The SEC West title is on the line this Saturday when Alabama and Auburn meet in the 78th Iron Bowl. While the immediate prize for the winner on Saturday is a trip to Atlanta, this game also has major national title implications.
Alabama is in the driver’s seat to finish No. 1 in the BCS standings with wins over Auburn and the SEC East champion. The Tigers need a lot of help to get into the national championship, but a win over Alabama would position Auburn ahead of any other one-loss team if losses knock Ohio State or Florida State out of the top three spots.
How high have the stakes been in this rivalry in recent years? The winner of the last four Iron Bowls went on to win the national championship. The Crimson Tide has won three out of the last four BCS titles, with Auburn’s championship coming in 2010.
While Alabama has been the standard in college football over the last six seasons, Auburn has only one year (2010) of more than nine victories in that span. Behind first-year coach Gus Malzahn, the Tigers are one of the most-improved teams in the nation. Former coach Gene Chizik recruited plenty of talent to Auburn, but Malzahn and his staff have done a better job of developing and maximizing the talent on the roster in 2013.
Alabama has claimed wins in four out of the last five meetings with Auburn. The Crimson Tide has won two in a row at Auburn, including a 42-14 victory in 2011. Alabama has dominated the Tigers over the last two years, winning the two meetings by a combined score of 91-14.
Auburn’s last victory over Alabama came in 2010, as Cam Newton guided the Tigers to a 28-27 win in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama owns a 42-34-1 series edge over Auburn.
Alabama at Auburn
Kickoff: 3:30 ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Alabama -10.5
Three Things to Watch
Auburn QB Nick Marshall
In his first season as Auburn’s starting quarterback, Marshall hasn’t necessarily been the most prolific passer in the SEC, but he’s been the perfect fit to run Gus Malzahn’s offense. Marshall has not attempted more than 25 passes in five out of the last six games. The junior has tossed only five interceptions on 185 attempts and is completing 58.4 percent of his throws. While Marshall has proven he can deliver through the air with the game on the line (Mississippi State and Georgia), the junior is at his best when he can use his mobility. Marshall has rushed for 823 yards (6.7 ypc) on 123 attempts this season. The junior has executed Malzahn’s spread attack nearly to perfection this year, and his speed and mobility will be a challenge for Alabama’s defense. Under Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart, mobile quarterbacks have provided the most headaches for the Crimson Tide. Earlier this season, Johnny Manziel led a Texas A&M offense that averaged 8.9 yards per play against Alabama’s defense. Can Auburn use a similar approach on Saturday? Marshall isn’t as dynamic as Manziel, but the junior is averaging 6.7 yards per carry this season.
Alabama’s run defense
As mentioned in the previous section, Marshall’s ability to execute Auburn’s spread offense and zone read plays are critical to the Tigers’ upset hopes. But perhaps an even bigger obstacle is Alabama’s run defense. The Crimson Tide rank fourth nationally against the run, limiting opponents to just three yards a carry. Alabama has held its last three opponents to 93 or less rushing yards, while Tennessee (28 attempts) is the last team to gain 100 rushing yards against Nick Saban’s defense. Establishing the run sets the table for Auburn’s offense. In the last two meetings against the Crimson Tide, the Tigers have rushed for only 170 yards and no touchdowns on 67 attempts. Not only is Marshall crucial to the outcome of this game, but Tre Mason also needs a big performance. Mason is averaging 104.8 yards per game this year and has four 100-yard performances out of his last five games. Alabama will likely stack the line of scrimmage and force Marshall to throw to win. If the Crimson Tide continues to stuff the run like they have all season, Auburn’s offense will have a tough time maintaining drives on Saturday afternoon.
Auburn’s defense vs. Alabama’s offense
Alabama’s offense doesn’t get the national recognition that its defense does, but the Crimson Tide average 7.3 yards per play and rank second in SEC by averaging 490.9 yards per game. Auburn’s defense has made strides under new coordinator Ellis Johnson, but the Tigers rank 13th in the SEC against the pass, eighth against the run and six SEC opponents have scored at least 20 points this year. Alabama’s offense is one of the nation’s most-balanced attacks in the nation, averaging 233.3 yards per game through the air and 211.5 a contest on the ground. Quarterback AJ McCarron rarely throws interceptions (five in 2013), and the senior is completing 68.6 percent of his throws. Auburn’s secondary has allowed 10 passing plays of 40 yards or more, which ranks last in the SEC. Considering the Tigers have allowed their last two opponents to complete at least 64 percent of their passes, getting pressure on McCarron is critical to stopping Alabama’s offense. But a pass rush isn’t going to be enough, as Auburn has to match the Crimson Tide’s physical approach in the trenches. Alabama’s running backs – led by T.J. Yeldon – are arguably the best group in the nation. If Yeldon and backup Kenyan Drake get on track, McCarron’s play-action passes to receivers Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones will provide big plays for the Crimson Tide’s offense.
Key Player: Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
We devoted an entire section of this game preview to Marshall, and the junior is getting another mention in the key player tag. It’s not easy to pin the hopes of winning on one player, but Marshall is the x-factor. If the junior is able to have success on Auburn’s designed runs, the Tigers can keep Alabama’s defense off balance. However, if the Tigers’ rushing attack is contained, Marshall will have to throw 30-40 times to win. Although Marshall has made plays in the passing game all year, Auburn would clearly prefer not to have the junior quarterback throw more than 20-25 times on Saturday.
With both teams ranked in the top five of the BCS standings, this season’s meeting is arguably one of the biggest in this rivalry’s history. There’s no shortage of storylines and national implications, as the winner of this game is headed to Atlanta to play for the SEC Championship. Not only is the SEC West title on the line, the Crimson Tide needs to win to stay atop the BCS standings. Auburn’s 2013 season is no fluke. The Tigers are a much-improved team and will give Alabama’s defense all it can handle. However, the Crimson Tide makes the necessary adjustments at halftime, which contains the Tigers’ offense in the second half. Home field advantage helps Auburn trade punches with Alabama through the first three quarters. But Alabama finds a way to pull away in the fourth quarter, sending the Crimson Tide to Atlanta for the fourth time in six seasons.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Auburn 20