What to Watch For When Alabama Plays Clemson

For the second year in a row my own personal nightmare in writing this blog has come to fruition. I grew up with Dabo Swinney and graduated with him from Pelham High School in 1988. He’s a friend and he’s a person whom I have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for. To pick against Dabo is to pick against my childhood, my teammate, my classmate and my friend.

And then there’s the University of Alabama. My father went to school there and, when I was just three years old, he indoctrinated me into the mystique, tradition and aura that is Alabama football. When I graduated from Pelham there was no question where I was going to school and no other schools were even considered (although I did whimsically send my ACT score & transcripts to Hawaii – sadly, I was not accepted). Being an Alabama fan is all I have ever known and Alabama football has given me some of the best moments of my life. Going to games with my dad and being with him in New Orleans for the 1992 National Championship are memories I’ll cherish forever. To pick against Alabama is to pick against my father, my degree, my classmates and my team.

And yet, once again, I have to chose between these two outstanding teams.

Last year the Bama Lighthouse scouted, analyzed and scrutinized the Tigers and what we found was a ridiculously talented team that appeared to be every bit as talented as Alabama. At the end of the day, our analysis pointed to the difference between these two teams being Deshawn Watson’s penchant for throwing interceptions and Alabama’s strength and superiority on special teams. As it turned out, Watson threw a pick that Alabama turned into a touchdown and Saban’s onsides kick and Kenyan Drake’s kickoff return for a touchdown created a dramatic victory for the Crimson Tide. In short, our analysis was spot on.

Neither friendships nor diplomas factored into picking the winner last year and they will not factor into our pick this year, either. Once again, we’ve broken down tape, analyzed matchups and used our film studies to come to our conclusions. And, once again, we should all be in store for an epic game that we’ll be talking about long after it’s played…

So, let’s get to it. This week we reviewed Clemson versus Ohio State, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Florida State and NC State. It was an exhausting research project and, as a result, we have more notes than we know what to do with. That said, here’s the What to Watch For (W2W4) in the Tide v Tigers national championship tilt, Version 2.0…

Alabama on Offense

For all of the talk about the irresistible force that is Deshawn Watson and the dynamic Clemson offense versus the immovable object that is Reuben Foster, Jonathan Allen and the steel curtain of the Alabama defense, Alabama’s success or failure when their offense has the ball will determine the final result of this game. Like last year, rest assured that Clemson’s offense will most certainly put up some points. So, the question then becomes whether or not the Tide’s offense can keep pace.

The distractions of the Lane Kiffin circus have been removed, only to be replaced by the distractions of “Sark Week.” Steve Sarkisian hasn’t called plays as an OC since 2008 (he did call plays as the USC head coach in 2014) so the change in coordinators isn’t a change to take lightly.   Changing coordinators one week before a critical playoff game would be upsetting to a 14-year NFL veteran quarterback so the fact that it’s happening to an 18 year -old true freshman should not be discounted, either. Changing the OC is a big, big deal.

Across the field, defensive coordinator Brent Venables employs an uber aggressive defense that ranks third in the country in generating tackles for loss. When you turn on the tape of the Clemson defense you see Venables dialing up virtually everything under the sun to generate pressure in the backfield. We saw 3 man rushes and 7 man rushes and everything in between. Against Virginia Tech he even rushed zero and sat 11 men in coverage! In the back end you’ll see man to man coverages, zone coverages , zone blitzes and pretty much everything else you can think of.   It’s very confusing for a QB to decipher – in fact, Clemson’s defense picked off 20 passes this season which is actually four more picks than Alabama’s vaunted defense had this season. Honestly, Clemson’s schemes are pretty cool to watch…unless you are trying to call plays against it.

Up front, Clemson uses three thick, athletic defensive linemen who all play at over 305 pounds. And, unlike Washington’s small linebackers, Clemson’s linebackers are no runts either, each playing at 235 pounds. This is a defense that looks every bit like the Tide defense that played in last year’s national championship game. Remove A’shawn Robinson, Jarren Reed and DJ Pettway and insert Christian Wilkins, Carlos Watkins and Dexter Lawrence and you wouldn’t tell a lot of difference other than the fact that Clemson’s front is even bigger. Yikes.

So, it’s going to be a very tall order for Sark to dial up plays that Jalen Hurts can execute confidently on Monday night. And, all night long in the back of his head Sark will have to be wondering “am I reaching this kid and giving him plays he feels comfortable with?” And, if the offense starts slowly, will Jalen Hurts be wondering, “Does this guy know what he’s doing?” A fast start will be very, very important for the Tide this week – they must have success early.

Here’s what to watch for when Alabama has the ball…

Perimeter Plays are Back: Last week against Washington we told you that Alabama’s biggest success would come between the tackles. This week, bubble screens, fly sweeps and running back sweeps should be back with a vengeance. On tape, when Clemson gave up a big play in the running game it was typically outside the hash marks.

Point, Counter Point: Time and time again teams picked up big yardage against Clemson with counter plays. Plays that would start in one direction would cause Clemson’s hyper-aggressive defense to fire into the running lanes at the snap. Opposing offenses took advantage of this by starting in one direction and then countering to the opposite direction. Pittsburgh, in particular, was very good at this. And, nearly all of Dalvin Cook’s 169 yards rushing came off of counter plays.

