While Auburn’s offense has been underwhelming at best in 2023, their defense has been fine. At 21.5 points per game, they’re comfortably in the top half of college football. The secondary is a veteran group who is limiting opposing QBs to less than 200 yards per game and they have 27 sacks on the year (again, a bit above average, but not special or anything. On the other hand, their rushing defense has been a little more spotty, giving up 160 rushing yards at 4.4 yards per carry on the season - a lot of which can come in chunk gains on QB keepers.
Defensive coordinator Ron Roberts has been DCing in college football since the 90s, so he’s got a whole lot of experience, with admittedly inconsistent results. He led Baylor to one of the top defenses in the country in 2021 only to get himself fired only one season later for following it up with the 80-something ranked passing defense. In any case, he runs a 3-3-5 scheme similar to what Alabama ran under Pete Golding. His defensive backs drop more into spot zones, though, with a focus on not allowing deep shots and rallying up to make gang tackles on shorter passes.
And boy does his secondary hit hard. They’ll jump on screens and swing passes with fervor and the intent to punish. With that, though, there is a medium-distance hole (10-15 yards) in his coverages that can get exploited over and over by a team ready to attack it.
On the defensive line, tackle Marcus Harris is the standout. At 295 pounds, he’s lithe enough to still be a threat as a pass rusher, and he leads the team with 6 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss. He’s pretty much an identical player to Alabama’s Justin Eboigbe as a versatile, veteran inside rusher who will likely end up an All-SEC selection. On the other end, true freshman Keldric Faulk is a 6’6” 290 physical specimen who was a top-100 recruit that has been thrust into a starting position. It hasn’t resulted in production yet, but the athletic talent is there.
The linebacker group has two of the better outside linebackers in the conference. Eugene Asante leads the team with 79 tackles and also has 5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss, plus a 67 yard touchdown on a fumble recovery. The 220-pound senior is a high-energy, high-speed player who just excels at chasing down whoever has the ball. On the other side, Jalen McLeod is Auburn’s version of the Jack linebacker. He was an All-Sun Belt player at Appalachian state before coming to Auburn this season, and he’s got 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss so far.
The Auburn secondary is also a veteran group, and strongest position group on the team. Safety Zion Puckett is nearly 230 pounds as somewhat of a throwback to the 2000s when strong safeties roamed the backfield with the intent to kill. His deep partner is Jaylin Simpson, a veteran guy who’s played a rotational corner for Auburn for years before finally moving to safety and really finding his groove this year. Simpson leads the team with 4 interceptions as the ballhawk of the group.
At nickel, Keionte Scott has been a really strong performer that doubles as one of the better punt returners in the SEC. And on the outside, D.J. James leads the team with 8 pass breakups and Nehemiah Pritchett is a 3-year stater at the position.
I think Auburn’s defense has a lot of strengths that can help them frustrate Alabama’s offense. It’s going to be tough for Jalen Milroe to go bombs away with deep balls on them, so it will definitely be a test of his patience. On top of that, their aggressive nature in zones could lead to a bad interception.
On the other hand, they’ve been susceptible to QB runs all season, and the lighter front will likely struggle in any sort of short yardage moments against Alabama’s mammoth OL. Ultimately, Alabama will have to win by attacking the intermediate sections of the field in the passing game, and while that was nearly non-existent earlier in the season, Milroe has been looking to that area more in more in recent weeks. Patience will be key for him.
According to the DraftKings Sportsbook, Alabama is favored by 13.5 with an OU of 47.5 in this one, or about a 31-17 score. I said a couple of days that I thought 17 points was about as much as Auburn’s offense was likely to score in this one, and I’m going to stick with the Vegas folk here and say that somewhere between 28-32 points seems about right for Alabama here.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.
I think we do see a little bit of a slowdown in Alabama’s offensive output from the last three weeks due to Auburn’s secondary, but ultimately their propensity to give up those drive-extending plays will keep Alabama moving forward enough to keep things from feeling too scary.
The Iron Bowl will be broadcast on CBS at 2:30 pm CT today as the SEC headliner game of the day. As is right.