The 2016 Iron Bowl is upon us and our good friends in Vegas are expecting it to be a beat down of epic proportions. The line opened at Alabama (-18.5) with the news that Kam Pettway, Sean White and Chandler Cox are all less than 100% for Saturday’s contest. Hell, even the Auburn eagle isn’t 100% healthy after smacking himself into the goal post last week. And, the betting line may increase to triple digits if Auburn announces that poor ole Jeremy Johnson will be trotted out onto the Bryant-Denny grass as Auburn’s sacrificial offering to the god of football (aka Nick Saban).
When we turned on the tape this week to watch Auburn take on Vandy, Georgia and Alabama A&M (yes, sigh, we watched this because we had to evaluate Jeremy Johnson), we saw an Auburn team that ran the ball very well but struggled mightily to throw that darned ole forward pass. However, the Tigers’ defense (particularly their front four) was absolutely legitimately nasty in all three games. In many, many ways these Tigers remind us of those cats down in Baton Rouge so honestly it’s no wonder that both sets of Tigers won and lost the game they played against one another in September.
Prior to Auburn’s loss to Georgia (here’s a gentle reminder to you all to put that Christmas card in the mail to Kirby Smart and Maurice Smith), Saturday’s Iron Bowl tilt was supposed to be for all the SEC West marbles. Now, with Alabama having clinched the West and a birth in the SEC Championship Game, instead of playing for all the marbles they’ll be playing for peanuts and pride. But, when these two hated instate rivals get together, peanuts and pride are more than enough to play for when you get statewide bragging rights to go with it.
Everyone knows that this game should be a blowout, right? Well, if you are an Alabama fan then the Lighthouse staff feels this game will be reminiscent to Bama’s 10-0 victory over LSU. Alabama completely dominated the LSU game and could have won the game by a score of 20-3 or something like that but they never could move the ball consistently.
If you are an Auburn fan, then we can see this game playing out much like the Georgia loss last week. Georgia completely dominated the Auburn game (yes, Auburn fans, UGA outgained Auburn 343 to 164, had a 21 to 10 edge in first downs and held a 39 to 21 minute edge in time of possession – that’s domination) and the score could have and should have been much worse than the 13-7 final.
So, we see this game being in the 20 to 6 range in favor of Alabama. But, how will they get there? Here’s what to watch for in the 81st rendition of the Iron Bowl…
Alabama on Offense
Recently, the Tide offense has ebbed and flowed with high water marks against Texas A&M and Mississippi State interspersed with draught like levels against LSU and Chattanooga. We’d rather be able to tell you the Tide offense is peaking at just the right time but uneven passing performances by Jalen Hurts and yet another offensive line shakeup at right guard leaves us chewing on our fingernails this week.
As we watched Auburn’s defense against Vandy, Georgia and Alabama A&M, it was very obvious that the Tigers’ front four is not overrated at all. We’ve heard a lot about Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams this season and, when you turn on the tape, they jump off the screen immediately. Either of these cats could start for Alabama.
Defensively, Auburn checks in at number 18 in the nation in total defense, giving up 334.5 yards per game. As a comparison, LSU is ranked 11th, giving up 308 yards per game. Our film work revealed that Auburn defends the run much, much better than they defend the pass and their rankings certainly bear that out. Auburn is 17th in the country against the run but they are ranked 54th against the pass. Part of their lack of success against the pass is due to this surprising stat – even though the Tigers have Lawson and Adams along their front line, they are ranked 50th in the country in generating sacks this season. But, more on this in a moment.
We envision an offensive game plan that will be eerily similar to the Ole Miss game plan from earlier this season. Look for bubble screens, fly sweeps, swing passes and any other play call that can attack the flanks of the Auburn defense. The gnarly teeth of this Tiger defense is between the tackles but, when you get outside, the purr like a kitten. Kiffin will stretch the field horizontally and will keep the pedal to the metal with a hurry up approach designed to tucker out Auburn’s big front four.