Bootlegs: Many teams used play action bootlegs to get their QB outside of the blitzing Tigers and this was very effective. Last season, Jake Coker converted a huge 3&3 on a naked bootleg inside the Clemson 10 yard line. Jalen Hurts is perfectly suited for bootlegs and rollouts so look for Sark to move the pocket Monday night.

QB Runs: Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans rushed for two touchdowns between the tackles off of zone read keepers. It was tough sledding for him as he rushed 17 times for only 62 yards but he was one of the few runners who found room between the tackles. And, when Clemson rushes just three or four, while they are able to push the pocket they often do not apply much pressure. Opposing QBs have easily broken containment and pick up yards when Clemson only rushes their big guys so Hurts’ scrambling should be a weapon.

Misdirection: Two of OJ Howard’s huge catches last year came on a play action run fakes in one direction while OJ slipped out undetected in the opposite direction. Pittsburgh also used their tight ends in a similar fashion against Clemson this season. Look for Bama to generate the flow one way and then sneak OJ out in against the flow.

Up Field Rush: Clemson’s defensive ends are hell bent on getting up the field and, at times, offenses were able to take advantage of this. The ends would take themselves out of the play by coming up the field hard and running lanes would open up behind them.

Zone Defense: Clemson played waaaay more zone defense than normal last week against Ohio State, presumably because they were playing a mobile QB. Look for Venables to call for a heavy dose of zone coverage and zone blitzes this week. If he does, 5 yard hitches and quick crossing throws underneath should be the order of the day.

Bama’s Best Matchups: OJ Howard on any of the Clemson linebackers should be a big win for the Tide but perhaps Alabama’s biggest mismatch could be Ardarius Stewart on Clemson’s 5’9 corner, #31 Ryan Carter. If Hurts spies Carter in a one on one situation with Stewart, he should just throw the ball up and let Stewart go get it. At 6’1, 210 lbs, the former runner up in the state long jump should be able to elevate over Carter and come down with the football.

Running Backs Become Passing Backs: I really like Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris this week more than big Bo Scarborough. Their speed and quickness may be more useful than Bo’s power, particularly if they are used (as they should be) in the passing game. Yards are available if anyone gets matched up on #10 Ben Boulware in coverage. Boulware is better suited as a blitzer and a plugger than he is for playing against athletes in space. FYI – James Conner and Dalvin Cook each got wide open on wheel routes so I’d like to see Sark dial up a couple Monday night.

Protect From Inside Out: Venables brings a ton of A gap pressure so Bama’s line will have to protect from the middle out to the flanks. This is where Boulware excels and is another reason to use Harris more than Scarborough since he’s the better pass protector.

Throw it Deep: If all else fails, Alabama should just drop back and throw the ball deep wherever they can find one-on-one coverage. Clemson was among the leaders in the FBS in committing pass interference and defensive holding penalties. Pittsburgh’s QB took advantage of this by standing in the pocket until the last minute and then firing it down the field towards one on one matchups. Typically they either got a completion or a penalty. FSU attacked Clemson’s man-to-man coverage as well – this is a MUST for the Tide offense. And, it’s not like Kiffin didn’t call for deep shots last week. On five separate occasions off of play action, Hurts appeared to have down field options but, instead, he tucked the ball and tried to run.

Tidebits

  • At 6’5, 6’4 and 6’3, Clemson’s front line bats down a lot of passes.
  • Only one true freshman QB has ever won a national championship.
  • Clemson’s defense has given up the same number of touchdowns (12) as the Alabama defense has this season. The Tigers sacked the QB 49 times this season, just one fewer than the Crimson Tide defense.   And, Clemson’s defense has 20 interceptions – four more than the Tide. Clemson’s defense is outstanding.
  • What you see is not what you get with Clemson’s defense. If they show a three-man front, it’s likely that three more pass rushers will come at the snap. When they show a seven-man blitz, typically two or more will drop into coverage – you just never know which two.
  • Clemson likes to time their blitzes to the snap count so hopefully Hurts will be able to have some dummy counts that will either get the Tigers to jump offsides or will declare the Clemson blitzers.
  • The Clemson corners and safeties are wired to stop the run so when they see run, their instinct is to come up fast. Look for Sark to dial up some play action passes and fake bubble screens where the Tide receivers appear to be blockers but then quickly release down the field for a pass.
  • FSU killed Clemson with crossers and tunnel screens against the blitz so look for Ridley on shallow crossing patterns.
  • I think Venables will play a ton of coverage in an attempt to limit Hurts’ running abilities.  Look for him to rush just three or four and then drop defenders into zones so that they can keep their eyes on Hurts.

Final Thoughts on the Offense

There will be plays available this week for the Tide offense but Jalen Hurts will have be the one to make them. While perimeter runs and counter play runs may be available, the majority of the damage inflicted against Clemson has been thru the air. Unlike last week, Jalen Hurts will have to win this game with his running and throwing…and Steve Sarkisian will have to find a way to help him do it.

