A lot of ink will be spilled this week on Mac Jones and his first start in a truly adverse environment, on the road against the No. 16 Auburn Tigers. That is fair; it’s hard to lose a player the caliber of Tua Tagovailoa and not have the focus be on how his replacement will perform.
However, this game will be won (or lost) for the Tide on a much more fundamental level — at the line of scrimmage.
Auburn’s defensive front has been a wrecking crew this year. Led by Outland Trophy finalist Derrick Brown, the Tigers stuff the run very well and are able to exert such pressure on the quarterback that Auburn can play it fairly conservative in the defensive backfield and protect corners that are prone to allowing the big play.
It is a talent and strategy that has paid dividends.
Auburn is 10th in scoring defense, allowing 16.2 points per game. The Tigers surrender just 3.27 yards per rush and are 18th in running defense. Through the air, the Tigers are 32nd in completion percentage allowed (just under 57%), a stingy 3rd in yards per attempt, and 28th in passing defense. Overall, the Tigers are 14th in total defense, get about 8 tackles for loss per contest, are 4th in fumbles forced and 3rd in fumbles recovered.
On the other side, the Alabama Crimson Tide’s offensive line again is a talented unit. They are led by two potential early-round NFL tackles (Jedrick Wills and Alex Leatherwood) and the emergence of nasty center Landon Dickerson. The return of Cornbread, Deonte Brown, from suspension has not coincidentally keyed a more physical Alabama rushing attack down the stretch. A beneficiary of their success has been Najee Harris, who has been a machine the last month. Harris is averaging 6.0 ypc picking up 10 rushing scores. He’s chipped in another 273 yards receiving and seven scores as a lethal weapon out of the backfield.
But the greatest recipient of the Tide’s success upfront has been a ‘Bama QB group that leaves the stadium with clean jerseys. The Moore Trophy finalists have keyed an Alabama offense that is second in scoring (48.5) and gains 5.04 yards per carry for 24 total rushing scores. They have surrendered just 11 sacks on the season (T-4th) and are 17th in TFL allowed — just over 4 a game.
This has allowed Alabama to lead the nation in passing efficiency, place 3rd in passing yards per game, and be second in passing touchdowns. And, efficient it is — the Tide is 3rd in 3rd down conversion percentage (54%), have picked up 65% of their 4th down tries, and they have helped turn 37 of Alabama’s 54 red zone attempts into touchdowns (85% overall RZ success).
So, this is it. This is your matchup of the Iron Bowl. Indeed, it is the matchup of the season for the Tide. An efficient, quick-hitting offensive gameplan will decide it — one that establishes the line of scrimmage and makes the Tigers pay for their mistakes through the air — Auburn is just 64th in explosive passing plays allowed.
Yes, the performance of Mac Jones is important, but you get the sense that it will be the fortunes of Najee Harris behind this offensive line that determines the winner...and with it Alabama’s playoff fortunes. This is setting up to be a good ole’ fashioned SEC matchup of power offense and sound defense — strength on strength, hat-on-a-hat for 60 minutes.
The question for Alabama is whether they are still stout enough, and mentally tough, enough to win one of these. If the Tide wants to prove it is a playoff team, then that question must be answered emphatically, affirmatively on Saturday.