Alabama looks to remain unbeaten and move one step closer to a berth in the CFB Playoff, while Auburn hopes to play spoiler on Saturday afternoon in the annual battle for bragging rights in the Iron Bowl. COVID-19 has disrupted many games and every week during the college football season, and the pandemic will have an impact on this massive rivalry. Alabama coach Nick Saban tested positive for COVID-19 early in the week and won't be on the sidelines. Offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian will serve as the team's head coach for Saturday’s game.
Alabama enters its biggest rivalry with a perfect 7-0 record and at No. 1 ranking in the initial CFB Playoff rankings. For the most part, Saban's team has dominated in 2020. All seven wins have come by at least 15 points, including victories over Georgia (41-24) and Texas A&M (52-24). A 63-48 victory over Ole Miss was a little closer than the final outcome indicated, but Saban's squad hasn't had to sweat a ton in the final minutes of a game. And here's a scary thought for the rest of the SEC: Alabama could be getting even better as the season progresses. The Crimson Tide pounded Mississippi State and Kentucky by a combined score of 104-3 the last two weeks.
Auburn started its season 2-2 but has reeled off three consecutive wins to reach 5-2. As always on the Plains, coach Gus Malzahn is under pressure to keep pace with rivals Georgia and Alabama, and a blowout loss to the Crimson Tide certainly won't sit well. Additionally, Texas A&M is up next, followed by Mississippi State on Dec. 12. An upset over Alabama would keep alive Auburn's hopes of winning the West, but the Tigers can always aim to spoil the hopes of a perfect 10-0 season in the SEC to their biggest rival.
Alabama holds a 46-37-1 series edge over Auburn. The Tigers have won two out of the last three in this series, including a 48-45 thriller last year. Auburn hasn't won in Tuscaloosa since 2010.
Auburn at Alabama
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Alabama -24.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
Auburn's offense reached 30 points just once in its first four games but has posted over that amount in each of the last three contests. Malzahn handed play-calling duties to Chad Morris this offseason, but the unusual circumstances driven by the coronavirus pandemic likely hindered the development of this group in the spring and fall. However, while more improvement is needed, this unit appears to be finding its footing as the year progresses.
The Tigers enter the Iron Bowl averaging 28.6 points a game and 5.84 yards per play. The offense has posted at least six yards per play in each of its last three contests, but it will be a major challenge to eclipse 30 points on Saturday. Alabama's defense got off to a slow start after giving up 48 points to Ole Miss and allowed 24 in the first half against Georgia. But starting with the second half against the Bulldogs, Saban's defense has allowed just two touchdowns in the last nine quarters. This unit heads into the Iron Bowl with loads of confidence after giving up just three points over the last two games. Alabama ranks second in the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed (5.1) and has climbed to first in fewest points allowed a game (19.3). The pass rush has room to improve with just 11 sacks, but the defense is finding ways to get off the field on third downs (second in the SEC).
For Auburn to have any chance at the upset, quarterback Bo Nix has to shake the struggles he's had on the road. The sophomore is completing just 58.1 percent of his passes and averages 5.9 yards per attempt on the road. At home, those numbers climb to 9.0 yards per attempt and 64.8 percent on completions. Nix has played arguably his best ball of the season over the team's last three games, which included a 300-yard performance against LSU and 220 yards in the win over Tennessee last week. The sophomore has to be efficient and mistake-free through the air but also has to create a couple of plays on the ground with his legs.
Nix's supporting cast features a couple of question marks. Offensive tackles Alec Jackson and Brodarious Hamm are questionable with injuries, and running back Tank Bigsby could also be sidelined. If Bigsby cannot go, the backfield should be in good hands with D.J. Williams (183) and Shaun Shivers (172). However, running room is likely to be limited against a defense that is giving up just 3.5 yards per carry. On paper, Auburn doesn't have many advantages against Alabama's defense. However, even though the Crimson Tide rank first in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, the receiving corps of Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove could present some challenges.
When Alabama Has the Ball
Versatile and explosive are the best ways to describe Alabama's offense. This unit can hurt teams via the ground or through the air, put together time-consuming drives or score on a single play. While Saban is a defensive coach, he has mentioned the need for an explosive offense in college football – and that's exactly what coordinator Steve Sarkisian has established over the last couple of years. Alabama enters the Iron Bowl ranked first in the SEC in scoring (49.4 ppg) and yards per play (7.9). After scoring 38 points in the opener against Missouri, this group hasn't been held below 41 in its last six matchups.
Mac Jones has emerged as a leading Heisman contender in his first full season as the starter. He's passed for 2,426 yards and 18 touchdowns to three interceptions this fall and has connected on 77.1 percent of his passes. Jones ranks second in the SEC in completions of 30 yards or more (21) and averages a healthy 12.1 yards per attempt. His supporting cast suffered a setback when Jaylen Waddle was lost for the year against Tennessee. However, Jones still has plenty of weapons at receiver. No defense has figured out how to contain DeVonta Smith (65 catches), with John Metchie III (25) and Slade Bolden (12) rounding out a capable trio.
As with any good defense or gameplan to shut down an explosive offense, Auburn has to find a way to win the battle in the trenches. Alabama's offensive line has surrendered just 11 sacks this fall and is arguably the best in the nation. This unit is a big reason why Jones can pick apart defenses from all areas of the field and clear rushing lanes for running back Najee Harris. The senior has pounded defenses for 797 yards and 16 scores through seven games. Stopping the run has been a challenge for Auburn this fall. Standout linebacker K.J. Britt was lost after the team's second game due to injury, hindering a defense that's giving up 165.1 rushing yards per contest. Tennessee ran for 222 last Saturday, while Ole Miss compiled 283 on Oct. 24.
On the positive side for Auburn coordinator Kevin Steele, his defense ranks second in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. If the Tigers can create some disruption up front and not allow Jones to get too comfortable in the pocket, the secondary has an opportunity to limit some of the damage through the air – especially as they try to contain Smith and force Metchie, Bolden or another receiver to become the primary target.
Saban's absence from this game is an x-factor, and as evidenced by last season, Malzahn will have plenty of tricks to throw at Alabama. And as always, the rivalry factor is another element to consider. Of the last six meetings between these two teams, the winner has won by double digits five times. After losing close last season (and with some controversy), revenge is going to be on Alabama's mind. Auburn has to get a big performance out of Nix, but the defense will be under a lot of pressure to stop the run against Harris, while also limiting the big plays from Jones in the passing game. The Crimson Tide have an edge along the line of scrimmage, at quarterback, and when it comes to motivation. Look for Alabama to get revenge for last year's loss and stay on track for another SEC West title.
Prediction: Alabama 41, Auburn 24
Podcast: Week 13 Preview and Predictions + Interview with Kirk Herbstreit