Alabama on Defense

The nation’s number one defense will face its biggest challenge of the year this week when they take on Deshawn Watson and the Clemson offense. The Tigers have so many terrific weapons available to them that it must be incredibly difficult for them to call plays. Should the two-time Heisman runner up Watson run it? Or, should he throw it to the best wide receiver in college football in 6’3, 220 lb Mike Williams (#7). Last season against Alabama, Watson found little known Hunter Renfroe (#13) for two touchdowns but this year they’ll have speedy Deon Cain (#8) as an even better option in the passing game (he sat out the game last year due to a suspension). Oh, and then there’s Artavis Scott (#3) who is just Clemson’s all-time leading receiver with 242 career catches – more than Sammy Watkins or Dendre Hopkins – and Jordan Leggett who at 6’5, 260 lbs is a matchup problem at tight end.

And that’s just the passing game. Honestly, any of those guys (and #34 Ray-Ray McCloud) above could be a very real problem for the Tide secondary but Clemson compounds the passing game problems by presenting a challenge in the running game, as well. Wayne Gallman (#9) is very, very solid and he gives the Clemson offense the perfect run/pass balance.

So how do you stop this Clemson attack? Well, last year Alabama didn’t. Clemson gained 550 yards, 405 of which came thru the air. They generated 31 first downs and 40 points. Yikes.

But this year is different. Gone is Kirby Smart and his “picket fence” approach of pushing the pocket and containing Watson. This time it’s Jeremy Pruitt who will be calling the shots and his FSU and Georgia teams were extremely effective in shutting down the Tigers attack. In 2013, Pruitt & the Noles limited Clemson to just 14 points.   In 2014, Pruitt’s Georgia defense held the Tigers to 21 points. But, Watson didn’t start either one of those ballgames.

This season, Alabama’s defensive personnel is different, too. The 255 pound LB Reggie Ragland was a complete non-factor in last year’s game. A 240 lb Reuben Foster really didn’t show up on tape, either. They were just too big and too slow to make a difference in the open field. This year, in place of Ragland is Alabama’s fastest linebacker Rashaan Evans – he had Bama’s only two sacks of Watson last year. And, Foster is a totally different player when he’s playing at a svelte 225 pounds instead of his 240-pound frame from last season. Evans and Foster will be the keys to stopping the Tigers from gashing the Tide as they did last season.

So, here’s what to watch for when Clemson has the ball….

Empty Sets: When Watson is alone in the backfield, look for either a quick throw or a QB draw. FSU batted down four passes when they anticipated the short throws (usually intended for slot receivers) so Bama’s front line should get their hands up when Watson stands alone in the pocket. And, when Watson runs, he’s gift-wrapping opportunities for the Tide to knock him out of the game. We think Watson will run the ball 20 times this week so that will be 20 times that Tiger fans should hold their breath.

Off Script: Last season, Watson burned the Tide defense with a number of “off script” plays when he escaped the pocket. Look for Alabama to blitz their fastest players in an effort to trap Watson in the pocket. Opponents had a lot of success when blitzing up the middle so look for double A gap pressure from Evans and Foster. However, this is where he’s most dangerous – if he evades the rush then we got problems.

Pace & Depth: Clemson used pace to tire out the Tide defense last year, forcing Saban to try an onsides kick just to keep the ball and give his defense a chance to rest. Look for Clemson to go very, very fast as they’ll attempt to prey on the lack of depth in the defensive backfield, linebacker and defensive line positions. Eddie Jackson’s injury and the multiple defections from the secondary have left he Tide woefully thin in the back. At linebacker, the loss of Shaun Dion-Hamilton will be felt. What was once thought to be a thin red line across the front may actually be the deepest position on the defense – Williams, Hand, Frazier, Jennings and Miller all may have to play a role this week up front.

Attack the Left Tackle: #75 Mitch Hyatt is Clemson’s left tackle and we think he’s in for a very long day. He struggled mightily against Ohio State and Florida State and he would be the guy I would try to isolate Tim Williams on as much as possible. Look for Alabama to blitz off the left side of the Clemson line in an effort to force Hyatt to take on Williams all by his lonesome.

Predeterminations: Watson’s Achilles heel is his penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong team. In fact, his 17 interceptions are more than all but four teams! Watson determines where the ball is going pre-snap and this is what gets him in trouble. He eyeballs one receiver and often doesn’t see underneath defenders who are in the passing lane. Alabama typically disguises their blitzes until a fraction before the snap but this week I think you’ll see Alabama “tip” their blitzers in an effort to encourage Watson to pre-determine his throw. Of course, Pruitt’s secondary will be expecting the route and the throw and should be able to create a couple of interception opportunities.

Slants: Mike Williams is a huge, huge target for Watson and Alabama will likely have to devote two defenders to him throughout the game. But, Williams is damn near unstoppable on slants – it’s their “go to” route.

Blitzes: It will be fascinating to see how much Pruitt utilizes the blitz because Watson typically can recognize it and deliver the football before anyone gets home – he beat Ohio State’s blitzes frequently. Alabama will likely have to play Allen and Anderson at DE as they attempt to play the run but this will not generate much of a pass rush. If Anderson and Allen are at defensive end then we think Evans will come as a fifth pass rusher quite a bit. Bud Foster used his linebackers to blitz the bejeepers out of Watson and this was very effective in forcing Watson to get the ball out. Va Tech blitzed on nearly every play and his guys got a lot of clean hits on Watson.

