By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 23, 2011
There was Iowa State’s upset of Oklahoma State, USC’s upset of Oregon and Baylor’s upset of Oklahoma, not to mention Oregon beating Stanford the week before and Boise State falling to TCU.
This week, some will turn the bulk of their attention to LSU-Arkansas, but as a tight game against Mississippi State and a hard-fought win over Georgia Southern will attest, if Alabama takes its eyes off Auburn, a backbreaking upset loss could be the result.
Fortunately for Alabama, Auburn provides plenty of motivation all by itself. Alabama players are desirous of a chance to atone for last year’s second-half meltdown that paved the way for the Tigers to win a national championship. And although this game will be played on Auburn’s home turf, Alabama comes into the game with a decidedly stronger resume – even though Alabama has plenty of injury concerns to overcome.
Each team has reportedly been preparing for the other for months, so it would be a surprise to few people if this game came out vintage UA-AU: a lead that changes hands frequently, hard-hitting defense and a critical play late in the game that decides the outcome. But given Auburn’s struggles on defense, few would be surprised by an Alabama blowout, either.
Auburn runs a unique version of the spread attack that is based on extreme misdirection and sleight-of-hand. Unlike last year, however, it’s not based in any part on Cam Newton. Auburn has been terrible in the passing game (ranked 106th nationally), doesn’t score enough (93rd) or show enough balance (78th in total offense). The Tigers’ best attribute, its running game (36th), ranks in the middle third of SEC teams. The lack of a playmaker at quarterback has hurt Auburn greatly, as has a patchwork offensive line. Alabama counters with its multiple pro-style attack. Alabama seemed to get more grease on the wheels against Georgia Southern last week, a nice turnaround from difficult performances against Mississippi State and LSU. Alabama leads the SEC in rushing and is 16th nationally, is 20th in scoring offense and 32nd in total offense. Passing lags, as the Tide ranks just 73rd there. Still, all four rankings are in the top third of SEC teams.
Auburn has been a mess for most of the year but has largely settled on Clint Moseley as its starter after using Barrett Trotter in the first few games of the year. Neither is Johnny Unitas, but Moseley is bigger and more athletic than Trotter and has better overall numbers (54-86-2, 732 yards, 5 TD, 62.8% vs. 81-149-6, 1,099 yards, 10 TD, 54.4%), but neither is a difference-maker. Trotter probably won’t play in this game, but Kiehl Frazier (5-for-10, 50.0%, 34 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT) will. Frazier is playing the role Kodi Burns played in 2009, coming into the game to do nothing really but run the football out of a Wildcat set. Frazier has carried 52 times for 244 yards (4.7 avg.) and 1 touchdown, which includes yardage lost to sacks, meaning he’s a legitimate threat as a runner. But his passing is unpolished to say the least. Given how Georgia Southern excelled against Alabama last week on option plays, it will certainly be a temptation for Auburn coaches to over-utilize Frazier in this way. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who has put together a very nice season statistically (178-of-271, 65.7%, 2,216 yards, 13 TD, 5 INT). He threw for 3 touchdowns last week against Georgia Southern and continuation of that performance would be a boon to Alabama in this game. Phillip Sims backs him up. Auburn can throw a lot of different looks at Alabama, but McCarron has been far more consistent than anyone Auburn has put on the field this year. Advantage: Alabama
