Once again the football season has flown by us at ludicrous speed. It seems like only yesterday Alabama was kicking off against Virginia Tech, beginning a season filled with expectations for a third straight national title. Meanwhile, the school down the road was still cleaning off the stank of a 3-9 season that saw them go winless against their SEC counterparts. While Saban was hoisting his fourth crystal football, Auburn fans were muttering about how they really don’t even watch their team play on TV anymore. Suddenly, in the blink of an eye, the season is already winding down with Bama fans making plans for Pasadena while Auburn fans are sprinting into their attics to get their Auburn Tigers gear back out. Man, it’s been a weird season that has gone by so fast!
But, now here we are – ready to witness two runaway trains (or one train and a Gus Bus, if you will) on a collision course. Alabama’s defense is playing the role of the immovable object. Auburn’s running game is posing as the irresistible force. And, for the first time since the SEC went to divisional play, the Iron Bowl is actually meaningful because it will decide which of these two teams will go on to Atlanta for the right to win the SEC Championship! This is what the Iron Bowl is supposed to be all about, right? As the beer commercial says, “It don’t get no better than this!”
So, without further ado, here’s what to watch for this week in the biggest Iron Bowl game in the history of the Iron Bowl…
Alabama on Offense
The Auburn defense doesn’t exactly bring about thoughts of the Steel Curtain or the Fearsome Foursome, and any defense that trots out Jake Holland as a starter is going to be more than a little suspect. But, Ellis Johnson has been coordinating defenses for a mighty long time and he’s managed to cobble together enough of a “bend but don’t break” defense to keep Auburn afloat on his side of the ball. Before we look at a few critical defensive rankings, keep in mind that the Tigers’ defense has been on the field for 788 plays which is third most in the conference behind Missouri (829) and A&M (817). Comparatively, the Tide’s defense has defended only 629 total plays. Why does this matter? Well, the more plays you defend, the worse your statistical ranking is going to be in categories like total yards given up so while these rankings are bad, they won’t tell the entire story. But, here are a few of Auburn’s defensive rankings:
- 8th in Rushing Defense
- 13th in Pass Defense
- 10th in Total Defense
- 6th in Third Down Conversions
- 5th in Scoring Defense
The amazing stat that grabs your attention is that even with all of those poor rankings (and having to defend 788 plays) Auburn is actually ranked 5th in the conference in scoring defense! It looks like their pass efficiency defense (ranked 5th) and ranking 4th in the conference in sacks is what bails them out time and time again so the key will be to keep AJ in the upright and locked position.
So, that’s what the stats tell us about this game – the Auburn defense is suspect. On film, Auburn’s defense reminds me very much of LSU’s defense. Both play four man fronts backed by two very average linebackers. Both defenses have issues in their secondaries. Now, Auburn’s pass rush is much better than LSU’s pass rush but their linebackers are equally poor in space and both defenses have shown throughout the year that they can be run on at will. Additionally, both secondaries have shown they have a very difficult time maintaining coverage. Auburn is particularly bad here. While every single Auburn fan can tell you exactly where they were when Georgia literally batted victory into the Tigers’ arms, very few can tell you where they were when Georgia was taking two shots at the Auburn end zone at the end of the game. Aaron Murray was left with 25 seconds on the clock and yet he somehow managed to get Georgia to the Auburn 25 with enough time for two shots to the end zone. Auburn fans like to forget this, along with the fact that Georgia rallied for 21 points in the final quarter, mostly via the pass out of a shotgun spread formation. Auburn’s secondary (and linebackers) is well below average and if the Tigers can’t generate a pass rush, they’ll be ripe for the picking. Here are some other goodies to watch for when Alabama has the ball…
Spread ‘Em: Alabama has successfully done this against Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU, so look for them to employ this against Auburn. The Tide will line up with three wide receivers and they’ll flank either Brian Vogler or OJ Howard out as well, giving a four wide look to the Auburn defense. Auburn will counter by flaring their two linebackers out to the side to help against the slot receivers. This gives the Bama line a five on four advantage and allows one lineman to leak out to take out one of the ‘backers. With the free Auburn ‘backer likely being Jake Holland, look for Bama to be able to spread the Tigers out and then gash them with interior runs from the shotgun formation. Tennessee and Georgia were both VERY effective running the ball out of their spread formations.