Fly (Sweep) Guys: Unlike most college offenses, Clemson does not typically use fly sweep motion as window dressing. In the games we watched, the fly sweep guy (typically Scott, #3) either got the ball on the sweep or received the ball in the flat about 90% of the time.

Wheel Routes: In many of the games I watched, backup running back CJ Fuller (#27) was utilized as a receiver – particularly on a wheel route. If they can isolate him on Evans then the Clemson band is likely going to be playing their fight song.

Follow the Pulling Guards: Alabama held Clemson’s rushing attack in check last season primarily because they focused on attacking wherever the pulling guards went. Clemson uses a ton of “window dressing” with motion going in virtually every direction. However, if the Tide linebackers key on the pulling guards and tight ends, then they’ll be taken right to the ball. Of course, Clemson likely has some counters to this, as well, as they showed against Ohio State.

Watch the Inside Slot Receiver: A large percentage of Watson’s throws to a three wide receiver side of the field will be to the inside slot. Basically, if there are three receivers to a side, look for the receiver closest to Watson to get the ball. Additionally, slot blitzers were not effective against Watson as it just gave him a clean line of sight to his favored targets.

Mike Williams: #7 for Clemson is just a beast.   He runs all the routes, too. Slants, back shoulder fades, go routes – everything. And, at 6’3, 220 lbs, he’s always open. Look for Watson to find Williams any time Alabama blitzes and he’s in a one on one situation

Redemption: Minkah Fitzpatrick will be playing with a mad on after last year. He gave up two touchdowns and a pass interference and was targeted in the end zone on five separate occasions.

Spies Like Us: I personally hate the whole idea of a spy as most of the time they are just standing around doing nothing. But, last year Evans played the spy role and was actually effective. Pruitt will be mixing things up but I’d bet you anything that he shows blitz (intentionally) and then just rushes three with Evans as a spy.

Jordan Leggett – The X Factor:  When times have gotten tough for Watson, the tough has looked for #16, Jordan Leggett.  Leggett is a 6’6, 260 pound TE that moves like a wide receiver and is a matchup problem for anyone.  When things get tight, the ball goes to Leggett.  The like to split him out wide and run him on a slant against the safety so look for them to target Minkah once again.  In Clemson’s close games, Leggett has performed:

  • Louisville – 3 catches for 71 yards and one touchdown.
  • Pittsburgh – 9 catches for 95 yards and zero touchdowns.
  • Florida State – 5 catches for 122 yards and one touchdown.
  • Virginia Tech – 4 catches for 42 yards and two touchdowns.
  • Alabama (2016) – 5 catches for 78 yards and one touchdown.

Tidebits

  • How much will Tim Williams play? If he’s in the game then Clemson’s ability to run the football will increase. However, he’s the defender who is best suited to disrupt the pocket and chase down Watson. So, what’s the balance between playing Allen and Anderson at defensive end versus moving Allen to tackle and playing Anderson and Williams at DE? Look for Allen and Anderson to start the game and then Williams will come in any time Clemson substitutes.
  • If it’s first and goal inside the five yard line, Clemson will run the zone read repeatedly. Look for Watson to keep the ball more times than not.
  • As good of a receiver as Leggett (#16) is, he’s an awful blocker. Bama will dominate him at the point of attack any time he’s asked to block.
  • If it’s 4&1, Dabo is going for it. Book it.
  • Gallman likes to extend the ball at the goal line so look for Bama defenders to rip it out if he does.
  • The Jeremy Pruitt factor is not to be ignored here.  In our opinion, he’s better suited to defend the Clemson attack and he has better weapons to do so this year.
  • When Clemson has struggled in games, it’s been solely due to turnovers.  With Watson throwing 17 picks this season, Bama could get a NOT (Non-Offensive Touchdown) that turns the game around.
  • While there were occasional breakdowns along the Clemson offensive line, other than Hyatt there were no repeatedly blatant issues. And, aside from Hyatt (295), Clemson’s line is over 305 pounds across and seem to form a relatively solid front.  But, Alabama’s front four is the trump card.  When LSU and Washington held Alabama’s offense in check, it was the defense and the front line that dominated the game and allowed the Tide offense to score just enough to win.

Final Thoughts on Defense

I thought, for the most part, Ohio State and Florida State both held up pretty well at the line of scrimmage.   Even Pittsburgh limited the Tigers to just 50 yards rushing, so I sincerely doubt the Tide will be challenged by Clemson’s running game. The difference in those games and likely in this matchup will come down to Watson’s ability to read coverage and deliver the ball. Even when the plays are perfectly defended, Watson’s ability to extend plays absolutely sucks the life out of a defense.

Alabama MUST get off the field on third down. Clemson will once again be using pace and this year’s defense, while better, isn’t as deep as last year’s defense was. The longer Clemson can keep the Tide defense on the field, the worse the results are going to be later in the game. Lastly, in each game I watched the Clemson offensive coaches adapted to what they were seeing defensively and were able to counter with plays that took advantage of what the defense was trying to do to them.

Alabama on Special Teams

The two return games are pretty similar so, aside from Trevon Diggs looking like a complete train wreck last week, unlike last season all should be relatively even here.

However, Alabama has a significant advantage in the punting game as the nation’s third ranked punter, JK Scott, owns a 47.4 to 38.0 punting advantage over Clemson’s Andy Teasdall. Once again, the Crimson Tide should own the field position game and that was no small part of their victory over Washington.

