Never again. That was the mantra coming out of the pains of the 2010 Iron Bowl loss to Auburn. Never again. I don’t think anyone imagined that there could possibly be a more painful loss to Auburn than the 2010 Iron Bowl so “Never Again” was born.
But, in just three short years, “Never Again” died (along with the national title hopes and dreams of the Bama Nation) in an agonizing 109 yard dash to the end zone, providing us with an infinitely more painful and agonizing loss than the 2010 Never Again game.
Kick Six. Gotta second? An undefeated season, an SEC title and a national championship all went up in flames when Alabama failed to put away the Auburn Tigers in a game that the Tide had numerous opportunities to win. Perhaps this should be the year of “Never Again” because if we all have to live thru a defeat like that one again, it may get ugly ‘round here.
Thankfully, this season is not last season and this year’s teams are not last year’s teams. On the Tide side, gone is the quasi-arrogant swagger that surrounded the undefeated 2013 and back to back national championship team. The 2013 version of the Crimson Tide started off slow and never seemed to build to that harmonious crescendo that allows a team to peak at just the right time at the end of the season. But, this year’s team, while less talented, seems to have that “it” factor that allows them to overcome adversity and succeed each and every time they face of danger. Like Marcus Luttrell, this team never blinks. Simply put, this year’s Bama team seems to be working and playing together as a team.
On the other side of the state, this year the Gus Bus has run into numerous potholes and the vibe from the Plains is that the 2014 team isn’t responding well to the staff. And, if you watched their last three games, you can tell that something is just a little off with this group of Tigers. Supposedly, there are still some hard feelings from the team surrounding the Jermaine Whitehead suspension and Auburn insiders are saying it’s created a bit of a divide in the Auburn locker room. After watching them play against Georgia and Samford, you can just sense that they all are not pulling in the same direction.
So, this year’s Iron Bowl seems to have flipped the 2013 script with Alabama coming in as the united team of destiny and Auburn playing the role of divided but talented visitor. Will any of this matter? Well, here’s what to watch for…
Alabama on Offense
The Crimson Tide offense comes in with a Ferrari that isn’t quite hitting on all cylinders. With Lane Kiffin evidently switching the Tide’s identity from a ground and pound philosophy to that of a west coast pass first offense the results, like a few of Blake Sims’ passes, have sometimes missed the mark. There’s the 27-0 lead against Tennessee that melted to a one score game. Then there were the struggles against the LSU defense where the offense could neither run nor throw until the final minutes of play. And, of course you all remember the 19-0 lead that evaporated to a 19-13 nail biter, so I think you can see that things aren’t running perfectly on offense. However, they run well enough in the critical moments to get the job done.
Last week, Saban got so angry with the passing offense that he demanded that Kiffin start running the ball down the Catamounts’ throat and, when they did, they were able to build to a 38-14 lead by halftime. So, what I’m telling you is that I’m not quite sure what we should all expect on Saturday from the Alabama offense.
However, I can happily tell you that the Auburn defense is not playing well at all. You want to pass on them? Well, that will work! South Carolina (416 yards passing), Ole Miss (339 yards passing) and Texas A&M’s freshman QB (277 yards passing) all enjoyed the friendly skies of the Auburn secondary. But, if you want to run the ball, then you can do that, too! Georgia (289 yards rushing), A&M’s anemic running game (176 yards) and Mississippi State (223 yards) all had their way on the ground with these paper Tigers. So, this is definitely a matchup that favors the Tide, no matter how many cylinders are firing…
Give it to Me: Amari Cooper should have an absolute field day against the Tigers’ woeful secondary. If you want a treat, watch some of the Ole Miss v Auburn game and you’ll feel just fine about this particular matchup. Favorite Cooper routes such as the WR screen and the slant will be available all day long. And, since Auburn’s front four generate absolutely no pressure whatsoever, Ellis Johnson has to resort to calling blitz after blitz after blitz. This means man to man. Against Amari Cooper. Good times!
Try a Little Tenderness: Ellis Johnson uses a small hybrid corner/linebacker in the face of Robinson Therezie. Therezie is decent in coverage but he is terrible in run support. Georgia found him and ran the football right at him at, after a short time, Therezie grew disinterested in run support.
Get Up, Stand Up: So, this is weird. Against Ole Miss and Georgia, Auburn’s short yardage defense used just three down linemen and four stand up linebackers all stacked to their left at the line of scrimmage. The Bulldogs and Rebs ran right at the guys who were standing up and, as you’d expect, they had no leverage whatsoever and were pushed off the line. Georgia took one little Aubie and shoved him 12 yards into the end zone. IN SHORT YARDAGE! Amazingly stupid alignment.