Hey Diddle Diddle – Throw Down the Middle: With Auburn’s linebackers suspect in coverage, crossing routes, slants and post routes are usually wide open against the Auburn secondary. Georgia’s second half rally was the result of attacking the middle of the AU secondary thru the air. It was open all night long. Auburn rarely blitzes and they typically play a seven man zone coverage. Given time, there will be huge throwing windows for McCarron to hit his receivers. In particular, the tight end should be open throughout the evening so expect OJ Howard to have several opportunities to make some plays.
We Must Protect This House: What Dee Ford did to Georgia’s right tackle should be illegal in most states (even in Massachusetts). Austin Shepherd is going to have his hands full, especially early in the ball game. As the Georgia game wore on, Ford lost several steps and much of his stamina so withstanding the early assault will be key for Alabama’s success. I’d love to see Alabama’s backs “chip” the edge rushers before they go out for a pass but that’s not something Nussmeier asks them to do very often. But, given time, AJ can shred the Auburn secondary. He just has to be given time.
Checks and Balances: Both Tennessee and Georgia made tremendous use of draws in long yardage situations. With the defensive ends being hell-bent on getting up field, they essentially take themselves out of the play. The offensive line is then able to release downfield and easily block the Auburn linebackers and the next thing you know you have a huge gainer. Additionally, Auburn refuses to cover the backs out of the backfield so look for TJ Yeldon to have a huge day as a receiver.
Power Station: We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the issues in the Auburn secondary but you and I both know that this game will be won in the trenches. Absorb these numbers: 228, 222 and 226. These are the rushing yards Auburn gave up against LSU, Arkansas and Tennessee. Auburn will sell out early to stop the run so you should see Alabama utilize the pass to open up the running lanes. But, Alabama should eventually be able to make some hay on the ground. Auburn’s defensive ends are light and their linebackers are slow so we think the edge should be available for Yeldon and, in particular, Drake when we employ two tight ends to the same side of the formation. Vogler and Howard should be able to cave in the side of the line, allowing our backs to get outside.
- AJ will perform better than Mariota, Manziel and Petty did in this past week’s Heisman auditions. The fact that he’s been here and done this dozens of time in his career should make the day go pretty well for him. With Alabama using the pass to open up the run, McCarron should have plenty of opportunities to put up some impressive stats. We think he throws for over 275 yards.
- The more we watch tape, the more we are convinced that Alabama will open the game out of the shotgun, essentially running their two-minute offense. Auburn’s defense is very susceptible to this style of play so look for Alabama to take advantage of this early and often.
- The Tide running game will struggle early but will open up later on. Look for running plays out of the spread formation to be particularly effective. Also, Alabama will utilize their two tight end formation to cave in the Auburn edges with great success.
- Alabama will rush for a little over 150 yards. I’d love to predict more but I haven’t liked what I’ve seen from the O-line in the last two games. I still think we’ll be effective because Auburn really doesn’t change their looks up front so I think the O-line will be able to eventually get into a blocking rhythm. Personally, I miss Chad Lindsay playing center but I digress…
- TJ Yeldon will catch at least three passes out of the backfield.
- OJ Howard will have another huge catch in the middle of the field. Auburn also leaves the tight end open in the red zone.
- When the going gets tough, look for Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones out of the slot to make an impact. Look for Bama to target Auburn’s Robinson Therezie in coverage often.
- Look for Alabama to have a couple of maddening false starts. Jordan Hare is going to be LOUD and they forced Georgia into numerous false starts.
- If Alabama has to settle for field goals, they will lose this game.
Alabama on Defense
This is obviously where the game will be won or lost for Alabama. Stop Auburn’s running game and you stop Auburn so you can imagine that will be the Smart Saban game plan. Oh, if we had a nickel for every time we’ve said “Saban takes away what you do best” on this blog then we’d have enough to buy Auburn a quarterback who can both run AND throw. But, look for Saban to try to eliminate what Auburn does best. Auburn’s offense is about 85% run and while they’ll give you a dizzying array of formations, motions and personnel groupings, the Tigers run about six running plays – all with deadly effect. But, the plays are predictable and there are keys that Saban and Smart have identified long ago that should help the Tide’s defense cut thru all of the BS and make some plays. Alabama will be well schooled and very disciplined in their assignments to stop the run. We do believe the interior runs with Mason will be effective (4 or 5 yards a pop) but anything on the perimeter will be stopped cold. This will force Auburn’s quarterback, Nick Marshall, into passing situations. Look for numerous 3rd and 4s, 3rd and 5s and 3rd and 6s, all of which will be passing downs for Auburn. This is where the game will be won or lost, in our opinion. If Marshall can make plays and convert these intermediate third downs into first downs then it’s going to be a long day for the Tide defense. But, he will have to throw the ball to win this game.