But, this year there is no Cyrus Jones and no Kenyan Drake to save the day in the return game and with Diggs’ problems last week we’d guess if something catastrophic happens in the kicking game it will happen to Alabama.

In the place-kicking game, the two teams are pretty similar. Greg Huegel hit 73.7% of his attempts, missing three times inside the 40 and twice outside the 40. Meanwhile, Adam Griffith hit 74.1% of his kicks, missing three times inside the 40. From outside the 40, Griffith hit just 3 of 7 while Huegel made 5 of 7 kicks so the Tigers may hold a slight advantage when dialing up kicks from long distance.

Final Thoughts and Prediction

The Alabama offense limps into this contest with a new offensive coordinator and a passing game that forces you to hold your breath and pray each time Hurts drops back to pass. Last year, Bama was very creative in utilizing misdirection against the aggressive Clemson defense and they once again have the athletes who can take advantage of this attacking style of defense. Unlike last week, the Tide will not be able to just run between the tackles and play conservatively this week so Jalen Hurts is going to have to play more like the SEC offensive player of the year than the 18-year-old true freshman he was against the Huskies.

Defensively, this is the ultimate nightmare for Alabama. Clemson has multiple game breakers at wide receiver, a fleet footed tight end, an outstanding running back and the game’s best player at the quarterback position. Saban loves to take away what you do best but when you put on the tape of Clemson they have playmakers everywhere and do so many things well. There were a few signs of weakness across the offensive line but Watson’s fleet foot and surprising strength usually negated the pass rush when it arrived.

Clemson will score – probably in the high 20s. Early on, the Tide’s defense will more than hold their own but, as the game wears on, if they don’t get some help from the offense then things will get mighty dicey. There is little to no depth in the back seven and, over time, Clemson’s pace of play and vast array of athletes will take a toll on the Alabama defense. With special teams being negated, it will be up to the offense to win a sixth national championship for Nick Saban and lately I haven’t seen any indication that they can get it done.

Clemson does not fear Alabama – they are the one and only team that truly wants Alabama. They aren’t scared and they want revenge for last year. They believe they should have won the game last season and they will be the more motivated team. They are also the most cohesive team and they are playing much, much better offensively than Alabama is right now. I just think it’s Clemson’s year…

 

Final Score: Clemson 34 Alabama 27

  

Note: IF Clemson does win this football game, Alabama fans should take a ton of pride in what Dabo is doing at Clemson. Since 2011, Alabama has the highest winning percentage in the country, winning 91.6% of their games. Guess which team has the second highest winning percentage during that span. Ohio State? No. Oklahoma? No. Oregon or FSU? No. Clemson actually has the second highest winning percentage at 84.1%. Since 2012, Dabo has beaten Urban Meyer twice, Bob Stoops twice and Les Miles once. Each one of these coaches has been somewhat of a nemesis for Saban and yet Dabo has each of their pelts on his wall. When you look at the Clemson program, you can’t help but see a lot of Alabama in it and I, for one, think that’s pretty damn cool. No matter what the result is on Monday night, Alabama rules college football.

Advertisements

W2W4 in the 2016 Iron Bowl

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.

Tidebits

  • 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.

Final Thoughts

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.

 

Tidebits

  • 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).

Final Thoughts

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

 

 

An Iron Bowl Preview – A Look at Common Top 25 Opponents

Many thanks to the Notorious PAB for statistically breaking down the Iron Bowl this week. Here’s the first of his two installments this week!  Enjoy!

Looking Ahead to the Iron Bowl –

Games Against Common Opponents Texas A&M and LSU

Introduction

Keeping with long-standing and respected tradition, this season’s Iron Bowl – to be played on November 26 at Bryant-Denny Stadium – is the last SEC and regular season game for the Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers. Having wrapped up the SEC West Division when Georgia bested Auburn, 13-7, on Nov. 12, Bama’s next stop will be the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to vie for the SEC Championship.   (Par-tay in The ATL for sure.)

Conference rules require each SEC team to play all other teams in its division. Thus, the Tide and Tigers have five common West opponents in 2016: Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. (There are no common foes from the East Divison this season.) In this article, we’re going to focus on the two common opponents included in CFP rankings that were released on Nov. 15: the LSU Tigers at #16 and the Texas A&M Aggies at #25.

A Look at Bye Weeks and “Tune-Up Games”

One interesting aspect of the Iron Bowl is what Bama and Auburn do the preceeding week. There are four alternatives: schedule a bye week, compete against a non-FBS team in a so-called “tune-up game,” play an SEC team, or face an opponent from one of the FBS (aka Power Five) conferences. Not surprisingly, the Tide and the Tigers have taken different approaches over the years. Let’s look at what’s happened since Coach Saban set up shop in T-Town in 2007.