Why Are You Running Away: I giggled several times as I watched the wide receivers run fly patterns that “forced” the Auburn defensive backs to turn their backs to the line of scrimmage and run in pursuit. It was funny because the ball had been handed off on a draw and the running back was 15 yards behind them, chasing the DBs down the field. Run or pass, I’d rotate my wide receivers and have them run go routes all day in order to take the DBs merrily down the field. This is so dumb. They didn’t even peek into the backfield!
Miss Me Blind: Auburn’s tackling is atrocious, which is one of the many reasons the wide receiver screens and running back screens destroyed the Tigers. On a three man rush against the Dawgs, Georgia still ran a screen for big yardage. Typically eight in the defensive backfield would shut down a screen but with the Tigers’ inability to shed blocks or make tackles, getting playmakers in space is deadly against them.
I’m Bad: The funny thing about Auburn’s blitzes is that they rarely get home to the quarterback. They are tied for 10th in the SEC in sacks – hardly worth exposing their corners in my opinion.
Stay With Me: Slant routes will be wide open all day long against the Auburn corners. They allow a clean release and the leverage inside which receivers happily take for first downs.
Hot Boy: Forgive me but I just watched Evan Engram roast the Tigers secondary from the tight end position. He attacked the Tigers’ linebackers in coverage and won time after time. OJ Howard, anyone?
Communication: As we’ve said before, home games allow Kiffin to relay signals into Sims quickly and Sims, in turn, is able to deliver the signals to his teammates. The result is that the play clock is sitting around 10 and Sims can comfortably read the defense before taking the snap. This is huge for him.
- Auburn ranks 38th nationally against the run and 74th against the pass. Alabama is a passing team these days so…
- The Tigers’ defensive performance against Georgia was pretty bad. Most Auburn fans have a bad feeling about this year’s Iron Bowl and that’s because they watched an anemic passing team like Georgia run the ball down their hapless throats.
- Texas A&M obviously had success against the Tigers thru the air but the overlooked key to that game was the Aggies’ ability to rush for 187 yards. Why is that important? A&M is ranked 12th in the conference in rushing.
- The left side of the Auburn defensive line was gashed repeatedly on tape. So, look for Alabama to run behind Austin Shepherd and Leon Brown quite a bit, especially in light of Cam Robinson’s injury.
- Rumor is Cam and Amari are fine but Ardarius Stewart likely will not play. DeAndrew White and TJ Yeldon should be as close to full speed as they can be this time of year.
- Bo freaking Wallace ran for 59 yards on a QB scramble (largely b/c of the Tigers secondary keeping their backs to him). Look for Sims to beat a few AU blitzes with his feet.
- If it seems I’m overly optimistic about this matchup, it’s because Bama’s strengths match up perfectly with Auburn’s weaknesses. And, Auburn’s defense is bad. Not A&M bad, but bad.
- The AU defense has allowed 35.8 points per game against SEC opponents in their five games prior to last week’s game against Samford — a number that would rank 110th out of the 125 FBS schools at this point in the season. They also allowed an average of 470.8 total yards of offense in those five games, which would rank 111th in the current rankings.
Alabama on Defense
This is the matchup the world wants to see. The offensive wizardry of Gus Malzahn versus the defensive mastery of Nick Saban. Flash and misdirection versus raw, physical power. Brains and speed versus brain and brawn. I love the chess match between these two.
Most folks just remember the Kick Six from 2013 rather than the fact that the Alabama defense gave up a measly 21 points for the first 59 minutes of the game. Building on that success, Alabama’s defense has successfully defended the nine out of 11 offenses that are considered HUNH attacks. The one blip on the radar was the Ole Miss game where the secondary melted under the hotness of Katy Perry.
Quite frankly, Mississippi State’s offensive attack is far more menacing this season and Alabama’s defense suffocated their running attack to the point where the Bulldogs were forced to become Air Mullen. Like the Rebs, the Bulldogs did have some success thru the air so if Auburn beats the Tide it will be the result of a high scoring game that saw Nick Marshall light up the Tide’s secondary. That’s not impossible – Marshall essentially won games against the Rebels and Kansas State with his arm and he certainly has the receivers to get the job done.
Waves: Kansas State used their safeties to effectively shut down the Auburn running game. Look for Nick Perry and Landon Collins to make a number of tackles around the line of scrimmage as they rotate up from a two deep look to a single high safety when Auburn shows the fly sweep.
Dynamic Duo: Georgia and K-State both used their linebackers to shoot thru the gaps left by the pulling guards in order to make plays in the backfield. Ragland and DePriest will likely come on a few run blitzes when they read the guards pulling.
