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Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Auburn Tigers Preview and Prediction

Kerryon Johnson, Auburn Tigers Football

Kerryon Johnson, Auburn Tigers Football

The Iron Bowl rivalry between Auburn and Alabama is one of the best in college football, and there’s added importance for the 2017 matchup with the SEC West title up for grabs. But the SEC West title isn't the only thing at stake this Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium. In addition to the winner of this game clinching a spot in the SEC Championship Game next Saturday, the implications for the CFB Playoff are significant. With two losses, Auburn needs to win out to have any shot at earning a spot in the playoff. Alabama could lose this game and still make the CFB Playoff, but coach Nick Saban’s team can’t take that for granted. The easiest path for the Crimson Tide to the four-team playoff is just to win out.

Alabama Crimson Tide QB Jalen Hurts

Another year, another dominant team for coach Nick Saban in Tuscaloosa. It’s almost a broken record, but Alabama continues to raise the bar for the rest of the SEC and college football. The Crimson Tide have won at least 10 games in every season since 2008 and are the only team to make the CFB Playoff in all three seasons since its inception in 2014. This year’s squad is a carbon copy of all of the other Alabama teams under Saban. The Crimson Tide are one of the nation’s best on defense, possess a standout running game and have demolished several SEC teams in their path to 11-0. In addition to those strengths, Alabama’s passing game continues to improve behind quarterback Jalen Hurts, and receiver Calvin Ridley is among the best in college football.

Auburn didn’t enter the year as a preseason favorite to win the SEC title, but there were high expectations for coach Gus Malzahn’s team. The addition of quarterback Jarrett Stidham was considered a perfect complement for the ground attack and standout defense. Stidham has lived up to the hype and guided the Tigers to an average of 43 points a game in SEC action this year. However, the offense wasn’t firing on all cylinders early in the season, as Auburn fell 14-6 at Clemson in Week 2. This team rebounded to win its next four contests but stumbled 27-23 to LSU after opening up a big lead in the first half. But since that game, the Tigers seem to be finding their rhythm at the right time. Auburn is riding a four-game winning streak and soundly defeated Georgia 40-17 and Texas A&M 42-27 in that span.

Alabama holds a 45-35-1 series edge over Auburn. The Crimson Tide have won three in a row against the Tigers. Auburn’s last victory against Alabama was in 2013 – the infamous “Kick Six” game.

Alabama at Auburn

Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 25 at 3:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: CBS

Spread: Alabama -4.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Alabama’s Rushing Attack Versus Auburn’s Defense

Alabama’s rushing attack leads the SEC by averaging 270.3 yards a game. Coordinator Brian Daboll has a strong stable of backs at his disposal, starting with Damien Harris (855 yards and 12 touchdowns) and continuing with Bo Scarbrough, Josh Jacobs and true freshmen Najee Harris and Brian Robinson. In addition to the options at running back, quarterback Jalen Hurts has chipped in 686 yards and eight scores on the ground this season. Alabama’s offensive line is one of the best in the SEC but struggled to generate a push against LSU (3.2 ypc) and could be without starting guard Ross Pierschbacher due to a high ankle sprain.

Even if Pierschbacher is able to go, Alabama’s ground attack figures to have its hands full against Auburn’s defensive front. Coordinator Kevin Steele has pieced together an aggressive, fast and athletic front seven this year, which is limiting opponents to 118.2 rushing yards per game. Additionally, the Tigers are giving up only 3.1 yards per carry and suffocated Georgia’s standout running game to just 46 yards on 32 attempts. Linebackers Deshaun Davis (58) and Darrell Williams (44) headline the list of top tacklers, but the line sets the tone for the run defense. Edge rusher Jeff Holland has registered nine sacks so far, while sophomores Marlon Davidson (end) and Derrick Brown (tackle) join junior tackle Dontavius Russell as the key performers up front.

Can Auburn stuff Alabama’s rushing attack just like this unit did against Georgia? For the Crimson Tide, the goal on offense is simple: Stay out of third-and-long situations and spread the field at times to give Hurts opportunities to run with favorable numbers in the box.