Bama

From 2007, Bama has been very consistent in its approach to the “week before.” In 2008, the Tide played Mississippi State, winning 32-7. In all other years of Coach Saban’s tenure, Bama has played non-FBS foes:

2007         Louisiana-Monroe         LOSS   14-21

2009         Chattanooga                   WIN   45-0

2010         Georgia State                   WIN   63-7

2011         Georgia Southern            WIN   45-21

2012         Western Carolina             WIN   49-0

2013         Chattanooga                     WIN   49-0

2014         Western Carolina             WIN   48-14

2015         Charlestown Southern   WIN   56-6

2016         Chattanooga                     WIN   31-3

In the nine games against non-FBS squads, the Tide is 8-1, scoring a total of 400 points (44.4 ppg), while surrendering 72 (8.0 ppg). The only loss was in 2007, when the Louisina-Monroe Warhawks topped the Tide by one touchdown, 14-7. That season, the Warhawks were 6-6 overall, 4-3 in the Sun Belt Conference. But the team had experience against big-time programs, playing Clemson and Texas A&M earlier that season before taking the field at Bryant-Denny.

This year’s opponent, the Chattanooga Mocs, entered the game 8-2 overall / 6-2 in Southern Conference play, and led the Tide, 3-0, at the end of the initial quarter.

Auburn

The “week before” experience for Auburn since 2007 has been a mix of bye weeks and contests versus non-FBS teams. The Tigers’ schedule is shaped by its annual rivalry game with the Georgia Bulldogs, the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” (The series started in 1892; there have been 115 games; and, since 1947, the contest has been played on the second or third Saturday in November.)

2007 – 10   bye week after Georgia game

2011           Samford                             WIN 35-16

2012           Alabama A&M                 WIN 51-7

2013           by week after Georgia game

2014           Samford                             WIN 31-7

2015           Idaho                                   WIN 56-34

2016           Alabama A&M                   WIN 55-0

In these five contests, Auburn is 5-0, accumulating 228 points (45.6 ppg), and allowing only 64 (16.0 ppg).

We note that since Gus Malzahn became head coach in 2013, Auburn has had only one bye week. Schedules can be, and often are, made years ahead, but there is relatively more flexibility in arranging late-in-season games with non-conference, non-FBS opponents. (We realize that money – i.e., “major payday for a small school” – can play a big part.) It would not surprise us if Coach Malzahn, who faced Saban-led Bama teams as Auburn’s OC/QB Coach in 2009-2011, decided that when it comes to preparing for an Iron Bowl, playing a game is more useful than having a week off.

This season, Auburn defeated the Alabama A&M Bulldogs of the Southwestern Atlantic Conference. The Bulldogs were 3-6 overall / 3-5 in SWAC games going into their matchup withg the Tigers.

Schedule Context for the Texas A&M and LSU Games

Sometimes, when and where teams meet can affect a game’s outcome. (On the other hand, elite teams are little influenced by such factors, which has been true of the Tide so far this season). Let’s place the Texas A&M and LSU games in the context of Bama’s and Auburn’s 2016 schedules.

Auburn

9/17     Texas A&M (#17 AP)     Jordan-Hare Stadium     LOSS 16-29

9/23     LSU (#18 AP)                 Jordan-Hare Stadium     WIN   18-13

Texas A&M was Auburn’s first SEC contest of the season. The Tigers were 1-1 going into the game, previously losing to Clemson (AP #2) and topping Arkansas State, 51-14.   Auburn played the Aggies and Tigers on consecutive Saturdays, the third and fourth of five straight home games. The winning score against LSU was comprised of six field goals; Auburn scored no TDs in the contest.

Bama

10/22   Texas A&M (#6 AP)        Bryant-Denny Stadium     WIN 33-14

11/5       LSU ( #15 CFP)               Tiger Stadium                     WIN 10-0

First, we note that the opponents came in the same order – Texas A&M first, then LSU.   Bama had to go on the road, however, traveling to Baton Rouge to play the Tigers. In that game, the Tigers were led by a new head coach. After losing to Auburn, Les Miles was replaced on an interim basis by Ed Ogeron, who had been in charge of the defensive line. Orgeron was also interim head coach at Southern Cal in 2013.

Bama faced the Aggies and Tigers in consecutive games, not on consecutive Saturdays. Bama and LSU both had bye weeks prior to their epic defensive struggle. These games came during a very challenging stretch: prior to taking the field against the Aggies, Bama had back-to-back contests against ranked SEC West teams: Arkansas (#16 AP) on 10/8 and at Tennessee (#9 AP) in the “Third Saturday in October” game (10/15).

The Tide’s 10-0 victory at Tiger Stadium produced Bama’s smallest winning margin of 2016 and its only shutout. LSU’s only SEC losses have been to Auburn and Bama. (The loss to Auburn likely cost Les Miles his job, while a win over Bama would have certainly boosted Ed Orgeron’s case to have his “interim” designation removed.) The Tigers’ other defeat was at the hands of the Wisconsin Badgers (8-2, now #7 CFP) on Sep. 3 at Lambeau Field.

Game Statistics

Opponent – Texas A&M

    Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Total
Scoring by quarter TEXAS A&M 0 7 7 0 14
  BAMA 6 7 13 7 33

 

  TEXAS A&M 3 13 3 10 29
  AUBURN 7 3 0 6 16

 

Bama didn’t have an “offensive explosion” in any quarter against the Aggies, just solid production and scoring in each period. As usual for this season, the second and third stanzas were when the Tide put up the majority of their points. The Auburn defense, in a losing effort, thwarted several A&M drives, forcing the Aggies to settle for field goals five times. Unfortunately for the Tigers, those 15 points exceeded the eventual margin of victory.