Michael Dyer has acquitted himself this year as Auburn’s only truly consistent playmaker. He’s rushed 229 times for 1,194 yards (5.2 avg.) and 10 touchdowns. His size still makes him vulnerable to big hits while running inside, so Auburn prefers to send him outside the tackles. But Dyer still looks like Jerome Bettis in comparison to Onterio McCalebb (97 carries, 526 yards, 5.4 avg., 4 TD), who is effective only on jet sweeps and misdirection plays. Auburn doesn’t have a true inside banger on the roster. Tre Mason may get some sporadic work off the bench. Alabama counters with the nation’s best tailback, Trent Richardson, and a lot of good depth behind him in the form of Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler and Blake Sims. Richardson has doubled Dyer’s touchdown count and over the last two weeks, the nation has begun to understand just how important Richardson is to this offense. Dyer and McCalebb make a nice duo, especially in the spread offense, but Richardson can do it all. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn’s Emory Blake, if he’s healthy, is a true downfield playmaker with good size and hands, the only such player on either team. Blake has caught 30 passes for 505 yards (16.8 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. The big question is whether his legs are 100 percent. If they are, he’ll team with H-back Philip Lutzenkirchen (22 catches, 218 yards, 9.9 avg., 7 TD) to form a nice deep/shallow receiving combo. Lutzenkirchen has become the key to the entire Auburn offense, working well as a blocker and especially dangerous in short yardage around the end zone as a receiver. Travante Stallworth, Trovon Reed and Quindarius Carr round out Auburn’s top group, and all are athletic enough to cause problems. Consistency is the buzzword around this group. DeAngelo Benton and Quan Bray provide depth. Alabama counters with Marquis Maze at one receiver position and a lot of question marks at the other. Darius Hanks has been slowed by an ankle injury, and DeAndrew White was suspended for Georgia Southern. Brandon Gibson started in Hanks’ absence and played well, but he doesn’t have the playmaking ability Hanks has. Hanks is expected to go against Auburn. Like Auburn with Lutzenkirchen, Alabama’s Brad Smelley has developed into a weapon from the H-back position. Michael Williams starts at tight end. At receiver, Kenny Bell, Kevin Norwood and Christion Jones add depth. This one is close, particularly with the emergence of Smelley for Alabama, but health concerns and the uncanny knack for Blake and Lutzenkirchen to make big plays tips the scales in Auburn’s favor. Advantage: Auburn
Alabama gets Barrett Jones back this week, and that’s a huge addition. It allows the coaches to move Alfred McCullough back to his natural position of right guard, where he’ll compete with Anthony Steen for the start. With Jones at left tackle, Chance Warmack at left guard, William Vlachos at center and D.J. Fluker rounding out the unit at right tackle, Alabama has been significantly better than most teams down the stretch. Auburn doesn’t figure to be able to eclipse the Tide, either. A lot will depend on whether Brandon Mosley can shake off injury concerns and start this game, or whether Bobby Ingalls or a player from another position will have to start. Any scenario that doesn’t include Mosley is a bad one for Auburn. A.J. Greene will start at the other tackle position, with Chad Slade and John Sullen at the guards and Reese Dismukes at center. Even with Mosley, Auburn has struggled this year to stop fast edge rushers (92nd in sacks allowed) and to assert themselves as decent run-blockers. Without him – and with Alabama getting Barrett Jones back – this one ceases to be close. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn operates from a 4-3 set, while Alabama employs the 3-4 over/under. Auburn has been effective against Alabama the last two years despite having problems elsewhere, but athleticism as a whole is down among the 2011 group. Auburn ranks 98th in rush defense and 81st in total defense. A ranking of 48th in raw pass defense doesn’t look so bad until you consider it’s the worst among SEC teams. Auburn is 74th in pass efficiency defense and 72nd in scoring defense. Alabama, meanwhile, remains No. 1 in all major categories. Auburn will need to play out of its minds in order to come close.
