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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 20, 2012
It’s deja vu all over again.
Not only is Alabama back in the thick of the national title hunt a week or so after losing a late-season SEC game at home, but the Crimson Tide gets to face Auburn with BCS hopes on the line.
They made a movie about this once, and they called it “Groundhog Day.”
Every year since 2008, Alabama and Auburn have met with someone’s postseason hopes hanging precariously above the turf. In 2008, Alabama needed to beat Auburn to remain in sight of Florida and a potential BCS Championship Game berth. In 2009, same story. In 2010, Auburn needed to get by Alabama to guarantee a shot at the title, although some post-BCS study suggested the Tigers would still have faced Oregon even with a Bama loss on the schedule. And everyone remembers Alabama’s 2011 redemption story, the regular season of which came to a close in Jordan-Hare Stadium, with Alabama on top.
The Auburn team that Alabama will face this year is much more like Tommy Tuberville’s 2008 team, which was in full disarray by the time it got to Tuscaloosa, rather than Gene Chizik’s first team that led Alabama until very late in the game the next year and required a last-minute drive to reverse the outcome. Still, the 2012 Crimson Tide doesn’t have quite the punch on defense that some of its predecessors had, and prior to falling apart emotionally, this Auburn team was thought to have enough talent to win seven or eight games.
Expect to see the best effort Auburn has given in two months, but will it be enough to make Alabama have to copy the late-game heroics of 2009?
Allegedly, Auburn runs a pro-style attack. That was the plan, anyway. But the Tigers haven’t executed it very well in 2012. The Tigers rank 112th nationally in total offense, 111th in passing offense and 107th in scoring offense. Rushing offense is 73rd, which qualifies as the highest ranking of any offensive stat tracked for the team. Auburn will use the I-formation or use spread formations to create running lanes for its backs and new quarterback. The Crimson Tide counters with its multiple pro-style offense, which ranks 19th in scoring, 27th in rushing and is respectable in all other categories. Alabama’s biggest challenge is health, as several playmakers are banged up.
True freshman Jonathan Wallace was on the road to a redshirt at midseason, then was used for a time solely as a Wildcat quarterback. But Wallace has started the last three games, and has done a decent job in all three running the offense. He’s certainly been an improvement over Kiehl Frazier, who has pretty much been a bust, and Clint Moseley, a decent game manager-style quarterback who unfortunately can’t keep his body in one piece. Wallace is 41-of-66 (62.1%) for 649 yards, 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions over the last three weeks. If anyone else plays, it will likely be Frazier, although Moseley could see action if needed, provided his shoulder holds up. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, whose passes looked a good bit zippier against Western Carolina than they had at any point over the prior two or three games. McCarron is still among the nation’s leaders in passing efficiency. Blake Sims appears to have grabbed the backup job from Phillip Ely, although Ely played ahead of Sims against Mississippi State. If Alabama started either Sims or Ely in this game, the Tide would still have the edge over Auburn and Wallace. With McCarron, it’s not close. Advantage: Alabama
There are pockets here and there of players who are giving their all for Auburn every week, and one of them is running back Tre Mason (150 carries, 920 yards, 6.1 avg., 8 TD). Mason is the closest thing Auburn has to an I-back for its offense, and he has enough speed, durability and toughness to make a defense show up. Backup Onterio McCalebb has elite speed, but is not big enough to run inside against top defenses. He has carried 91 times for 573 yards (6.3 avg.) and 6 touchdowns, meaning he’s averaging less than 10 attempts per game and is mostly a gadget player. Mike Blakely provides depth. QB Jonathan Wallace is as much a running back as a quarterback, but is not Cam Newton. Auburn will use a true fullback at time, Jay Prosch, who can run the ball, catch it and also block. Alabama will use Eddie Lacy (146 carries, 870 yards, 6.0 avg., 12 TD and T.J. Yeldon (121 carries, 809 yards, 6.7 avg., 9 TD) in tandem, although Lacy added a hand injury last week to his long list of bumps and bruises. Third-teamer Kenyan Drake is back from a one-game suspension, while Brent Calloway and Ben Howell add depth. The Tide uses no true fullback in its offense. Mason and McCalebb can cause problems, especially if Alabama tackles the way it did against LSU and Texas A&M, but by and large Bama has the better backs. Advantage: Alabama