In preparation for having to throw to win the ballgame, Nick Marshall only attempted 8 passes against Arkansas and a mere 7 passes against Tennessee before finally flinging it 27 times against Georgia. Prior to his last drive against Georgia, Marshall was only 13 of 22 for 163 yards. Against Texas A&M’s horrific defense, Marshall completed just 11 of 23 passes for 236 yards (which included a 56 and 43 yard pass). So, it’s not surprising to find Auburn ranked a lowly 10th in passing offense and find Nick Marshall ranked 11th in the conference in passing efficiency. If he is forced to throw like we think he will be, know that Marshall is completing only 58% of his passes this season, most of which are wide receiver screens and quick hitches. In watching him throw the football against Georgia, there were at least four pass which could have easily been picked off by the Bulldogs – this bodes very well for Alabama.
In our opinion, this year’s Iron Bowl will be judgment day for Nick Marshall. With Auburn’s running game likely stifled, it will be imperative for Marshall to figure out the wonders of the forward pass. He had a pick six against Tennessee and numerous other near misses against Georgia so to put the entire game on his smallish shoulders should be worrisome for Tiger fans. And, if they run him as much as they have in other games, look for him to be on the bench with a cold compress while true freshman Jeremy Johnson tries to pull out another miraculous finish. Here’s a few other things to watch for when Auburn has the ball…
Same As It Ever Was: Auburn runs the same play over and over again. Mason will line up just off to Marshall’s right or left and, depending on which side he lines up, Auburn will hand it to him going the opposite way. So, if Mason lines up on Marshall’s right, they will run Mason off the left guard. If Mason is on Marshall’s left, they’ll run him off the right guard. Auburn’s counter to this is to have Marshall read the opposite end and, if he crashes down, Marshall will pull the ball out and run around the opposite end. So, with Mason threatening left guard, Marshall will often take it around the right tackle. Alabama rarely, if ever, loses backside containment so we think if Marshall pulls the ball out much he’s going to get hit. Hard. If Gus offers up Marshall on a platter then you can rest assured that he’ll be devoured. Therefore, the game will boil down to Alabama’s front four and their ability to stuff the interior running game. Alabama’s front four dominated Ole Miss’ running game (which is similar to Auburn’s style of running game) and allowed the safeties to stay back in a two deep look. If you start seeing Collins and Clinton-Dix making lots of tackles, that will be a sign that Alabama will be vulnerable to a deep shot in the passing game. But, anyway, the game will be on Stinson, Ivory, Pagan, Robinson, Hubbard and Devall to contain the interior running game – just as they have done all season.
Pretty Fly for a Speed Guy: It seems that about 90 percent of the time Auburn threatens the speed sweep with either Grant or Louis, they will actually give them the ball or they’ll play action pass. Alabama will counter by sending their safeties flying down into the speed sweep lane to snuff this out before the Auburn backs can turn the corner. So, if Grant or Louis starts running down the line of scrimmage laterally, watch the back part of your screen where the Tide secondary is lined up. You’ll see either Clinton-Dix or Collins come rushing up into the area where the speed sweep is going. Of course, this opens up the play action passing game…
Quick Snap Trap: Look for Auburn to “muddle huddle” or “sugar huddle” close to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball quickly. When they do this, 100% of the time they are trying to get to the outside of the defense, either on a speed sweep or a wide toss. The hope is that the defense doesn’t line up properly on the flanks and Auburn tries to take advantage. Now, if I have seen this, you know Saban has, right? I sincerely doubt this will work.
