Alabama and Auburn is one of college football’s top rivalries, and the winner of the last five Iron Bowl matchups has played in the national championship that season. The Crimson Tide could extend that streak to six, as coach Nick Saban’s team was No. 1 in the latest release of the playoff committee rankings. Auburn is out of the playoff picture, but the Tigers can play spoiler against their in-state rival and improve their bowl position in the process.
Alabama enters the Iron Bowl with six wins in a row after losing 23-17 to Ole Miss on Oct. 4. The Crimson Tide defeated Mississippi State on Nov. 15 to take the No. 1 spot in college football’s playoff committee rankings. In addition to the win over the Bulldogs, Saban’s team has quality wins over Arkansas, LSU and a 59-0 shutout victory over Texas A&M. Auburn has lost two out of its last three games, including a 34-7 defeat at the hands of Georgia. The Tigers played for the national championship last year, but a tough road schedule and a struggling defense has been too much for coach Gus Malzahn’s team to overcome.
Alabama owns a 41-30-1 series edge over Auburn. The Crimson Tide has won four out of the last six meetings against the Tigers. However, no team has won more than two in a row in this series since Auburn claimed six consecutive victories from 2002-07.
And of course, we can’t preview Alabama-Auburn without mentioning last year’s crazy “Kick Six” ending to lift the Tigers to the SEC West Championship.
Auburn at Alabama
Kickoff: 7:45 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Alabama -9.5
Auburn’s Key to Victory: Push the Tempo
In last year’s meeting, Auburn averaged 5.8 yards per play and gashed the Crimson Tide for 296 yards on the ground. The Tigers aren’t as stout on the offensive line as they were last year, yet still lead the SEC in rushing offense by averaging 266.2 yards per game. Tre Mason has moved onto the NFL, but Cameron Artis-Payne (1,405 yards, 11 TDs) has proven to be a capable replacement, and quarterback Nick Marshall has 731 rushing yards on 133 attempts. The ability to run between the tackles is a strength of Artis-Payne, but the senior has seven runs of 30 yards or more this season – second in the SEC. In addition to Artis-Payne’s ability to hammer away on the interior, Marshall can make plays on the outside, which is difficult to defend when Auburn establishes its tempo. Alabama’s rush defense has been an immovable object all year. The Crimson Tide limit opponents to just 2.8 yards per carry and have not allowed a rushing touchdown since Oct. 11. Running room could be limited for Auburn, but Malzahn’s offense is going to give the Crimson Tide defense a lot of reads and different looks to find room on the ground. And when Auburn gets first downs, Malzahn will speed up the tempo, allowing the offense to keep Alabama’s defense on the field and out of position. The Tigers need to have success on the ground to setup their offense, but Marshall has to be able to take advantage of opportunities in the passing game. The senior has tossed three of his picks in Auburn’s three losses in 2014. But Marshall will have some additional help on Saturday, as receiver Duke Williams is expected to return from a leg injury suffered against Texas A&M.
Alabama’s Key to Victory: T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry
We could list a number of keys to the game for Alabama, but let’s focus on the Crimson Tide running backs. Yeldon has been dealing with injuries to his foot and ankle recently, and the junior did not play against Western Carolina. The extra rest should pay dividends for Yeldon, as Auburn’s rush defense has struggled to stop the run in SEC play. The Tigers rank ninth against the run in conference-only matchups, allowing 177.7 yards per game. Two opponents – Georgia and Mississippi State – also rushed for over 200 yards against Auburn, while Texas A&M averaged five yards per touch in a 41-38 win by the Aggies in Jordan-Hare Stadium. As long as he’s healthy, Yeldon will be the feature back for coordinator Lane Kiffin. But the Tigers will see plenty of Derrick Henry, who averages 5.1 yards per carry on 134 attempts this year. Establishing Henry and Yeldon is critical for Kiffin, as it will help open up passing opportunities downfield for receiver Amari Cooper. Quarterback Blake Sims has tossed only two picks at home, and the Sims-Cooper connection will be a handful for an Auburn secondary ranked 10th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense.
Never count out the underdog in a rivalry matchup. Alabama will get Auburn’s best shot, but the Crimson Tide defend home turf and reclaim bragging rights within the state for the next year. The Tigers should have some success moving the ball with their up-tempo attack. However, Alabama’s defense stops Auburn in the redzone and on third downs to prevent the Tigers from pulling off the upset. The Crimson Tide’s offense has been better at home than in road contests. Sims connects with Cooper a few times, and Yeldon and Henry pound away on the ground to push Alabama to victory.