By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 25, 2013
There’s really no other way to say it – Alabama didn’t see this coming.
Few people thought Auburn would be as bad as it was in 2012, but the number of people who expected the Tigers to be 10-1 and just on the outside of a BCS Championship Game matchup probably wouldn’t be enough to fill a taxicab. And that’s including Lee County residents.
Auburn has been undoubtedly the most surprising SEC team, not just for the turnaround in record, but the way the Tigers have done it. Not only are the Tigers are a terribly unbalanced team, possessing very little evidence of a passing attack, but the defense has been mediocre at best.
And none of that matters much in this game.
While the better team usually wins the Auburn-Alabama game, the series has seen its fair share of upsets and, especially, near-upsets. The most recent of those was in 2010 in Tuscaloosa, coming on the heels of another in 2009 in Auburn. In other words, it might be a good idea to refrain from putting a lot of money on this game’s betting line.
Alabama’s balance would certainly seem to give the Crimson Tide the edge over Auburn, but it would have helped had Georgia beaten the Tigers and made this game about pride and nothing else. Thanks to that game’s Hail Mary finish, Auburn now has something tangible to play for.
Gus Malzahn has been all about the hurry-up-no-huddle (HUNH) offense ever since he was a high school coach, and Auburn is fully committed to it. All vestiges of the one-year experiment to turn the Tigers into a pro-style attack are gone. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the new offense – while overall, much more successful than last year’s incarnation – has had issues. Auburn ranks 12th in total offense, but that’s completely off the strength of a rating of 2nd nationally in rushing offense. Auburn is 104th in passing offense, but has been quite efficient, ranking 29th in pass efficiency and 16th in scoring offense. The offense is dangerous and can chew clock, but is not the best option for come-from-behind wins. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 24th in rushing and 63rd in passing for a total ranking of 40th. Like Auburn, efficiency has been superb; Alabama ranks 11th in pass efficiency and 13th in scoring offense.
Nick Marshall is not the next Cam Newton. But he has been good enough to make Auburn a dangerous team on the ground. Surprisingly, Marshall’s rushing stats are just 123 carries for 823 yards (6.7 avg.) and 9 touchdowns – “just” being pertinent in this case because it seems like Marshall averages more than 11 rushing touches per game. His passing numbers are mediocre for an SEC quarterback, but not terrible: 108-for-185 (58.4%) for 1,530 yards, 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. As the SEC schedule toughened, Auburn played things closer to the vest in the passing game. If anything, backup Jeremy Johnson, a true freshman, could be viewed as the better true quarterback. He’s 29-for-41 (70.7%) for 422 yards, 6 touchdowns and 2 picks. But Johnson isn’t a running threat, looking more like former Auburn and longtime NFL QB Jason Campbell than Marshall or Newton. Both figure to play in this game, although Marshall will get the bulk of the snaps barring injury. Alabama counters with A.J. McCarron, who is starting to mount a serious Heisman campaign despite numbers that are solid but not really eye-popping in a Heisman sort of way (190-of-277, 68.6%, 2,399 yards, 23 TD, 5 INT). McCarron holds several advantages over Marshall, most notably field vision, the ability to make secondary and tertiary reads and general accuracy. Arm strength is roughly a push. Depth favors Auburn; Blake Sims, while getting good experience in 2013, has not played with the game on the line and requires Alabama to change its offensive base. In addition to Johnson, Auburn has Jonathan Wallace behind Marshall, and Wallace has started games in the past. If Alabama’s defense can’t stop up the Auburn rushing game, Marshall’s wheels certainly give the Tigers an edge. But McCarron can pressure the Auburn secondary, something Marshall can’t really do to Alabama. Advantage: Alabama