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
Time of possession 35:50 24:10   31:04 28:56
Total yards 451 278   399 478
First downs 28 17   26 19
3rd-down conversions 7 / 14 5 / 16   6 / 17 2 / 15
4th-down conversions 0 / 1 1 / 3   0 / 2 1 / 1

 

We looked at these “high-level” stats from the Bama / A&M game and thought, “Maybe A&M was lucky to have lost by only 19 points.” The Tide enjoyed +11:40 in time of position (essentially 3:2 ratio), +173 total yards and +11 first downs.

Auburn, in its losing effort, had the ball a little longer (+2:08), but generated 79 fewer yards, despite 7 more first downs. The most interesting/confusing anomaly in the game are the third-down conversions. At 35.3%, Auburn did OK, but A&M was abysmal, converting only twice on 15 opportunities (13.3%)

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
PASSING          
Passing yards 164 164   163 247
Comps/atts 15 / 25 (60.0%) 14 / 31 (45.2%)   22 / 35 (62.9%) 20 / 40 (50.0%)
Yards/att 6.6 5.3   4.7 6.2
Yards/comp 10.9 11.7   7.4 12.4
Passing TDS 2 2   0 1
INTs 1 2   0 0

 

The Tide and Aggies accumulated equal passing yardage, but Bama had six fewer attempts, and a far superior completion rate (60.0% – 45.2%). Yards per completion were essentially the same. The Aggies were hurt by one additional interception. In the Auburn game, A&M threw more (40 – 35 attempts) with a lower completion rate (50.0% – 62.9%), but accumulated 1.5 yards for every one yard by Auburn. The yards per completion ratio was 1.7:1.

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
RUSHING          
Rushing yards 287 114   236 231
Rushing atts 57 38   54 37
Yards / rush 5.0 3.0   4.4 6.2
Rushing TDs 1 0   2 1

 

We’ll cut to the chase: Bama’s run game really stood out. Fifty-seven attempts is evidence of a deep commitment to rushing the football. That commitment was rewarded with 287 yards, which is just over 2.5X what the Aggies gained. 5.0 yards/carry is definitely conducive to moving the chains and keeping the clock running. (Only one rushing TD is a bit curious.) Auburn and A&M generated about the same total rushing yards, but Auburn required about 1.5X as many plays, so the Aggies were clearly more efficient on the ground.

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
OFFENSIVE BALANCE          
Total plays 82 69   89 77
Total yards 451 278   399 478
Yards/play 5.5 4.0   4.5 6.2
           
Rushes 57 38   54 37
Percentage of plays 69.5% 55.1%   60.7% 48.1%
Rushing yards 287 114   236 231
Percentage of yards 63.7% 41.0%   59.1% 48.3%
           
Passes 25 31   35 40
Percentage of plays 30.5% 44.9%   39.3% 51.9%
Passing yardage 164 164   163 247
Percentage of yards 36.3% 59.0%   40.9 51.7%

 

First, a question about the current pace of offense in big-time college football: “Are you kidding me?” Look at the total plays – 82, 69, 89 and 77. The average is 79.3 plays/team/game, a little more than 2.6 plays per one minute of game time. Bama and Auburn both favored the run game against A&M, the Tide a bit more so. The Aggies had a supremely balanced offensive effort versus the Tigers with rush/pass play mix 48.1% – 51.9%, and rush/pass yardage 48.3% – 51.7%.

  BAMA TEXAS A&M   AUBURN TEXAS A&M
PENALTIES          
Number / yards 7 / 44 9 / 81   6 / 28 9 / 70
           
TURNOVERS          
Fumbles lost 0 1   1 0
INTs 2 1   0 0

 

A penalty is never a good thing, but these 31 penalties were called during a total of at least 317 plays. (Penalties are called during special-teams plays, of course, as we all know too well from the ubiqitious “block in the back” foul during punt and kickoff returns.) Bama and Auburn both played “cleaner” games than the Aggies. The Tigers were very disciplined – only 6 penalties that cost them 28 yards.

Opponent – LSU

Auburn and LSU are both known as the Tigers, so we’ll use school names in this section to avoid any confusion.

    Q1 Q2 Q3 Q4 Total
Scoring by quarter BAMA 0 0 0 10 10
  LSU 0 0 0 0 0
             
  LSU 7 0 6 0 13
  AUBURN 3 6 3 6 18

 

Defensively, the 2016 Bama / LSU matchup was one for the ages, recalling the epic 6-9 overtime contest in 2011. With the score 0-0 going into the fourth quarter, cell towers in the Baton Rouge area were no doubt overwhelmed by calls from NFL scouts, all telling defensive coordinators about the wealth of talent on the field. Auburn scored no TDs, but kicked six field goals in its win over LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Note that Auburn stayed close during all periods, allowing them to stick to a game plan that paid off in the end.

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
Time of possession 33:55 26:05   32:11 27:49
Total yards 323 125   388 338
First downs 16 6   18 14
3rd-down conversions 7 / 17 4 / 15   8 / 9 4 / 13
4th-down conversions 1 /2 0 / 2   0 – 1 0 – 0

 

In this time of fast-strike, “impact play” offenses, time-of-possession doesn’t matter as much as it once did… unless we’re talking about low-scoring games in which excellent defenses hold sway. Bama had the ball for 7:50 longer and made great use of that time – 198 more in total yards and a +10 margin in third-down conversions. (Holding LSU to 125 total yards was amazing.) Auburn held a smaller time-of-possession edge (+4:22) on its way to amassing 50 yards more in total offense (388 – 338). Auburn’s ability to keep drives going was absolutely first-rate: eight of nine third-down opportunities were converted.