Here’s what else to watch for when Alabama has the ball…
Flanking Movements: Vandy had a ton of success with a flanker reverse, fly sweeps and any many other outside runs they attempted. Vandy & Georgia also had success bouncing interior runs outside. Georgia’s bread and butter against Auburn was tossing the ball or swinging the ball to Sony Michel and Nick Chubb and letting them get outside of the Auburn interior. This was wildly successful and should be for Alabama, as well. FYI – Georgia also ran a successful reverse so this should be something Kiffin is carrying in his tool bag.
OJ Should Be a Killer: Sorry, couldn’t help myself with the title. OJ Howard should have a massive, massive game this week against the Tigers. Vandy and Georgia both found their tight ends wide open against the Auburn zone and against man coverage so OJ should be available in the passing game. Georgia, in particular, ran a crossing route with their slot receiver that occupied one of the Auburn linebackers. At the same time, they crossed their tight end from the opposite side and, with the LB vacating his spot to pick up the wide receiver, the crossing tight end was left all alone.
Twilight Zone: Auburn seems to play a bend but don’t break zone coverage between the 20’s and it’s designed to force a team to methodically drive the ball down the field. However, if the Bama offensive line can hold up against Auburn’s front four, look for Kiffin to manipulate the secondary in such a way that leaves some receivers wide, wide open. He’ll flood zones or will clear them out completely and this should leave the backs, tight ends and slots wide open.
The Key to the Game: Montravious Adams (#1) is one sick beast. His ability to get off the ball at the snap is second to none and he brings five stars worth of size and athleticism to the defensive tackle position. Carl Lawson (#55) is equally good off the edge so Alabama’s front will be severely tested this week. Look for Kiffin to roll the pocket in an effort to change the launch point so that Adams and Lawson spend much of their day chasing rather than hunting. With Cam Robinson and Korren Kirven’s injuries, Lawson and Adams could have a very disruptive day. In particular, pray for Kirven. I don’t think he matches up well against Adams at all.
Alignment: Many plays can succeed or fail even before the football is snapped and that’s simply due to how the defense lines up. Auburn heavily overplays the strong side (the side of the line where the
TE lines up) so look for Alabama to threaten a fly sweep to the strong side and then counter back to the weakside with pulling guards. Georgia did this and it was a beautiful thing.
Deep Shots: I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to watch Hurts execute a perfect play action fake and load up to throw the deep ball only to see him tuck and run. Georgia’s Riley Ridley (Calvin’s brother) blew by Auburn’s corners repeatedly, getting either a big gainer or a pass interference penalty. Carlton Davis (#6) & Javaris Davis (#31) were both beaten by Ridley multiple times. Deep shots down the sidelines will be available and Hurts is going to have to do a much, much better job in giving his receivers an opportunity to make a play down the field. He just needs to throw the damn ball.
- Bubbles: Bubble screens appear to be effective against Auburn’s zone. Again, anything on the perimeter looks very tasty this week.
- Fly Sweeps: See bubbles above. Ardarius Stewart could have a field day.
- Motion: Look for Kiffin to use a lot of motion way out wide this week in an effort to identify if Auburn is playing zone or man. We think a back or TE will motion out wide (wider than the widest receiver) in an effort to see what the corner does. If the corner slides off of the wide receiver and picks up the TE/RB, then Auburn is in zone. If a linebacker or safety runs outside to match the formation, they’ll be in man.
- Play Action: Another reason OJ Howard should be open is the aggressiveness of the Auburn linebackers. They’ll be hell bent to stop the run and they are overly aggressive anyway so look for some heavy play action on first down to draw the LBs up and open up passing lanes down the middle. Vandy had a lovely time doing this.
- Zone Read: Vandy brought in a running back and executed the zone read to perfection a few times. Once again, Jalen Hurts’ legs should be successful in the zone read (especially if he bounces outside).
