Alabama looks to continue its quest for an unbeaten season and a second consecutive national championship, but the Crimson Tide still have a few obstacles to overcome, starting with Saturday’s rivalry matchup against Auburn. The annual Iron Bowl is one of college football’s top rivalry games and has seen its share of clutch performances and game-changing plays in recent years. Some of the luster for this matchup was lost when Auburn was defeated by Georgia two weeks ago, but even though Alabama is more than a two-touchdown favorite, the Tigers aren’t going to go quietly in this game.
Outside of USC, Penn State or Oklahoma, no team has changed its outlook more from the first month of the season than Auburn. The Tigers appeared to be on the wrong track after a 1-2 start, but a last-second victory over LSU sparked this team. Prior to the win over LSU, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn handed the play-calling duties to Rhett Lashlee. The offense responded positively, showing a better overall rhythm and direction under Lashlee’s watch. The effect of the change on offense was evident, as the Tigers claimed six wins in a row before a 13-7 loss at Georgia on Nov. 12. Injuries to quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway have hindered the offense over the last few weeks, but the defense remains one of the best in the nation.
Nick Saban continues to stockpile talent and force the Alabama administration to add space in the trophy case for more awards and championship trophies. The Crimson Tide are the only unbeaten Power 5 team (11-0) remaining and only two wins were decided by 10 points or less. As usual, Alabama boasts arguably the nation’s best defense, but the offense has been a surprise with freshman Jalen Hurts at the controls. The Crimson Tide lead the SEC in scoring (40.3 ppg) and were held under 30 points only once this fall.
Alabama owns a 44-35-1 series edge over Auburn. The Crimson Tide have won six out of the last eight meetings and claimed a 29-13 victory over the Tigers in last year’s matchup. Over the last 14 matchups in this series, 10 of the contests were decided by 10 points or less.
Auburn at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -17.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Expect to see a lot of attention on the quarterback warm-up line for Auburn. Malzahn isn’t tipping his hand at quarterback, with three options in play to start. Sophomore Sean White is the team’s best option (9 TDs and 1,644 yards), but he’s dealing with a shoulder injury and did not start last week’s game against Alabama A&M. If White is limited or unable to go, Malzahn has senior Jeremy Johnson and junior John Franklin waiting in the wings. Johnson started against Alabama A&M and completed 14 of 19 throws for 147 yards and a score. Johnson is mobile, but he’s not as dynamic on the ground as Franklin. The junior has rushed for 400 yards on 38 attempts this year and could be utilized in a role even if White returns to the lineup. Malzahn is likely to keep this decision unsettled until just before kickoff. The Tigers need White to return to give this offense a threat through the air. Of course, that’s easier said than done against an Alabama defense giving up just 11.4 points per contest.
While Auburn is dealing with uncertainty at quarterback for Saturday’s game, there’s a different feeling on the Alabama sideline. True freshman Jalen Hurts took over the starting job after the opener and has emerged as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. Hurts is still improving as a passer (2,168 yards and 19 touchdowns), but he’s also a dynamic runner (803 yards and 11 scores). The freshman has added a different element to Alabama’s offense and eased some of the burden off a new backfield. Coordinator Lane Kiffin has been instrumental in Hurts’ development, providing the freshman with easy reads in the passing game and allowing opportunities for his mobility to create problems in space. Alabama’s defense is garnering all of the attention for this matchup, but Auburn’s defense shouldn’t be overlooked. The Tigers are limiting opponents to just 14.3 points per game and 4.7 yards per play. Can Hurts continue to limit his mistakes and connect on enough throws to keep the Auburn defense from loading up too much against the run?
2. Auburn’s Ground Game
Auburn’s ground attack was one of the driving forces behind Auburn’s six-game winning streak earlier this season and likely saved coach Gus Malzahn’s job. The decision to insert quarterback Sean White as the full-time starter and Lashlee’s play-calling were also instrumental, but the decision to focus on the ground game has paid dividends. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing offense (297.8 ypg) and have recorded at least 270 yards in five out of the last seven games. 240-pound battering ram Kamryn Pettway (1,106) is one of the SEC’s top breakout performers this season and is expected to play after missing the last two games due to a leg injury suffered against Vanderbilt. Assuming Pettway plays, Kerryon Johnson (823 yards) will slide back into the No. 2 role.
Can Auburn find a way to pierce the brick wall that is Alabama’s front seven? The Crimson Tide rank first nationally in rush defense, limiting opponents to just 2.2 yards per carry and 68.9 yards per game. The run defense is anchored by end Jonathan Allen, with linebacker Reuben Foster another player expected to earn All-America honors by the end of the 2016 campaign. Just how good is this rush defense? Consider this: No team has rushed for more than 115 yards against the Crimson Tide in 2016. Additionally, no opponent has averaged better than 3.1 yards per carry. And if that wasn’t enough evidence, Alabama has yet to allow a run of more than 50 yards all season.
Pettway is tough to bring down and Auburn has one of the nation’s top offensive lines. However, Alabama’s defense held LSU’s ground game in check a couple of weeks ago and will be tough to move off the line of scrimmage once again.
3. Big Plays at Receiver
It’s no secret both teams love to run the ball. Auburn (297.8 ypg) leads the SEC in rushing offense, with Alabama a close second (249.8 ypg). Both programs are also strong against the run and have combined to allow only seven rushing touchdowns all year.
Considering the talent in the trenches and the standout run defenses both teams have, the passing game needs to hit on a few big plays to prevent the front seven from loading the box. Which quarterback and receiving corps will deliver the most plays in the clutch?
Auburn has only 158 completions this year, with Tony Stevens (16.1 ypc), Darius Slayton (16.9 ypc) and Kyle Davis (21.4 ypc) providing big-play threats on the outside. It’s hard to find a weakness for Alabama’s defense, but the secondary has surrendered a few big plays (seven of 40 yards or more). White will be under pressure from linebackers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson when he drops back to pass. Look for Lashlee to use misdirection and fakes to help slow down the pressure and give White some easier looks in the passing game. Even if Auburn can create a few plays here and there, the Tigers are going to need a few big plays (50 yards or more).
There’s a similar story set to unfold on Alabama’s sideline. As we mentioned above, Hurts is still progressing as a passer and will face a standout Auburn defensive line that can wreak plenty of havoc in the backfield. If Hurts has time to throw, he will test a secondary that has allowed just five passing plays of 40 yards or more. Receiver Calvin Ridley (57) leads the team in receptions, while ArDarius Stewart is expected to return to the lineup after missing last week’s game. Tight end O.J. Howard and receiver Gehrig Dieter are two other targets to monitor. Can Hurts connect on a couple of big plays early? Or will Auburn’s defense prevent Alabama’s passing game from finding its rhythm?
Thanks to a matchup against Alabama A&M last week, Auburn was able to get quarterback Sean White and running back Kamryn Pettway a week of rest in preparation for this game. Having White and Pettway in the lineup will make a difference for the Tigers. However, how much does it help? Alabama has been dominant in 2016 and is the clear favorite to win it all. Auburn has to be able to establish its ground game early or let White throw more to loosen up the Alabama defense. The Crimson Tide may not have the standout running back like they did in previous years, but Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, Hurts and Bo Scarbrough is more than enough to keep the ground game on track. If Auburn stuffs the run and forces Hurts into third-and-long on a consistent basis, then the Tigers will have a shot at the victory. Expect Auburn to slow Alabama’s offense, but the Crimson Tide eventually pulls away in the second half to clinch their third consecutive win over the Tigers.