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A deep dive look at the Saban vs. Malzahn series

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Spoiler: it hasn’t been as close as the record would suggest.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Alabama
“How does one team get this lucky?”
Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of weeks ago, we reported that the NCAA had changed a couple of rules that, if enacted before the 2019 season, may have made some difference in the outcome of the Auburn game. This post struck a nerve with some Auburn folk, clearly yet another RBR hit piece. Auburn fans love to crow about the fact that Gus Malzahn has a better record against Saban than any other SEC coach, which is the most Auburn thing ever since he is still below .500 in the series, even suggesting that Malzahn’s wins are the result of “out-coaching” Nick. In any event, we thought we’d take a deeper look at the series to see just how close it has, or hasn’t, been.

Iron Bowl Historical Scores

Before we get into the Saban-Malzahn conversation, let’s take a history lesson: here’s the result of every Iron Bowl played through 2019. You may already spy some trends just by scrolling through.

Iron Bowl Scores, All Time

Year Where Alabama Auburn Bama W/L Bama Margin
Year Where Alabama Auburn Bama W/L Bama Margin
1893 Birmingham 22 32 L -10
1893 Montgomery 16 40 L -24
1894 Montgomery 18 0 W 18
1895 Tuscaloosa 0 48 L -48
1900 Montgomery 5 53 L -48
1901 Tuscaloosa 0 17 L -17
1902 Birmingham 0 23 L -23
1903 Montgomery 18 6 W 12
1904 Birmingham 5 29 L -24
1905 Birmingham 30 0 W 30
1906 Birmingham 10 0 W 10
1907 Birmingham 6 6 T 0
1948 Birmingham 55 0 W 55
1949 Birmingham 13 14 L -1
1950 Birmingham 34 0 W 34
1951 Birmingham 25 7 W 18
1952 Birmingham 21 0 W 21
1953 Birmingham 10 7 W 3
1954 Birmingham 0 8 L -8
1955 Birmingham 0 26 L -26
1956 Birmingham 7 34 L -27
1957 Birmingham 0 40 L -40
1958 Birmingham 8 14 L -6
1959 Birmingham 10 0 W 10
1960 Birmingham 3 0 W 3
1961 Birmingham 34 0 W 34
1962 Birmingham 38 0 W 38
1963 Birmingham 8 10 L -2
1964 Birmingham 21 14 W 7
1965 Birmingham 30 3 W 27
1966 Birmingham 31 0 W 31
1967 Birmingham 7 3 W 4
1968 Birmingham 24 16 W 8
1969 Birmingham 26 49 L -23
1970 Birmingham 28 33 L -5
1971 Birmingham 31 7 W 24
1972 Birmingham 16 17 L -1
1973 Birmingham 35 0 W 35
1974 Birmingham 17 13 W 4
1975 Birmingham 28 0 W 28
1976 Birmingham 38 7 W 31
1977 Birmingham 48 21 W 27
1978 Birmingham 34 16 W 18
1979 Birmingham 25 18 W 7
1980 Birmingham 34 18 W 16
1981 Birmingham 28 17 W 11
1982 Birmingham 22 23 L -1
1983 Birmingham 20 23 L -3
1984 Birmingham 17 15 W 2
1985 Birmingham 25 23 W 2
1986 Birmingham 17 21 L -4
1987 Birmingham 0 10 L -10
1988 Birmingham 10 15 L -5
1989 Auburn 20 30 L -10
1990 Birmingham 16 7 W 9
1991 Birmingham 13 6 W 7
1992 Birmingham 17 0 W 17
1993 Auburn 14 22 L -8
1994 Birmingham 21 14 W 7
1995 Auburn 27 31 L -4
1996 Birmingham 24 23 W 1
1997 Auburn 17 18 L -1
1998 Birmingham 31 17 W 14
1999 Auburn 28 17 W 11
2000 Tuscaloosa 0 9 L -9
2001 Auburn 31 7 W 24
2002 Tuscaloosa 7 17 L -10
2003 Auburn 23 28 L -5
2004 Tuscaloosa 13 21 L -8
2005 Auburn 18 28 L -10
2006 Tuscaloosa 15 22 L -7
2007 Auburn 10 17 L -7
2008 Tuscaloosa 36 0 W 36
2009 Auburn 26 21 W 5
2010 Tuscaloosa 27 28 L -1
2011 Auburn 42 14 W 28
2012 Tuscaloosa 49 0 W 49
2013 Auburn 28 34 L -6
2014 Tuscaloosa 55 44 W 11
2015 Auburn 29 13 W 16
2016 Tuscaloosa 30 12 W 18
2017 Auburn 14 26 L -12
2018 Tuscaloosa 52 21 W 31
2019 Auburn 45 48 L -3
Scores, margins, and locations of historical Iron Bowls, all time, by year