A good defense is strong up the middle, first and foremost. Auburn’s strengths are on the edges. Corey Lemonier has almost half (8.5) of the team’s total sacks (20). Nosa Eguae, the other end, has yet to record a sack but has 12 QB hurries. Up the middle is where Auburn falters. Jeffrey Whittaker starts at one position, while true freshman Gabe Wright has supplanted Kenneth Carter at the other. None has really stood out, although Wright clearly has the most potential. Angelo Blackson, Jamar Travis and Devaunte Sigler add depth. Craig Sanders backs up both ends, and depth there is thin. Alabama counters with Josh Chapman in the middle flanked by Jesse Williams and Damion Square. Quinton Dial, Undra Billingsley and Ed Stinson provide depth outside, while Nick Gentry and Brandon Ivory support the middle. Auburn’s Lemonier is developing into a force, but Alabama is more consistent across the board and has better depth. Advantage: Alabama
Things got better for Auburn when the Tigers replaced Jake Holland in the middle with Eltoro Freeman, but Freeman is still out of position too often and there are issues outside. Daren Bates starts at strongside, and his speed makes him dangerous, along with his reputation. Whether fairly earned or not, opposing players watch out for Bates, who is often accused of pushing the envelope with his physical play. What he lacks in superior skill, he makes up for in speed and intimidation. The other position is a mess. Jonathan Evans, Harris Gaston and Justin Garrett have all been tried there, and Garrett, a true freshman, may start this game. From a production standpoint, this has been an empty position. Alabama counters with the best unit in the college game. Dont’a Hightower, C.J. Mosley and Nico Johnson patrol the inside, while Jerrell Harris starts outside and Courtney Upshaw starts at Jack. Alex Watkins and Adrian Hubbard back up Upshaw, while Trey DePriest and Chris Jordan are available at inside linebacker. The divide between these two units are so deep, it doesn’t even merit a discussion. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn took a huge loss when T’Sharvan Bell was lost for the year with a knee injury. Now the position falls to freshman Jonathan Mincy, who’ll start opposite Chris Evans. Neither player has been all that impressive in 2011. The defensive backs playing in this game have recorded only 7 interceptions on the year. Neiko Thorpe is the leader of the defense, but he’s just an average safety. Demetruce McNeal starts next to him, but he’s often out of control and out of position. Erique Florence, Ryan Smith and Ikeem Means back up the safety positions, while Ryan White, Robenson Therezie and Jermaine Whitehead help out at corner. Alabama counters with Dre Kirkpatrick, DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner at cornerback and Mark Barron and Robert Lester at safety. The Crimson Tide lost dimeback and reserve safety Will Lowery to a torn ACL last week, which could create a problem. Alabama will probably turn to true freshman Vinnie Sunseri, two weeks removed from a concussion, to play the position, or move Barron there and play Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix, another true freshman, at safety. Phelon Jones, a senior cornerback, is also an option to get more snaps. Auburn has decent depth to the extent that the Tigers have a lot of bodies that have playing experience in 2011, but Alabama has much better quality among its starters. How the dime situation plays out is really the only area of concern. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn kicker Cody Parkey has recorded an astounding 31 touchbacks on kickoffs in 2011. He’s also 11-of-15 (73.3%) on field goals, and has made more than his share of long ones. Punter Steven Clark has put 30 punts inside the 20 and averages 40.4 yards per kick. Auburn is 17th in net punting and 31st in kickoff returns. The Tigers lag in punt returns, however (78th). Alabama counters with Cody Mandell at punter and the Jeremy Shelley-Cade Foster combination at placekicker. Mandell has been acceptable, as has Shelley, but Foster has struggled as the long kicker. Alabama’s return game is solid thanks to Marquis Maze. Auburn’s advantage at kicker and punter, though, is substantial. Advantage: Auburn
Take away the fact that this is Alabama vs. Auburn, and the Crimson Tide would be considered a solid three-score favorite. But rivalry games often aren’t so simple.
Alabama leads in six categories, Auburn in two. Alabama controls both OL-DL matchups, although if Barrett Jones is still having trouble with his ankle and hip, stopping Corey Lemonier will be harder than initially thought.
Auburn is one of the best home teams in the SEC, regularly playing about two scores better on both sides of the ball. However, the Tigers’ defense is a horrid matchup for Alabama’s offense. Auburn is soft up the middle and doesn’t cover well on the outside when the rest of the defense is committed to stopping the run. This makes the combination of Trent Richardson bowling over defenders with Maze and Alabama’s other speedsters running free on the outside against the secondary a mouth-watering proposition.
Look for Auburn to find a way to keep this one closer than it should be, at least through the first half, before Alabama’s superior depth finds a way to wear down the Tiger defense. On the other side of the ball, Auburn figures to have a lot of trouble with a defense eager to show Georgia Southern’s success was an anomaly.
Alabama might not make it to the BCS Championship Game – voters could throw a wrench into the machine in the event Arkansas beats LSU – but the Crimson Tide should at least be able to get its revenge on its home-state rival.
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