Changes: I read that last season only 29% of Auburn’s plays went for 2 yards or less. This season that number is up to 40%! Why? The losses of Jay Prosch and Greg Robinson. When I watch Auburn’s offensive line, they rarely are able to control the line of scrimmage and they seem to struggle getting blockers to the second level. But, tight end Brandon Fulse is typically ineffective as a blocker (especially in space) and Shaun Coleman is horrific at left tackle. This season he’s been guilty of more holds than Stone Cold Steve Austin. Alabama’s front four should own the line of scrimmage and the backers should run freely in order to make plays.
Pretty Vegas: Slots. Look for Alabama to play the slots by run blitzing the snot out of Auburn with their slot corners and/or anyone else lined up in the slot. It was an automatic for Georgia, OM and K-State and it was highly effective in stuffing the running game.
Coconut Telegraph: Watch Auburn’s receivers (particularly their slot receivers). If they come out trotting, it’s a run. If they explode off the line of scrimmage, it’s a pass. Every time. K-State’s safeties and corners read this like a book and didn’t hesitate to fly up to the line of scrimmage to eliminate running plays. Their safety also read the pulling tight end as an automatic call for run support. No hesitation meant he was able to plug a gap very quickly.
Kool Kids: If Duke Williams is healthy, he’s a friggin beast. And, we all know plenty about Sammie Coates. Auburn can move the ball thru the air simply because all Marshall has to do is put the ball in their area code and there’s a 50/50 shot of them coming down with the ball. Seriously, they are outstanding wide receivers so Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson are going to have their hands full.
Leave Me Alone: This is kind of bizarre but Auburn consistently leaves the defensive end unblocked even when he’s continuously making plays in the backfield. Against Georgia and Ole Miss, they even left the defensive tackle unblocked! On purpose! Needless to say the unblocked defender disrupted the play.
Our House: I saw a ton of batted passes at the line of scrimmage so look for Alabama to go all Dikembe Mutumbo on Nick Marshall. “No, no no! Not in my house!”
Swingers: Auburn used the swing pass to their backs effectively against Georgia and that’s a play that’s hurt the Bama defense over the last two weeks.
Fly Guys: On any fly sweep action, the Georgia corner to the fly sweep side raised his hand as a sign to his safety that he was coming on an automatic blitz. This was highly effective.
Highlight Zone: Ole Miss and UGA both used zone defenses effectively because it allowed their corners to come up in run support. The Rebels’ zone allowed them to jump numerous routes, as well.
- If Auburn rushes to the line of scrimmage, 99% of the time they are running wide in the hopes that their quick snap left the defense outnumbered on the edge.
- If a corner sees their receiver crack down on a linebacker, they should immediately fill the spot where the receiver came from b/c that’s where the run is coming.
- If Nick Marshall breaks containment, he’s a problem. His receivers have the ability to get open when the play breaks down so keeping him in the pocket is essential. Look for a mush rush except in passing situations.
- In passing situations, any speed rusher (Anderson, Dickson, Evans, Williams, Hand) will blow by Shon Coleman. He’s awful at blocking on the edge (but is really good at holding).
- Speaking of penalty yardage per game, Auburn is currently ranked No. 114 nationally. Ouch.
- Look for Ricardo Louis to be the fly sweep guy as lately Corey Grant hasn’t had any success whatsoever.
Alabama on Special Teams
With Auburn ranked 12th in the conference in punting average, look for Alabama to have a massive advantage in field position throughout the game. Auburn does lead the conference in punt returns so the coverage teams will have their hands full.
Also, Auburn is ranked third in the conference in field goal percentage so God help us if the game hinges on a field goal. Perhaps the week off has helped the injured Adam Griffith enough to make a difference.
Everything lines up perfectly for Alabama to win this game. On offense, Alabama’s strength is their passing game and that’s exactly where Auburn is the most deficient. Defensively, Alabama dominates the running game and, without that, Auburn would be forced to do something they’d rather not do – pass. Nick Marshall is an erratic passer, so putting the game into his hands would seem like the best thing that Nick Saban could do. Marshall has really been struggling with his accuracy in his last two games, going just 11 of 23 for 112 yards against Georgia and 11 of 18 (for 171) against Samford. So, if Alabama can do as Kansas State, Mississippi State and Georgia did, then they should have a merry little Iron Bowl. But, Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson are going to have to come up big a few times when they are locked up in man to man situations against two outstanding wide receivers.
This game is at home. And Alabama is really, really good at home. Auburn has nothing to play for and their play of late seems to be reflective of the fact that their dreams have been dashed. Meanwhile, Alabama has everything to play for and, even more importantly, they are playing with a passion and a swagger that we haven’t seen around the Capstone in a long, long time. The beats will be pumpin, the guys will be swaggin’ and the crowd will be electric. So will the Tide lose to Auburn Saturday? NEVER AGAIN.
Final Score: Alabama 34 Auburn 21