Iron Bowl records

  • All time: Alabama 46-37-1
  • Last 25 years (1995+): Auburn 13-12
  • Malzahn years (2013+): Alabama 4-3

Some interesting tidbits:

  • As far as the Iron Bowl is concerned, Auburn was literally at its best in the late 1800s, and the early 1950s. Their victorious runs since have been more comprised of the one-score wins you expect Auburn to index unusually high on. But those Grover Cleveland era Barn teams were truly dominant y’all.
  • There were some extremely close game in the early 1980s! What a competitive stretch.
  • From ‘59 through ‘81 (23 years), Auburn won the Iron Bowl only four times (and only once by more than 5 points).
  • The largest margins of victory were Bama by 55 in 1948, then Bama by 49 in 2012, then those 48-point wins by the Barn in the late 19th century.

Recent history has favored the Tigers in the wins column more than you’d expect given statistics, logic, and basically every stat we look at today. Let’s dig in.

Iron Bowl Scores and Margins of Victory

Time period Alabama avg Score Auburn Avg Score Alabama avg MOV Auburn avg MOV MOV Difference
Time period Alabama avg Score Auburn Avg Score Alabama avg MOV Auburn avg MOV MOV Difference
All time 21.3 16.6 18.5 12.4 Bama +50%
Last 25 years (1995+) 27.1 20.6 20.3 6.4 Bama +218%
Malzahn years (2013+) 34.3 26.8 19.0 7.0 Bama +171%
in Tuscaloosa (1998+) 28.4 17.4 29.0 7.0 Bama +314%
in Auburn (1998+) 26.7 23.0 16.8 7.2 Bama +134%
Iron Bowls Average scores and margins of victory, by team and time period

Well, here’s our first in what will be a series of satisfying-but-somehow-painful charts. Alabama easily has the margin of victory advantage in every time period we’re cutting here.

And listen, I think 1995 is a pretty fair cutoff: I was trying to get a sense for “modern history” with a cut like this, but it’s easy to cherry-pick: for example, 30 years gives us the Gene Stallings years while cutting off the Pat Dye years. 1995 was in the middle of a few close games that went either way, right around when Stallings and Dye were on their ways out.

And it would take a lot more than a favorable time period to make Auburn look good here: look, folks, when these goobers win it’s most often just barely, especially when you aren’t looking back before World War II. And in the Malzahn years (since 2013), Alabama’s margins of victory have been nearly triple the Barn’s.

I also cut all these tables for home fields: which, due to the complicated history of the Iron Bowl, basically puts us at 1998 and later for “clean data.” That Auburn home field voodoo only apparently affects a few plays a game, because they show a huge deficit in MOV even in their own stadium.

Iron Bowl Multi-score Wins

Time period Alabama >8pt wins Auburn >8pt wins Difference
Time period Alabama >8pt wins Auburn >8pt wins Difference
All time 33 17 Bama +94%
Last 25 years (1995+) 10 4 Bama +150%
Malzahn years (2013+) 4 1 Bama +300%
in Tuscaloosa (1998+) 5 2 Bama +150%
in Auburn (1998+) 4 2 Bama +100%
Number of multiple-score Iron Bowl wins per team, by time period

People like to talk about how their favored team “dominates,” so let’s look at multiple-score victories as a good companion conversation to Margin of Victory. And wouldn’t you know it, Auburn doesn’t really do “decisive victories,” even including distant history.