Despite Auburn’s struggles at quarterback, Emory Blake has managed to put together another fine season (47 catches, 733 yards, 15.6 avg., 3 TD), and his heroics against Alabama in previous years make him a concern. Auburn’s problem has been a lack of a consistent second option to go along with Blake. The second-leading receiver on the roster hasn’t played for five weeks now (TE Philip Lutzenkirchen) and won’t play against Alabama. This is where Auburn’s inability to communicate injuries and suspensions is maddening for analysts, because DeAngelo Benton started last week but isn’t even listed on the depth chart for this week. Going off notes from Auburn’s Sports Information Department, the Tigers plan to start Travante Stallworth and Trovon Reed at the other two wideout positions, with Quan Bray, Sammie Coates and Jaylen Denson being the second wave. Ricardo Louis provides depth, and while he hasn’t played frequently in 2012, he has shown enough flashes of talent to believe he’ll be able to take over for Blake next year. Of the other backups, Sammie Coates is the only one to consistency show breakaway ability. At tight end, Auburn got somewhat of an unexpected surprise following Lutzenkirchen’s injury, as C.J. Uzomah has proved to be a capable receiver and decent blocker. He’ll split time there with Brandon Fulse. Alabama counters with its top group of Christion Jones, Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood and Kenny Bell, with Marvin Shinn, Cyrus Jones and Nathan McAlister providing depth. Cooper and Norwood are by far Alabama’s most dangerous targets in terms of consistency and clutch catches, but both are nursing injuries. Michael Williams has put together a solid senior season at tight end, and Kelly Johnson and Brian Vogler will provide depth there and at H-back, along with Harrison Jones. A lot of Auburn’s struggles with this unit have been because of the quarterback play, and Alabama might be affected by injury concerns. But the Tide still has a slim lead overall, even without Emory Blake on its sideline. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama’s offensive line probably hasn’t lived up to its lofty preseason billing, but the Tide has gotten a far better performance from its line than has the Tigers. Auburn’s consistency has been affected by both injury and a lot of “unspecified” situations, which have sidelined several starters and reserves at various points in the year. For this game, Reese Dismukes will start at center flanked by Chris Slade and John Sullen at guard and Greg Robinson and Patrick Miller at tackle. Sullen is steady, while Robinson has potential, but Slade and Miller have been acceptable at best and liabilities at worst. Dismukes is probably the best of the bunch. Alabama counters with Barrett Jones in the middle flanked by Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen at guard and Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker at tackle. Oddly enough, depth may slightly favor Auburn thanks to the Tigers having to play so many people there this year, but even with Alabama’s struggles at time this year, the Tide easily wins this battle. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn runs a 4-3 scheme that prioritizes pressure from a defensive front that has done its best to carry the rest of the unit. The Tigers are 93rd against the run and in pass efficiency defense, 44th in raw pass defense and 74th in overall defense. But the bulk of what talent Auburn has is located in the defensive line. The linebacker corps is a mess, and the defensive backfield has been improved somewhat in 2012 but is still overmatched against most receiver units. Alabama counters with a 3-4 over/under scheme that, apart from the LSU game and one quarter of the Texas A&M game, has been more than enough to handle anything opponents have thrown at it. Alabama leads the nation in scoring defense, is 2nd in total defense, 3rd in rush defense, 4th in pass defense and 7th in pass efficiency defense.