- Push: Vandy and Georgia tired out the Auburn front and eventually began getting a solid push at the line of scrimmage. Even with the Tigers’ depth, they appeared to get winded in the second half.
- Underneath: We can’t emphasize this enough – Alabama will have numerous opportunities throwing the football underneath the zone. Look for Jacobs to have room to maneuver out of the backfield and he’s shown he can be deadly in the open field. Vandy even ran their wide outs on in-routes and they were left wide open – usually because they had cleared a zone with their tight end.
- Adams: Seriously, Montravious Adams is a beast. Here are some consecutive notes that I took on him: “Center was picked off by #57 and Adams came free and nearly killed the quarterback. Adams with a spin move and he blew by the guard. Adams stunts with Lawson – mercy, it’s an onslaught. Adams beats the guard again and forces the pass to be thrown away.” I think Kirven will struggle mightily and I think Josh Casher may be inserted into the lineup to see if he can do any better.
Last week’s lackluster performance by the offense shouldn’t give Tide fans too much pause. Cam Robinson and Korren Kirven will start but it will be interesting to see how healthy they are because they’ll have to be at their best against Lawson and Adams. Vanderbilt and Georgia were both able to gain yards on the ground when attacking the edges and they both found open receivers against the Auburn zone. Kiffin should be able to find a few ways to put up some points and just a few points is all Alabama will need this week.
Alabama on Defense
What can you say about this Alabama defense. I mean, they haven’t given up a touchdown since the Texas A&M game! And then there’s the woeful Auburn Tiger offense – it’s an offense where if you have a helmet and shoulder pads and are standing on the sidelines, they could ask you to take a snap from center. Sean White, John Franklin III, Jeremy Johnson, Chandler Cox and Kerryon Johnson have all taken snaps this season and we have no reason to believe that this will change on Saturday. Our “little birds” report that White is dealing with a torn labrum and, while we think he’ll play, he’ll struggle to perform against this Bama defense.
Kam Pettway is reportedly coming back but he’ll also be less than 100% and that will certainly impact the Auburn running game. Malzhan won’t ask Pettway to carry the ball 30 times and carry the burden for the Tiger offense so while we think Pettway will carry the football, he’ll be a supporting cast member and not the lead player. Even Kerryon Johnson and Chandler Cox are dealing with injuries so it’s a battered and bruised Tiger bunch that’s coming to Bryant-Denny.
But, does it matter who plays? This season, Alabama’s defense shut down the prolific zone read running of MSU’s Nick Fitzgerald. They stoned Leonard Fournette who surely is better than a less than healthy Kam Pettway. And, remember, Kirby Smart shut down this Auburn offense with a vastly inferior group of defenders. Even Pat Dye would be hard pressed to explain to the Tiger nation how the Gus Bus will find the end zone this week. Here’s what to watch for when Alabama stuffs the Auburn offense this week…
Bouncy House: For all of the love of Pettway’s interior running, his best runs come when he starts up the middle and then bounces outside to his left. The Auburn OL executes man on man drive blocking and this bunches the defenders between the tackles. With the linebackers slamming the interior gaps, Pettway then bounces outside and turns the corner. Kerryon Johnson also loves to bounce his wildcat runs to the left, as well. Ryan Anderson, Jonathan Allen and others will have to contain the edges this week but, if you’ve read this blog, you know no one in the country sets the edge better than Alabama.
Unblocked Defensive Ends: Auburn loves to leave opposing defensive ends unblocked so look for Alabama to attack the mesh point with reckless abandon. Tackles for loss, anyone?
Wildcat: We think the wildcat will be a prominent formation for Auburn this week. Look for Alabama’s safeties to crash down into the running lanes in an effort to cut this play off at the knees. Johnson loves to start up the middle and bounce outside so Fitzpatrick and Harrison will have to come up and make plays. We also suspect there will be a trick play off of this that will allow Scott Cochran to laugh and scream, “Run another trick play, b-tch!”
Pulling Guards: If you see the Auburn guards pull, know that is where the play is going. Every. Time.