Lateral Damage: The wide receiver screen is a huge part of the Auburn playbook. Look for numerous attempts to spring a receiver free on a wide receiver screen. They will then counter this look by faking the screen in an effort to spring a wide receiver open deep. Alabama typically defends this fairly well, though Cyrus Jones will certainly be an inviting target out there to pick on. I can see Auburn having success here with the screens but I don’t think we’ll blow a coverage deep from this look.
Double Black Diamond Downhill Run: The mistake a lot of teams make in defending this style of running game is to allow Auburn’s guards to double team their tackles and then let them get to the linebackers. With Alabama knowing exactly where the Auburn backs will attack, look for Saban to use his linebackers Mosley and DePriest to bring the attack to the Auburn line. Interior blitzes thru the A and B gaps (either side of the center) will be the order of the day. Additionally, young quarterbacks typically panic in the face of an interior rush so this plan should also impact Marshall in the passing game, as well. Also, look for blitzes from Jarrick Williams and Landon Collins, as well as a few corner blitzes, as well as Marshall really doesn’t read blitzes well at all.
Tackle Football: On almost every single Auburn running play, the center works with a guard to double team the opposing defensive tackle. Brandon Ivory, Jeoffrey Pagan and A’Shawn Robinson will be fighting off double teams for the majority of the afternoon. Their ability to hold the point of attack and disengage to make tackles will determine whether or not Saban has to send his safeties down into run support. Additionally, the defensive tackle who is left in a one on one battle with the opposite guard will have to win that matchup more times than not in order to eliminate the interior running game.
You’ve Got the Look: To keep Auburn’s offensive linemen off-balance, you’ll see Kirby Smart vary his looks along the line of scrimmage. Alabama will show a five-man front (in the form of three down lineman and two outside linebackers), a four-man front and a three-man front throughout the game, oftentimes with the same personnel group. Just as a fighter tries to stick and move so that he’s not standing still and getting punched, so will the Alabama defense try to be a moving target for the Auburn line. Again, look for Alabama to bring some disruptive blitzes, as well.
Mano-y-Mano: Look for Alabama to be in man coverage throughout the game and this will leave them susceptible to double moves by the Auburn receivers. Gus will be pulling out his trick plays and double move packages so Alabama’s cover guys will have to stay alert at all times. Alabama’s corners are still a work in progress so Auburn should be able to make some hay here…
Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go: Want to know where the football is going? Follow Jay Prosch, Auburn’s beastly fullback. He’s essentially a pulling guard so follow him and you’ll find the football.
Know Your Role: The Tennessee and Georgia defensive ends were oftentimes completely lost while Auburn rushers and blockers zoomed by them. It’s amazing to me to watch these highly trained athletes stand perfectly still with no clue what to do time and time again. Look for Alabama’s unblocked ends to make several plays on Saturday as they’ll be well-trained and know exactly what their assignment should be. Other defensive players get caught watching the dizzying array of formations and movement but we think Alabama’s guys will simply carry out their assignment with the expectation that others are doing the same.
Motion in the Ocean: During the games I watched, each time #81 (CJ Uzomoh) went in motion, it was a running play 100% of the time.
Much Ado About Nothing: While Gus is off trying to get a copyright on the “Hurry Up No Huddle” phrase, it’s interesting to note that Auburn is actually SIXTH in the conference in offensive plays this season. The fact of the matter is they only “hurry up” a few times a game when they feel the defense is on the ropes. Meanwhile Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Missouri, Mississippi State, Georgia and South Carolina have actually have run more plays this season…
- Auburn will be forced to throw much more than they ever hoped. Marshall will have to throw 20+ times in order to beat Alabama and this is not what he does best.
- Auburn’s best play will be the interior runs with Tre Mason. Look for him to bounce a few interior runs to the outside – Arkansas and Tennessee did this a few times against us with good effect.
- Auburn will rarely be able to get the speed sweep to gain any appreciable yardage. Alabama historically has stuffed this cold by using their linemen to string out the play and having the safeties fly in to finish the play.
- Look for Alabama to blitz both Mosley and DePriest up the middle a ton during this game. Alabama will bring the fight to the Auburn offensive line. Auburn loves to pull their guards so look for Mosley or DePriest to shoot the gap and make a couple of tackles for losses.
- Alabama will pick off two passes, one of which will be returned either for a touchdown or for 20+ yards. Marshall blindly flings the ball out where it’s designed to go and Georgia missed on three opportunities to take one the distance.
