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Iron Bowl Preview: When Alabama has the ball

The Tide offense will be tough sledding for an outmanned Auburn group.

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Alabama The Montgomery Advertiser-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for reasons that the point spread for this year’s Iron Bowl is as large as it is, Auburn’s defense that is well below their typical standard is the first place to start. To be sure, this isn’t a terrible unit, but it’s one that does little exceptionally well. The Tigers have surrendered 237 passing yards per game at 7.5 per attempt, and 165 per game on the ground at 4.0 per rush. Those rushing numbers increase to 187 and 4.3 respectively when you remove one outlier performance against a LSU bunch that has mailed it in and couldn’t run very well to begin with.

If the Alabama offense clicks as it has all season, this one will be a walk. Still, this defense isn’t completely devoid of talent. The Tigers are led on that side by their LBs. After starting MLB K.J. Britt went down early in the season, Zacoby McClain and Owen Pappoe have played the lion’s share of the snaps. You probably remember McClain as the fellow who found a football in his lap after it bounced off the back of Najee Harris last season. Both he and former five-star Pappoe have plenty of athleticism, but as the rushing numbers above indicate, run fits haven’t always been the best. Still, these two have combined for 133 tackles and four sacks, and Pappoe has added an interception. Saban described this group as active and athletic, and that they are. Gus Malzahn has indicated that Britt has a chance to return this week as well, which would serve to bolster the unit.

The biggest issue for Auburn this season has been up front. Defensive line play has been their calling card for the past few seasons, and it just isn’t there this season. Senior DE Markaviest Bryant was supposed to lead this unit but has had a rather disappointing campaign. He has reportedly been slowed by nagging injuries. Inside, Auburn relies on senior Tyrone Truesdell and freshman Colby Wooden. As the rushing numbers suggest, this has been a fairly nondescript group.

Secondary play has actually been the strength of this Auburn squad, led by junior safety Smoke Monday. Monday got the other pick six in last year’s contest. He has managed one interception and 42 tackles this year, including a sack. Monday and running mate Jamien Sherwood have combined with long, athletic corners Jaylin Simpson and Roger McCreary to limit opposing WRs in recent weeks, as Ole Miss star Elijah Moore and LSU’s Terrance Marshall Jr. managed only 43 yards between them. Devonta Smith will undoubtedly draw that kind of attention from the Tigers. Of course, Alabama’s offensive line should require additional resources in the run game and force this secondary to cover Smith a bit longer.

Schematically, you can always expect the unexpected when Auburn plays Alabama. Kevin Steele has been known for his blitz happy ways over the years, but this season has been a bit more conservative, likely owing to the relative lack of experience up front and in the back end. Against LSU, they were able to pay extra attention to Marshall and still stuff the run, but this Auburn front isn’t capable of holding up against the Tide rushing attack. If Steele chooses the conservative, bend-don’t-break strategy that he has for most of this season, or tries the 3-7-1 innovation that they used to limit Joe Burrow last season, then Najee Harris will have a massive day.

As is the case with most college defenses, it’s tough to imagine a path to success for this Auburn group against the Tide this year that doesn’t involve uncharacteristic mistakes by Alabama. As long as Steve Sarkisian is able to keep things humming while he manages the game in place of Nick Saban, this should be another very impressive showing for the Alabama offense.

Roll Tide.