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
PASSING          
Passing yards 107 92   234 118
Comps/atts 10 / 19 (52.6%) 11 / 24 (45.8%)   19 / 26 (73.1%) 15 / 27 (55.6%)
Yards/att 5.6 3.8   9.0 4.4
Yards/comp 10.7 8.4   12.3 7.9
Passing TDS 0 0   0 1
INTs 1 1   0 0

 

LSU’s passing attack was ineffective in both games: 26 completions in 51 attempts (50.1%), 210 yards and one touchdown. One touchdown in eight quarters. Bama’s approach was quite conservative, but efficient: 107 yards from 10 completions. Auburn outgained LSU by almost 2:1 in the air, averaging 12.3 yards/completion with a stellar 73.1% completion rate. But LSU kept Auburn receivers out of the end zone all game.

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
RUSHING          
Rushing yards 216 33   154 220
Rushing atts 51 27   49 32
Yards / rush 4.2 1.2   3.1 6.9
Rushing TDs 1 0   0 0

Using an old-school, four-function calculator, we find that 33 X 6.55 = 216. That’s how superior Bama’s run game was throughout the evening of Nov. 5. We don’t know exactly what LSU’s game plan was going in, but being held to an average of 1.2 yards/carry no doubt threw a big, rusty wrench in the works. The Tide rolled up 216 yards against a defense with a lot of guys who’ll be playing on Sundays and kept the clock moving.

Stifling the LSU running game, of course, meant controlling RB Leonard Fournette. And that’s exactly what the Tide did. Fournette was held to 35 yards on 15 carries (2.1 yards/rush) and 0 TDs. (In 2015, his numbers were: 19 carries, 31 yards, 1 TD; in 2014: 21 carries, 79 yards, 0 TD. Mr. Fournette must have nightmares about large, fast men, clad in crimson and while, chasing him relentlessly.) Even if we take away QB Danny Etling’s -16 yards rushing, the LSU ground attack would have generated only 48 yards.

After any stellar defensive game, it’s a good idea to look at how punting affected field position.   In this contest, Bama and LSU punting efforts – by kickers and cover men alike – were nothing short of spectacular.

LSU       8 punts     average – 42.0 yards     longest – 51 yards     2 punts returned for 1 yard

Bama   6 punts     average – 51.6 yards     longest – 66 yards     3 punts returned for 16 yards

Field goals determined the outcome. Auburn’s Daniel Carlson – who also handled kickoff duties – went into the contest 6-for-6 and came out 12-for-12. He was successful three times from 29 yards and from distances of 31, 37 and 51 yards. (Carlson was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award in 2015 and will surely be so again this season.) His counterpart, Colby Delahoussaye, made two of three field goal attempts, scoring from 25 and 19 yards.

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
OFFENSIVE BALANCE          
Total plays 70 51   75 59
Total yards 323 125   388 338
Yards/play 4.6 2.5   5.2 5.7
           
Rushes 51 27   49 32
Percentage of plays 72.9% 52.9%   65.3% 54.2%
Rushing yards 216 33   154 220
Percentage of yards 66.9% 26.4%   39.7% 65.1%
           
Passes 19 24   26 27
Percentage of plays 27.1% 47.1%   34.7% 45.8%
Passing yardage 107 92   234 118
Percentage of yards 33.1% 73.6%   60.3% 34.9%

 

Bama was clearly focused on the run, on offense and defense, against LSU. Running plays accounted almost 73% of play selections and just over two-thirds of the total yards that Bama gained. Bama achieved a massive +183 margin in rushing yards. The Tide outgained LSU marginally on passing plays (+15 yards), but was able to do so on five less attempts, a good thing against a secondary with LSU’s talent. Your basic fewer passes = lower risk situation.

Auburn, in contrast, threw one less pass than LSU (26 – 27), but the margin in passing yards was +116, almost doubling what LSU gained through the air (234 – 118). Auburn did not emphasize the passing game (only 34.7% of the play calls), but the aerial effort delivered just over 60% of Auburn’s total yardage for the afternoon. Excellent “return on investment” right there.

By comparison, Auburn’s running game was (no pun intended) pedestrian. 154 yards against an LSU defense is not bad, but 3.1 yards per carry is not going to sustain enough drives to win. LSU got 66 more yards on 32 fewer running plays.   Leonard Fournette did not play, but Kerryon Johnson stepped up big time, contributing 93 yards on 22 caries (4.2 yards/carry; longest run – 14 yards).

  BAMA LSU   AUBURN LSU
PENALTIES          
Number / yards 6 / 29 3 / 20   5 / 50 4 / 28
           
TURNOVERS          
Fumbles lost 1 0   1 1
INTs 1 1   0 0

 

Bama prevailed despite more penalties (6 – 3 ) and one additional turnover. It helped that the six turnovers only cost the Tide 29 yards. An interesting coincidence – both games had a total of nine penalties called. In each contest, LSU was whistled fewer times and had the turnover advantage.