On paper, Auburn’s group scares people. In practice, that has been only true on the odd occasions where the defensive ends have played with proper containment discipline. DE Corey Lemonier is one of the best pure pass rushers in college football, but he has played sloppy on many occasions this year and can be chased upfield too easily. Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae and Craig Sanders play the other end position, while LaDarius Owens provides depth. Ford is the best of that bunch and can be just as effective against the pass as Lemonier when he wants to be. Tackles Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright have talent, but like the ends, lack consistency. Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker can be effective as backups. If there has been a unit that has struggled recently for Alabama, it’s probably this one. Jesse Williams will start at nosetackle, flanked by Damion Square and Ed Stinson. Quinton Dial, D.J. Pettway and Jeoffrey Pagan provide depth outside, while Brandon Ivory backs up Williams. Ivory has been the exception to the rule as of late, playing well in the middle and allowing Alabama to flex Williams out to end when needed. Alabama has underachieved a bit recently, but Auburn has done it all year long. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn might be the only SEC team to ever lose a starter to the Rhodes Scholarship committee. Ashton Richardson probably will miss this game due to his Rhodes juries, and it comes at a bad time given the injury situation at middle linebacker. Daren Bates and Jonathan Evans will start at the outside slots, and reserve outside linebacker Justin Garrett has moved to the middle and could start there ahead of Jake Holland, who is nursing a sprained ankle. Cassanova McKinzy is also suffering from a foot injury, and is probably out for this game. Alabama will start some combination of C.J. Mosley, Trey DePriest and Nico Johnson in the middle, with Adrian Hubbard and Xzavier Dickson starting at outside linebacker. Alabama has had issues of late with outside pressure, which has led to Denzel Devall playing a good bit at Jack linebacker in front of Hubbard. Despite this – and despite the presence of Bates for Auburn, who is a big hitter and can change games – Alabama has the more well-rounded group, more depth and much better health. Advantage: Alabama
Injuries have hit the cornerback position for both teams. Auburn will start a freshman on one side, Joshua Holsey, while either Chris Davis or T’Sharvan Bell will start across from him. Davis is the one hurting the most. Jonathon Mincy provides depth to both sides. At safety, Demetruce McNeal plays hard every week, but he is limited physically. He’ll start opposite Jermaine Whitehead. Alabama will start Deion Belue and Dee Milliner at cornerback, with Robert Lester and, likely, Nick Perry at safety, although both Vinnie Sunseri and Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix will play a bunch in the middle in Perry’s spot. The real question mark for Alabama is whether John Fulton will be available as the third cornerback. Fulton played well against Texas A&M and had given Alabama a new wrinkle in its coverages, but he sustained a turf toe in the second half of that game and missed Western Carolina altogether. True freshman Geno Smith is an option if Fulton can’t go. Given that Auburn doesn’t have Johnny Manziel under center, it’s unlikely Auburn can exploit whatever weakness Alabama might have. Advantage: Alabama
Placekicker Cody Parkey is nearly automatic from around 45 yards in, and is solid on kickoffs. Punter Steven Clark has forced fair catches on more than half his punts, and Auburn ranks 29th in net punting. Alabama’s Cody Mandell has had a breakout season at punter, and the kicking combo of Jeremy Shelley on short kicks and Cade Foster on long ones has been dependable. Both teams are good in the return game. By the slimmest of margins, Auburn takes this one based on its ability to get more touchbacks on kickoffs. But it’s a tiny, tiny edge. Advantage: Auburn
Alabama leads in seven categories, Auburn in one, and Alabama very nearly took that single category as well. As for OL-DL matchups, Alabama should hold a solid edge in both, although not a dominating edge – particularly if Auburn shows up ready to play its arch rival.
The change in quarterbacks did Auburn well a month ago, but in Wallace’s only start against quality competition – Georgia – the Tigers failed to cross the goal line.
About the only way Auburn wins this game would be a combination of Alabama not coming ready to play, and Auburn suddenly finding a reserve of ability, energy and focus that it hasn’t displayed all season long. And we haven’t even addressed the coaching issue; specifically, whether Gene Chizik will be back for another round, or whether this game will be his swan song to the plains.
In most all cases, the best team wins the Alabama-Auburn game. Occasionally, things break the other way, however, most notably Alabama winning in 1984 and Auburn winning in 1972. Probably the scariest comparison would be to look at this game in the context of the 2002 game, in which an out-gunned Auburn team shocked an Alabama team in Tuscaloosa, all while Dennis Franchione was negotiating with Texas A&M behind Alabama’s back.
No one believes Nick Saban is involved in such trickery this time out, however. And unlike 2002 – when Alabama was prohibited from going to a bowl game by NCAA sanctions – this Alabama team has a potential national championship shot in front of it. As such, don’t look for a miracle upset in Tuscaloosa this time. But don’t be surprised by a closer-than-expected game, either.
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