Short, Short Man: Whether it’s Sean White or Jeremy Johnson or Donald Trump, you can expect everything they have to be short. Short passes, I mean. Short curls and stop routes seem 90% of the Auburn passing attack and they take place within 8 yards of the line of scrimmage. They’ll mix in a variety of swings and flares to the backs and fly sweep guys but when they throw the ball “down the field” beyond the line of scrimmage, look for a three step drop and a curl/hitch/stop route. Bama defenders will be squatting on this and it will allow Saban to commit his safeties to stopping the run.
The Jeremy Johnson Effect: So, I sat thru the Auburn vs Alabama A&M game so that I could bring you these few sentences. You are welcome, by the way! So, JJ looked pretty decent when he took a three step drop and threw the ball to the one guy he was looking at and this was most of what they asked him to do. He never “read” the defense and only threw the ball down the field a couple of times – once overthrowing and missing a wide open receiver for a touchdown. On both of his down the field throws, he lofted the ball up, kind of “wishing” the ball on its journey rather than firing it with confidence. But, he did run the zone read quite a bit and is certainly more equipped to run it than Sean White. If I’m Gus, I’m starting JJ – to ask White to go up against the #1 defense in the country and do so when White is clearly less than 50% healthy would just be cruel to ask that of the kid.
Sean White: This poor kid cannot throw the ball down the field. He hasn’t thrown in practice for weeks and when he has thrown the ball against Vandy and Georgia, the ball flutters and has nothing on it. If White starts or plays any significant time in the game, consider this to be good news for the Tide.
Eye Candy: The Malzahn/Lashlee offense uses a variety of motions and formations designed to get the defense to misalign and get outnumbered. Alabama will have to read their keys and be extremely sound in their coverages – this is where not having Eddie Jackson is a big deal. But, of course, by this time Minkah Fitzpatrick and the crew should have adjusted – it’s just that Auburn stresses alignments like no other. That being said, the linebackers will be stressed this week as Auburn tries to manipulate them into blowing a few coverages on their running backs.
The Pruitt Factor: Georgia and Vandy both scored hits in the backfield when they brought delayed blitzes from their linebackers so look for Alabama to be ultra-aggressive this week, which is Pruitt’s forte. We’ve long said that Pruitt’s defense has fared much better against Gus than Kirby Smart said and this week AL.com posted an article to prove it. http://www.al.com/sports/index.ssf/2016/11/gus_malzahn_has_something_to_p.html#incart_river_mobile_home_pop The Gus Bus typically smacks into the guard rail against Pruitt’s defenses, averaging six fewer points and 23 fewer yards than against Kirby Smart. Gus has never beaten a Pruitt defense and we don’t think that will change this week.
- If Auburn rushes up to the line of scrimmage and snaps the ball within 9 seconds, the play will be a zone read running play. Typically, their philosophy has changed to the point where now they just pick their spots to go fast – they don’t do it the whole game anymore.
- Jalen Harris (#85) struggles much of the time he’s asked to block so look for Alabama to work him over as they make their way into the Auburn backfield.
- Right tackle Robert Leff (#70) also looked like a turnstile at times during the Vandy and Georgia games. If he and Harris line up next to each other, it’s a good bet that penetration will be coming from Auburn’s right side.
- That being said, Braden Smith (#71) and Alex Kozan (#63) are two of the best guards in the country. Alabama’s interior players like Da’Ron Payne and Dalvin Tomlinson will have to anchor very well this week in the middle of the line. AU likes to double team the tackles so Payne and Tomlinson will be put to the test. Thankfully, they excel at holding their position and reestablishing the line of scrimmage – should be an epic battle.
- Auburn had a bunch of dropped passes in the games I watched so, in the unlikely event that they get a catchable ball, it’s not a certainty that the ball will be caught.
- Bubble screens, fake screens and more bubble screens are the majority of the Auburn throws. They also love to get their backs out on wheel routes so Bama’s backers will likely be challenged in the passing game.