Malzahn has used his offensive genius to rack up exactly 1 multiple-score Iron Bowl win, while managing another two wins in the process. That’s versus Saban’s 4-for-4 Iron Bowl victories all being by multiple scores (including one in Jurdin-Huurrrrrr).

Iron Bowl wins by >10 points

Time period Alabama >10pt wins Auburn >10pt wins Difference
Time period Alabama >10pt wins Auburn >10pt wins Difference
All time 30 11 Bama +173%
Last 25 years (1995+) 10 1 Bama +900%
Malzahn years (2013+) 4 1 Bama +300%
in Tuscaloosa (1998+) 5 0 Bama +Infinity
in Auburn (1998+) 4 1 Bama +300%
Number of Iron Bowl wins by greater than 10 points, by team and time period

So, it’s common to discuss “double digit wins,” i.e., ten points or more. And believe me, Auburn doesn’t look good in that metric given their penchant for single-score victories.

But they have put up a handful of 10-point victories over the years (that’s what a “dominant win” looks like for the Eagle-Tigers): so it’s much funnier to look at the table above, instead, at an 11-point cutoff.

In 2017, Auburn beat Alabama by 12 points. It was terrible and typically strange, as the Barn had lower efficiencies and explosiveness in the game (we’ll get into that later). Before that 12-point victory, though, their last win of >10 points was a one-off victory in 1969 (by 23 points, and their first Irown Bowl win in six years): that’s nearly fifty years of small-margin wins. (Before that one, it was a 40-point win in 1957, another twelve years earlier.)

Auburn has only won 11 Iron Bowls by >10 points all time. None of their “fear the thumb” 2000s teams did it, and Malzahn just barely did in a few years ago.

On a brighter note: Tuscaloosa has held strong in this metric. Since a few one-off games in T-Town in 1895 and 1901, the Tigers have not ever won a game in Tuscaloosa by greater than 10 points. That includes all the sad Mike(s) years, plus the Gene Chizik national championship team and the Malzahn years. Not bad, Bryant-Denny; not bad.

Advanced metrics, 2013-2019

But, those of you that have read Graphing the Tide over the last few years know that there’s a game behind the scoreboard, and that the latter doesn’t always do a good job of telling you how the teams played down by down.

So let’s take a look at efficiency and explosiveness during the Malzahn-year Iron Bowls. Here are the metrics:

  • Success Rate (SR): the percentage of offensive plays that ended up “successful,” that is, that achieved a score or first down, or >50% of needed yardage on 1st down or >70% of needed yardage on 2nd down. The NCAA average usually hovers around a 41% Success Rate.
  • Explosive Play Rate (XR): the percentage of plays that were “explosive”: by the definition here, that means at least 15 yards gained on either a run or a pass.

Iron Bowl Efficiency and Explosiveness

Not seeing a graph above? Click here to fix it.

There’s the good stuff! You may have noticed, but in every Iron Bowl of the Malzahn era, Alabama has outperformed Auburn on both efficiency and explosiveness.

Ya don’t say!?

All the chatter about Auburn’s “dynamic offenses”; the emerging no-huddle style in the early 2010s; all the dramatic games, Auburn wins, and a seemingly-close rivalry: and this is what it actually produces on paper. The Tigers couldn’t muster up a single win (or even a loss) where it looked like they may have actually been the team that performs better on more snaps.

In case you haven’t noticed: as of this chart, every single aggregate metric we’ve looked at in this article—aside from wins in the arbitrary 1995 cutoff range—has favored Alabama. This isn’t about “Alabama performing well under certain circumstances,” or “Auburn promoting an explosive, but volatile offense,” or anything like that: the Tide have just been the better play-by-play team in every one of these games.