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2. Auburn’s Offense Against Alabama’s Defense

Dominant: That’s the best word to describe Alabama’s defense under Nick Saban. However, this unit might be more vulnerable than it has been in recent years. The front seven lost end Jonathan Allen, tackle Dalvin Tomlinson and linebackers Reuben Foster, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson to the NFL. While the Crimson Tide recruit as well as any program in college football, that’s a lot of talent to replace in one offseason. But there’s another problem that hit Alabama’s defense in 2017: Injuries. Linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton, Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis and Mack Wilson were each sidelined with a significant injury for the remainder of the season. There’s a chance Alabama could get Miller or Lewis back in the lineup, but it’s uncertain if either will be able to go for the Iron Bowl.

Statistically, Alabama ranks first in the SEC in the following categories: points allowed per game (10.2), yards per play allowed (3.9), rush defense (87.4 ypg) and pass efficiency defense. Additionally, the Crimson Tide have allowed just two of 11 opponents to score over 20 points this year. No opponent has crossed the 25-point mark against this defense in 2017.

However, those numbers will be tested on Saturday afternoon. Auburn’s offense is the best unit Alabama’s defense has played against in 2017. Not only are the Tigers balanced, Malzahn’s offense leads the SEC by generating 27 plays of 40 yards or more. As mentioned in the intro, the addition of quarterback Jarrett Stidham has been huge for this offense. Stidham has completed 67.8 percent of his passes for 2,445 yards and 16 touchdowns and has connected on 17 throws of 40 yards or more. The sophomore’s favorite target is Ryan Davis (58 catches), but Darius Slayton (28.1 ypc), Will Hastings (19 catches) and Eli Stove (26 receptions) are three other names to watch in the passing attack. While Alabama’s pass rush isn’t as productive as last year’s group, this defense doesn’t give up much in the way of deep passes. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is one of college football’s top defenders, and cornerback Levi Wallace is having a breakout season in his first year as a starter.

Stidham’s arrival has been a huge boost to the offense, but the success of Malzahn’s attack still begins on the ground. Running back Kerryon Johnson is building a case for SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors, as he’s rushed for 1,172 yards and 16 touchdowns on 220 carries so far in 2017. Johnson has eclipsed at least 130 yards in each of his last three games, including 167 on 32 carries against Auburn. It’s not just the power running game that has to concern Alabama’s defense, especially after Mississippi State found success running between the tackles a few weeks ago. Auburn’s offense uses a lot of motion, which will be a huge test for a revamped group of linebackers.

Can Johnson consistently churn out yardage against Alabama’s defense and force Saban and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to devote extra defenders into the box? If the Tigers have success with Johnson on first and second downs, that will keep the distance in manageable situations for third down, opening up shots for Stidham and the receivers downfield. For Alabama to win, it has to stop Johnson and Auburn’s rushing attack.

3. Alabama QB Jalen Hurts

It’s not crazy to suggest this game will be decided on how Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts performs on Saturday afternoon. Under first-year coordinator Brian Daboll, Hurts looks more comfortable in the pocket and has made progress as a passer. The sophomore is completing 61.5 percent of his throws for 1,828 yards and 14 touchdowns this year. Most importantly for Daboll, Hurts has only tossed one interception and remains deadly with his legs.

Considering Auburn’s strength at the line of scrimmage, Alabama is going to need a big game from Hurts through the air. Auburn’s secondary has also been a standout group in 2017, as this unit ranks third in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. It’s no secret Calvin Ridley (52 catches) is Hurts’ top target, but he will be matched against one of the SEC’s top corners in Carlton Davis. Can the Crimson Tide get a couple of playmakers to step up outside of Ridley in the passing game? This is a huge test for freshmen Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs, as well as senior Cam Sims. If Auburn is able to slow down Ridley, Alabama’s passing game could be in trouble.

With Auburn’s strength up front, will Hurts come out throwing to loosen up the front seven? Or will the Tigers win the battles in the trenches, keep Ridley in check and force Hurts out of his comfort zone?

Final Analysis

Several factors in this matchup suggest Auburn should be the pick. Alabama’s closest games in SEC play took place on the road, the Tigers have momentum since beating Georgia, and Saban’s team is perhaps more vulnerable than in previous years. This game could come down to two simple factors: Rush defense and quarterback play. Which team is able to stop the run and which offense is able to keep the quarterback out of obvious passing downs is probably going to win. Hurts came through in the clutch against Mississippi State, and the offense likely needs a couple of big plays from him once again this Saturday. The guess here is Hurts and Ridley connect on a key play in the fourth quarter to clinch the SEC West for Alabama.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama

Prediction: Alabama 27, Auburn 24