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Iron Bowl Preview: When Alabama has the Ball

Will the Auburn defense be able to replicate their 2021 pass rush success against Bryce Young again?

Syndication: USA TODAY Jake Crandall / USA TODAY NETWORK

After losing Derek Mason at the end of 2021, Auburn bumped linebacker coach Jeff Schmedding up to defensive coordinator. Schmedding had been a DC for Brian Harsin in the past at Boise State, and brought with him a multiple 3-4 defense that has seen a decent bit of production in the pass rush. He also survived the firing of Harsin, so there is that.

Overall, the Tigers are allowing north of 27 points per game, which is good for 86th in the country. They’re a fairly solid passing defense, allowing only 6 yards per attempt with a 57% completion rate, but have also given up 172 yards per game on the ground at a 4.6 YPC clip, so the group can absolutely be run on.

The Tigers have improved all around in recent weeks since the firing of Harsin, so there is a dichotomy in that stats there— we just don’t totally know which Auburn defense is the real one.

In any case, the secondary is led by Oregon transfer D.J. James and longitme backup Jaylin Simpson. They’re not as aggressive as previous iterations of Auburn secondary, and are more of a bend-don’t-break scheme that tries to funnel everything into short passes and rally to make tackles,

Meanwhile, their pass rush has a pair of edge rushers in Derick Hall and Colby Wooden who can really get after the QB. Hall absolutely obliterated Alabama’s right tackle all game in Jordan-Haire last year, and has returned as the lead player on this defense.

And then at linebacker, Owen Pappoe is still around and racking up tackles. The former 5-star has been starting since he was a freshman in 2019 and is a smaller, speedy tackling machine. Pappoe has 250 tackles in his college career thus far and has a couple of All-SEC honors to his name.

As we saw last year, this Auburn defense gave Bryce Young fits, and it’s hard to get a read on whether it will happen again. Most of their front seven has returned their core guys, but they turned over nearly their whole secondary. But then in the ensuing chaos of the Harsin disaster, the defensive front played pretty awful while the secondary seemed to hold things together, even if they weren’t making big impact plays. Since the Harsin firing, they’ve all seemed to improve, but how much can you really gather when the teams they defeated were Western Kentucky and a dysfunctional Texas A&M?

On top of that, the Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa this year, and we now have two seasons of data points to prove to us that Home Bryce offense is a totally different animal than Road Bryce offense.

I don’t really know what to expect here, and am having some trouble coming to a conclusion for my score prediction. I think the more likely outcome is about 35 points for Alabama - a shade under their season average. But I could very easily see the offense reverting back to 2021 Iron Bowl panic-freeze mode and this being another 19-24 point nail-biter.

If you forced me to put money on which one of those scenarios... I think the former is more likely. But I wouldn’t be happy about placing the bet.