Kinda makes you wonder why the $%&$ this series is only 4-3 Alabama in those years. I blame the pentagram that’s carved under Jerdin-Herrrrr stadium, but you can pick your poison. For their part, Barn fans seem to think it’s Malzahn’s* coaching genius that gets them squeaker wins with across-the-board deficits in predictive metrics.

*Side note: Malzahn is 2-5 in bowl games at Auburn, including a Birmingham bowl win with a 7-6 Auburn team. Their last two bowls have been losses vs G5 UCF the Minnesota Fighting Gophers. I guess “genius” only works specifically at home, specifically versus Alabama.

Iron Bowl Rushing Efficiency, Explosiveness

Speaking of coaching genius: once we cut down the data by run/pass, we see a rare category and year where Auburn actually posts a higher number: in this case a notably higher rushing efficiency (SR) in 2018 (in a bad loss, funny enough), a slightly higher rushing efficiency in 2013, and a higher rushing explosive rate (XR) in 2019.

And that’s it. The Tide takes every other category. In both of those games above, Auburn lost on rushing explosiveness. Amazingly, Auburn did not post a single explosive rush in 3 of the last 7 Iron Bowls (all losses). We rarely see that in any game: it’s uncanny and, really, idiotic for a team that’s coached by what’s billed as an “offensive mastermind.”

Iron Bowl Passing Efficiency, Explosiveness

The passing version of this chart is pretty dynamic—both teams have changed a lot over these years—but Auburn is especially volatile.

In these results, they do get a paltry few more category advantages: passing efficiency in 2019 (just barely, vs. our much-more-explosive backup QB Mac Jones), passing efficiency and explosiveness in 2017, and passing explosiveness—at a hilarious and bizarre efficiency deficit—in 2015. Otherwise, again the Tide takes all these categories, and often by enormous margins.

One of the (many) things I hate about graphing Auburn is that I have to triple-check and validate my numbers due to all this weird crap comes up from the Barn’s topsy-turvy, voodoo-stricken results. I had to check several games here to confirm that, indeed, Auburn had three of these games without a single explosive rush, and then that they had three of these games without a single non-explosive pass. These look like data errors, but they’re actually just glitches in the altered reality that surrounds Lee County, AL.

Individual game links

If you want the joy (and, often, accompanying pain) of going through these games individually, here are all of the usual Graphing the Tide game graphs for these games. Unfortunately, we don’t have reliable player metrics for 2013, and we don’t have tacklers for a year or two after that, but otherwise it’s all there.

  • 2013: All graphs. A.J. McCarron and the cursed K6 ... was a genuinely close Iron Bowl.
  • 2014: All graphs. Blake Sims, Nick Marshall and the high-scoring Iron Bowl in history.
  • 2015: All graphs. Derrick Henry and Jake Coker. Auburn somehow stuck around late despite putting up bad numbers.
  • 2016: All graphs. RBR graphing recap. Jalen Hurts and Bo Scarbrough. Auburn barely even looked alive.
  • 2017: All graphs. RBR graphing recap. The Tide had statistical advantages in a close game, yet the Tigers somehow won by 12 (which, for them, is a huge number).
  • 2018: All graphs. RBR graphing recap. Our only Tua Iron Bowl :(. He put explosive passes all over and destroyed them by 31.
  • 2019: All graphs. RBR graphing recap. Another low-likelihood win and playoff-ruiner, this time featuring Mac Jones as a good QB, but not enough to defeat the voodoo.

Conclusions

Look, none of this should be surprising to anyone who has watched the Iron Bowl games over the past few seasons. Malzahn is indeed 3-4 vs. Nick Saban as a head coach, and scoring the most points is the object of the game. Still, the narrative around “out-coaching” needs to die. Coaching is far more than strategy. Better coaches are able to develop players and schemes that dominate the majority of the action on the field. In that regard, Saban has clearly out-coached Malzahn in this series. At some point the dumb luck has to run out when the game is played at their place.

It does, doesn’t it?

Roll Tide.