- Sammie Coates is going to beat somebody deep. With Alabama forced to spend their resources in stopping the run, the Achilles heel will be defending the deep pass. This will happen – probably early in the first half. Also, look for him to run a slant route on 3rd and medium yardage to pick up a few first downs.
- Look for Uzomah (#81) to be targeted in the red zone, particularly if they can get him matched up on little Cyrus Jones. This is as predictable as 90,000 Auburn fans buying up toilet paper that they won’t need on Saturday.
- Trick plays. There will be a few. Look for a non-QB pass and a fumble-rooskie type of play.
- You will be impressed by how good Tre Mason is as a runner.
Alabama on Special Teams
Well, well, well. This could actually be a critical part of the game that very few people are talking about. Both teams excel on special teams so it will be very interesting to see which team fares the best on Saturday. Alabama’s Christion Jones is ranked #1 in kickoff return average and #2 in punt return average. Meanwhile Auburn’s Chris Davis leads the conference in punt return average while Tre Mason is third in kickoff returns, so there’s a ton of talent out there returning punts and kicks. With Auburn’s ability to kick the ball out of the end zone, this matchup appears to favor Auburn since they’ll actually have more opportunities to return the football.
However, to the good, Alabama boasts a kicker in Cade Foster who’s only missed one field goal all season and Cody Mandell is ranked second in the conference in punting and first in net punting. And while Auburn’s kick off man doesn’t allow many kick returns, their field goal kicker (Cody Parkey) is only 13 of 17 on the season in field goals and punter Steven Clark (coming off an abysmal day against Georgia) is only ranked 8th in punting. So, you’d have to consider that Alabama has the slight edge here in special teams and that slight edge could be a huge deal where field position is concerned. But, either team is very, very capable of breaking off a huge play here and that’s something that could change the complexion of the game.
It’s the biggest Iron Bowl ever. It’s Auburn’s biggest game in at least three years and some are trying to say it’s even bigger than their national championship game against Oregon. Gameday will be there. RV’s started showing up on the Plains last week in order to grab a prime piece of real estate for the biggest game that’s ever taken place on Auburn’s campus. Some folks are already lobbying for Auburn saying if they beat Alabama they should be in the talk for the national championship game. Yeah, it’s a big, big, big game….for Auburn.
Remember Tebow I or Tebow II? Or the three national championships in the last four years? How about “the biggest game ever” in 2011 when we played LSU in Tuscaloosa? Or “the biggest Aggie game to ever take place at Kyle Field” this season? There have been black outs, red outs, white outs, orange outs and blue outs. Texas A&M’s traditional “First Yell” was held before the third game of the season for the first time in history. Even Mississippi State was calling for their shot last year when they started out 7-0 as it was their biggest game in school history. Alabama is always everyone’s biggest game but, for Bama, it’s just the next game. So while Auburn players will be getting caught up in the hype and the hysteria of playing in the biggest game of their lives, look for Alabama to keep calm and move the ball. WE WANT BAMA! Sure you do, skippy. Everybody wants Bama until they line up and play against them.
The Tide is about as prepared for this environment as they could be after visiting Kyle Field (the absolute loudest place I’ve ever been) and after surviving the cowbells a couple of weeks ago. The silent counts and the communication across the line should be solid, allowing Alabama to execute plays and, eventually, execute their foe. While Auburn fans relish their ability to run the ball, the Tide has eaten up similar running games used by Ole Miss and Mississippi State. Even UT-Chattanooga ran a very similar offense last week – one more little thing to help prepare Alabama for the Auburn offense. Yeah, I know – Auburn’s running game is much more physical. Yeah, well, Alabama punished LSU’s much more physical running style, holding them to 43 yards of rushing offense. The Lighthouse staff thinks that, in the end, Alabama will force Auburn to throw the football and that’s just something they simply do not want to do (and haven’t done enough of all season to prepare for Saturday). I like the Crimson Tide’s chances to frustrate and pick off an erratic 58% passer who rarely is asked to throw the ball downfield.
The environment will be loud. It will be intimidating. And it will keep the game close. But, in the end, Alabama’s experience and ability to stop the run will be the difference in the game.
Final Score: Alabama 30 Auburn 20