Ahhhh, Auburn vs. Alabama, otherwise known as the Iron Bowl. This game never seems to disappoint. The intensity. The rabid fans. The wily coaches. The pageantry. And yes, the hatred. And I’m talking between family members here.
This is a can’t-miss game on the college football calendar. It also seems like the Auburn Tigers always amp up their game just a wee bit when they face off against the big bully Bama boys. Witness last year’s stunning 26-14 upset that catapulted the Tigers to the SEC title game and the Crimson Tide to a seat on the couch until the College Football Playoff. (Don’t worry, I’m pretty sure we all remember that everything turned out okay for Bama.)
Auburn comes in off its first shutout of the season, locking down Liberty 53-0. But keep in mind, the Tigers haven’t been a great road team this season, going 1-2 in true road games, including pretty ugly losses at Mississippi State and Georgia in recent weeks.
Alabama actually gave up a touchdown last week. Two, in fact. The Crimson Tide defense went 11 quarters without giving up a point before The Citadel broke the spell on a 45-yard option play in the second quarter. After a stunning 10-10 tie at halftime, the Tide splashed water on their faces, rolled up their sleeves and blitzed to a 50-17 romp over the FCS program. Previous to that, they had pitched a pair of shutouts vs. LSU and Mississippi State, getting the attention of the nation, who was fixated on their dominant offense up until that point.
By the way, I’m probably burying the lede here but Tua Tagovailoa’s knee looked fine this past Saturday and he is going to be ready to roll this week. Just in time for the title run.
Get ready for another insane atmosphere in T-town.
Auburn at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 24 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -24
Three Things to Watch
1. Win the first half
Everybody saw what The Citadel did, right? There had to be gasps in stadiums around the country when the halftime score between the Bulldogs and the Crimson Tide was announced over the PA, a 10-to-10 tie. The freakin’ Citadel? Well I’m sure the Tide will be more focused this week and play better football, but the lesson is worth heeding: Auburn needs a good start, a good first half. The best thing the Tigers can do is plant a seed of doubt early in the minds of the Tide defense and gain some confidence to give them a shot at an upset. You have to think that Jarrett Stidham needs to hit some deep passes and even convert some timely scrambles like he did last year (51 rushing yards on 12 carries) to help spread out the Tide defense a bit.
2. Put the “pro” in protection
Last year, Auburn’s defense harried and harangued Jalen Hurts all game long, forcing uncharacteristic mistakes from the Tide offense. This year should be different. For one, now there’s Tua Tagovailoa, who is locked and loaded with a precision arm. Secondly, the O-line is going to be laser-focused. Last year, Hurts ran the ball 17 times, mostly because he was running for his life. But this year’s root-hogs up front have made for the best O-line protection unit in the SEC, allowing just 10 sacks all year. And it also is pretty rare when Tagovailoa doesn’t have time to go through two or three progressions in the pocket. That’s not to say the Auburn defense will be a pushover. In fact, these Tigers rank in the FBS top 10 holding opponents to just 16.6 points per game. The Tigers also are second in the SEC with 34 sacks on the season, so this O-line/D-line matchup will be a good one. (Visual image of the average college football fan rubbing his hands in anticipation).
3. Keeping drives alive
In a game like this, ball control will be vital. This is especially true for the Tigers, who will be going up against that very nasty Tide front seven. If the best offense is a good defense, then Stidham and his cohorts have to keep the Tide offense on the sidelines. Good passes. Good decisions. Workable down-and-distances. Can’t get caught in third-and-long situations. The Tide defense is stingy, giving up third down conversions at a 29 percent success rate. On the other side of the ball, Auburn’s offense is converting just 36 percent of its third downs, which is 102nd in the country. For any chance at a W, that must change this Saturday. Oh, in case you’re wondering, Alabama’s offense has been lethal on third down, converting on 54 percent of them, good for third nationally. Last year, Bama went just 3-for-11 on third down and Auburn went 9-for-18, which was a telling stat in the upset on the Plains.
Though it’s arguable, this could be the best rivalry in college football. Hang on, make that in any sport. If an alien came to Earth and wanted to see the greatest athletic competitions we have, a heavyweight MMA fight, a Stanley Cup final and an Auburn-Alabama football game might very well be the three examples we show them. But this is the first time Auburn has been this big of an underdog since 2012’s 34-point spread in a game Bama won 49-0, leading to Gene Chizik’s ouster.
As mentioned above, the Tigers actually have the defense to stay in this game. But the offense? Meh, probably not. I’m just not confident enough in the Auburn passing game (and the play-calling) to keep the Crimson Tide on their heels. With the Fighting Sabans readjusting their focus this week, I see the rare blowout in this Iron Bowl showdown. The Tigers get their nine points on a blocked punt return and an Alabama offensive holding penalty in the end zone.
Prediction: Alabama 31, Auburn 9
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.