The stakes are always high when Alabama and Auburn meet in the Iron Bowl, and one of college football’s top rivalries is once again a must-see matchup this Saturday. The Crimson Tide rank fifth in the latest CFB Playoff top 25 and could use a convincing win to build a case for the No. 4 spot in the final rankings. The Tigers aren’t in the playoff mix at 8-3, but a win would certainly ease some of the pressure on coach Gus Malzahn.
Alabama’s victory over Western Carolina last Saturday ensured another double-digit win total for Nick Saban. Since taking over in Tuscaloosa in 2007, the Crimson Tide have won at least 10 games in 13 consecutive seasons. However, the 2019 campaign has provided a unique challenge for Saban with starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa sidelined for the rest of the year due to a hip injury suffered on Nov. 16 against Mississippi State. Additionally, a youth movement in the front seven on defense has caused the unit to slip just a bit from its usual dominant standard. With Alabama eliminated from the SEC Championship Game, this will be the team’s last data point of 2019. The Crimson Tide need a convincing victory to improve their standing for the No. 4 spot in the CFB Playoff.
Auburn has faced one of the nation’s toughest schedules this year, with all three of its losses coming to teams ranked in the top 11 of the latest CFB Playoff rankings. The Tigers had a thrilling win over Oregon (27-21) in the opener and defeated Texas A&M (28-20) in late September to jump to a 5-0 start. Malzahn’s squad has fallen short in games against Florida, LSU and Georgia but also picked up two more SEC wins over the second-half of the season. After a disappointing 2018 campaign, another eight-win season wouldn’t sit well for the fanbase. However, there’s optimism for 2020 with freshman quarterback Bo Nix only going to get better with more snaps. And that optimism could grow if the Tigers find a way to win on Saturday.
Alabama holds a 46-36-1 series edge over Auburn. The Crimson Tide have won six out of the last nine matchups against the Tigers.
Alabama at Auburn
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 30 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -3.5
When Alabama Has the Ball
When Alabama takes the field, it’s no secret all eyes will be on Mac Jones. So far, so good for the sophomore quarterback. He connected on 10 of 12 throws for 275 yards and three touchdowns in last week’s win over Western Carolina and connected on 18 of 22 passes for 235 yards and three scores against Arkansas on Oct. 26. For the season, Jones has connected on 71.4 percent of throws for 841 yards and seven touchdowns
While Jones has aced his two starts for Alabama this year, Saturday’s game at Auburn is by far his toughest assignment. Will coordinator Steve Sarkisan build the gameplan to let Jones ease into it or could the sophomore come out firing to the nation’s best group of receivers? Jones needs be a point guard on Saturday, as he’s tasked with getting the ball on the outside to Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy. All four receivers are capable of scoring every time they touch the ball. Auburn ranks fifth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has allowed only 14 scores through the air this season.
Jones’ performance could make-or-break Alabama’s chances of a victory, but the biggest battle on offense is likely to come in the trenches. Auburn’s defensive line is arguably the best in college football, generating 26 sacks and ranking second in the SEC versus the run through 11 games. Tackle Derrick Brown is expected to earn first-team All-America honors this fall, with Marlon Davidson, Big Kat Bryant and Tyrone Truesdell providing support in the trenches. Alabama has to get a solid game out of Jones to win, but Sarkisian and Saban won’t put it all on his shoulders. Will the Crimson Tide hold up in pass protection and clear a few running lanes for running back Najee Harris? In seven SEC contests this year, Alabama is averaging only 4.6 yards per rush.
When Auburn Has the Ball
The story of Auburn’s 2019 offense can easily be told through the split stats. In four games against ranked opponents, the Tigers are averaging only 18.5 points a game. In Auburn’s three losses, Malzahn’s squad is averaging only 15.7 a contest. In other words, the Tigers have struggled to get their offense on track against the best competition this fall. Saturday will be another opportunity for this group to breakthrough against a ranked opponent.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix has struggled against ranked opponents and in the team’s three losses this year. The true freshman is completing only 50 percent of his throws in losses and has tossed six interceptions in four games against ranked opponents. It’s no secret Nix has to play better for the Tigers to win the Iron Bowl on Saturday. Will Malzahn utilize more tempo earlier in the game after Nix seemed to find his rhythm in the fourth quarter of the loss against Georgia? Seth Williams (52 catches) is Nix’s favorite target, with Anthony Schwartz (34) and Eli Stove (32) rounding out a solid trio of options. Alabama’s secondary struggled to contain LSU’s passing attack and receivers but still ranks third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. Nix doesn’t have to have a huge game in order for Auburn to win. However, he can’t afford any big mistakes.
Similar to Alabama’s offense, the battle in the trenches is critical for Auburn’s gameplan on Saturday. The Tigers lean on their ground game (490 attempts to 339 through the air) and rank fourth in the SEC in per-game average (213.7). Nix’s mobility will be a factor, but Malzahn is likely to lean on JaTarvious Whitlow (625 yards) and D.J. Williams (371) to carry the workload on Saturday. Due to injuries and youth up front, Alabama’s defense has been more vulnerable against the run this season. The Crimson Tide rank seventh in the SEC, allowing 130.9 yards a game on the ground. Additionally, this is dealing with injury concerns to linemen D.J. Dale, Raekwon Davis and Phidarian Mathis for Saturday’s game.
Can Auburn get its ground game on track to ease some of the pressure on Nix? Or will the Tigers allow Nix to come out throwing and utilize quick tempo to get the passing game in a rhythm early on? Even if Nix has success through the air, Auburn has to have balance on offense. Simply, the Tigers won’t win if they are in third-and-long all afternoon.
Alabama won’t have an opportunity to play on Championship Saturday next week, so this is the final chance for Saban’s team to make a statement for the committee. A blowout victory would help the Crimson Tide build a case for the No. 4 spot, but a lopsided scoreboard would be a surprise. Auburn has won two out of the last three games against Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium and its defense will be a tough matchup for Mac Jones in his first road start. This game is likely to come down to two factors: Which quarterback delivers a clean (and successful) performance and which defense wins the battle along the line of scrimmage? The guess here is Alabama’s offense does just enough, as Saban’s team finds a way to earn win No. 11 and keep its playoff hopes alive for another week.