- When Auburn goes empty but still has a running back in the game (lined up out wide), look for the RB to get the ball on a jet sweep.
- If the AU quarterback lines up under center, look for a speed sweep to a receiver. Regardless, Auburn really does stress the flanks of the defense. They love to give the ball to their speed guys around the end.
- Alabama will have HUGE success when they blitz Rueben Foster up the A/B gap. Georgia’s blitzes were very effective, particularly up the middle.
- Alabama leads the SEC in scoring defense (12.2), total defense (259.5) and, most importantly this week, rushing defense (68.8).
Jeremy Pruitt has pretty much owned the Gus Bus since he became a collegiate defensive coordinator. Much like Malzahn, Pruitt’s roots are in high school football where he had to concoct an aggressive defense to combat the speed and diversity of formations with these hurry up, no huddle offenses. As a result, Pruitt has been better prepared to stop the Auburn attack than Kirby Smart (and now I have the numbers to prove it). Smart’s squad limited Auburn to ZERO first downs in the second half and he did so with inferior talent…so, imagine what Pruitt’s wrecking crew will do to the Auburn Tigers on Saturday.
Alabama on Special Teams
The 2016 version of the Iron Bowl will feature two of the best players in the country on special teams. For Alabama, JK Scott continues to lead the conference in punting average with a silly 48.5 yard average. His ability to flip the field and force opponents to put together long drives in order to score has been instrumental in Alabama leading the country in total defense. Auburn punter Kevin Phillips is 9th in the conference in with a 41.6 yard punting average.
Forcing the Tigers to put together long drives will be a key to this game because any time Auburn gets to the Bama 35 yard line, you can pretty much chalk up a field goal for the Tigers. Daniel Carlson is the best field goal kicker in the country, hitting 22 of 25 field goals on the season and he’s 3 of 5 on field goals from 50+.
Oddly enough, Adam Griffith actually comes into this game riding a hot streak, making his last five kicks. Griffith’s last miss was a 42 yarder against LSU. For the season, Griffith is now 14 of 20 but he’s only hit 2 of 5 kicks beyond 40 yards.
In the return game, neither team really does much when they return kick offs or punts these days. Nationally, Auburn is ranked #83 in kick returns while Alabama is ranked #92. Of course, Carlson usually just bangs the thing thru the end zone so that, along with Auburn being challenged to score, means it’s unlikely the Tide will get many chances to return a kick.
In the punt return game, Alabama’s return game hasn’t nearly been as good since Eddie Jackson went down with an injury. Jackson averaged a mind blowing 23 yards per return while Trevon Diggs averages just 4.6. On the other side of the field, Auburn’s Marcus Davis is averaging 7.1 yards per return. It’s unlikely the return game will have much of an impact this week.
Final Thoughts and Prediction
The game will come down to Alabama’s offense versus Auburn’s defense. Frankly, Alabama’s struggles against LSU will likely be revisited this week because Auburn has a very salty defense. Auburn is also the #2 ranked red zone defense so moving the ball as we outlined in the offensive section above should happen between the 20s but turning these drives into touchdowns will be incredibly important and difficult this week.
On the other side of the ball, we simply don’t see how Auburn is going to generate many points. Auburn is so incredibly run heavy this season and that’s just not the way to beat this Alabama D. Auburn ranks 5th nationally in rushing attempts with 573 but is ranked 119th in passing attempts. With Alabama ranking #1 in the country against the run, this doesn’t bode well for the Tigers. Auburn will have to throw the football to win and that’s clearly not something they want to do.
For those looking for an upset this week, don’t. For all of the mystique of this rivalry, I’ve said it for years that the better team almost always wins the Iron Bowl, and they do. The team with the better record wins 82% of the time and when the teams are separated by three or more wins, the team with the better record wins a staggering 92% of the time. That percentage will go up after this week…
Final Score: Alabama 23 Auburn 6