrics bettering their station (they are ranked 14th in passing S&P+.

Auburn’s passing game is an outgrowth of the running game, and Stidham’s “heave-ho” quarterbacking style depends on the AU receivers beating their coverage and basically winning the battle for jump balls when the QB fires the ball downfield. The Auburn receivers don’t run particularly sharp routes, honestly: they generally make a quick first move to create separation, run to a loose zone that Stidham tries to hit (rather than a precise route and pass), then they use ball skills to make the reception. Stidham’s accuracy is a problem for the Tiger offense, but he has connected on enough downfield plays (he’s second in the conference on completions of over 30 yards), as he 22 receptions greater than 30 yards, 17 greater than 40 yards, and 10 greater than 50 yards. Auburn may not have the sharpest passing game, but Stidham is a 67.8 percent passer who has had decent success with the deep ball.

While Alabama’s front seven this year isn’t the sack machine of the last two seasons, they are formidable nonetheless. The Tide defense has 30 sacks on the season, tying Alabama for 21st nationally. Those sacks are not originating as often from the defensive line and Jack linebacker position, as Jeremy Pruitt has used more manufactured pressure from unique angles to catch offenses off guard. But the end result is the same, and Alabama continues to be disruptive to opposing passing games (they are ranked first in team passing efficiency defense, tenth in interceptions, fifth in passing S&P+, and third in passing defense, allowing 156.7 yards per game on average). After hearing how great the Auburn defense is for the last two weeks, the Bama defense will have a collective chip on their shoulder this week, a fact that will be amplified by the nature of the rivalry game. And with a motivated former Auburn resident and commit Rashaan Evans terrorizing the offensive backfield, expect the Tide to add to their sack totals this Saturday. 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.

It must also be noted that the crux of Alabama’s preseason excitement regarding the pass rush – specifically OLBs Terrell Lewis and Christian Miller – may be back in play to some degree in the Iron Bowl. In a Saban rope-a-dope, it was revealed on Wednesday that the pocket-crushing duo (along with MLB Mack Wilson) may be available this Saturday, as they returned to practice. Earlier in the week, Saban indicated their statuses were highly questionable, but it now appears that they could see some action, bolstering a thin depth situation at linebacker for a Bama defense that can be dominant with a few more able bodies.

Against Alabama’s pass defense/ secondary, 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 loaded with 4- and 5-star players coached up by the best staff in college football.)

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 MSU. Auburn has an excellent team overall, but they’re still 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 Mississippi State, his services will be as critical in this game as they were in Starkville. 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.

With Andy Pappanastos’ status still unsure (he’s expected to be available but his status is unknown), it may be that Scott is also called upon at place kicker, a role he fulfilled last week with aplomb. That said, Alabama needs to maintain consistency in the position whether Pappanastos or Scott ultimately gets the call. In a defensive struggle, a solid kicker is a definite plus, and either kicker must be on top of his game if the Tide is forced to resort to field goals to get an edge on the scoreboard.

Xavian Marks 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 a demonstration of his world-class speed and agility.

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. That said, 2017 hasn’t been his best year on the Plains. He’s hit 19-of-25 on the season, with only two of his six misses being blocked kicks. He has a long of 54. His troubles this season aside, 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.

Freshman Aidan Marshall handles the punting for the Tigers, and he’s having a workmanlike year, averaging 39.8 yards per punt with a long of 70 yards. Handling the return duties on punts is receiver Stephen Roberts, who is averaging 7.9 yards per return. Kicks are returned by freshman WR Noah Igbinoghene, who is averaging 23.1 yards per return with a long of 70 yards.

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, but the series is not a “throw the records out the window” situation if history is the believed. However, this year Bama is only a 4.5-point favorite, and all signs point to this edition being another bloodied-knuckle 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 two-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 actually have a shot of winning the West, and facing a team they’ve already beaten in Georgia for a SEC Championship. After the loss to LSU, not many gave the Tigers much of a chance of such a lofty goal, but they’ve played their way back into contention, and Alabama marks the final hurdle to reaching that unexpected outcome. Not to mention, a win over Alabama would likely further bolster Malzahn’s job security, and become a jewel in the crown of the program that could easily erase the two 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 still must secure its place in the SEC Championship Game to be guaranteed a seat at the playoff table, and a loss to Auburn would require the intervention of Football Loki to legitimately keep the Tide’s playoff hopes moving forward. If the Tide beats Auburn, even a loss in the championship game would still probably leave them in the top-4 teams when the committee makes its final selections.

Then there is the subject of pride, or bragging rights. The Tide hasn’t lost the Iron Bowl since the eviscerating last-second loss (that shall not be named) in 2013, but the players on this year’s squad are know well the pain and suffering that comes on the tail of a loss to the Tigers. 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 MSU in holding the potent Alabama offense to the flames? Can the Auburn offense be productive enough against Alabama’s patchwork defense to muster a win in even the most low-scoring of games?

Or will Alabama prove Vegas prescient with a closely-contested 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 a winning effort against the despised Auburn Tigers to earn 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.