T.J. Yeldon was held out of the UT-Chattanooga game with a foot injury that really hadn’t gotten a lot of press before. He needs to be healthy for this game, or Auburn could see a big edge here. In addition to Marshall, who is as much a running back as he is a quarterback, Auburn has Tre Mason (208 carries, 1,153 yards, 5.5 avg. 17 TD) and Cameron Artis-Payne (86 carries, 568 yards, 6.6 avg., 5 TD). Mason isn’t the biggest running back in the world, but he’s big enough. He also has an experience edge over Alabama’s backs and is a weapon in the passing game. But Artis-Payne may be the one to watch. He’s a true power back, and will likely put up better numbers than Mason once he takes over the position full-time next year. Corey Grant (56 carries, 557 yards, 9.9 avg., 5 TD) has given Auburn a replacement for Onterio McCalebb. He isn’t big enough to be anything more than a draw option inside, but he’s dangerous on the edge. Alabama will use Yeldon and Kenyan Drake as its top two backs, with Derrick Henry, Dee Hart and Altee Tenpenny providing depth. The question on everyone’s minds is whether Yeldon and Drake have addressed ball-security issues that have plagued both of them this year. Both teams use H-backs rather than true fullbacks; Auburn starts Jay Prosch, while Alabama uses Jalston Fowler. Fowler is by far the better runner, and the two are about even as receivers, but the primary responsibility of the position is to block and Prosch does it much better. This one is close, but an Auburn edge – and the edge gets considerably wider if Yeldon wasn’t being held out of the UTC game just as a precautionary measure. Advantage: Auburn
Alabama will need to account for Sammy Coates, who plays much bigger than his 6’2”, 201-pound listing would suggest. Coates doesn’t have elite speed, but he fights for balls and is a tough matchup for smaller cornerbacks, which Alabama has. Coates has caught 30 passes for 687 yards (22.9 avg.) and 5 touchdowns – more than Auburn’s other three main wide receivers combined. Ricardo Louis, the Tigers’ best speed option, caught the 73-yard touchdown that ended the Georgia game – more than a fourth of his season yardage total in one catch. Freshman Marcus Davis has been unable to get open downfield, while Quan Bray and Trovon Reed continue to display inconsistent hands. Melvin Ray adds depth. Tight end C.J. Uzomah hasn’t caught many passes (7), but he averages 17.7 yards per catch and has 2 scores. Alabama counters with its top group of Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White, Kevin Norwood, Christion Jones and Kenny Bell, with Chris Black, Raheem Falkins and Parker Barrineau adding depth. Cooper, who was hurt for much of the first half, is coming back to form, while Norwood has emerged as one of the best wideouts in the conference. Tight end Brian Vogler missed the UTC game with an ankle injury and may still be limited in this game. If he can’t go, the job will fall to receiving specialist O.J. Howard and probably Malcolm Faciane. Brandon Greene and Harrison Jones add depth. Alabama will certainly need to account for Coates, and Louis has enough speed to pressure the Tide deep, but Alabama is much deeper than Auburn and probably has the edge at tight end as well, with or without Vogler. Advantage: Alabama
The fact Auburn has been healthy up front has probably been the biggest reason for the Tigers’ success. Auburn spent 2012 playing OL roulette, and never got a consistent effort. Reese Dismukes will start at center, with Alex Kozan and Chad Slade at the guards and Greg Robinson and Avery Young at the tackles. Kozan (LG) and Young (RT) are freshman, and Slade has had issues in the past. Auburn ranks 16th in sacks allowed, a very nice mark, but that is as much to do with Marshall’s scrambling ability as it is the protection. Alabama will start Ryan Kelly at center flanked by Arie Kouandjio and Anthony Steen at the guards and Cyrus Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd at the tackles. Arie Kouandjio was injured against Chattanooga and might not be 100 percent for this game. Kellen Williams will be first off the bench in the even Kouandjio can’t go. Depth is about equal between the two teams. Alabama has a capable second unit made up of Williams inside, along with Leon Brown and Grant Hill at the tackles, Chad Lindsay at center and Alphonse Taylor and Isaac Luatua at guard. Auburn has Tunde Fariyike at center, Patrick Miller and Shon Coleman at tackle and Devonte Danzey and Jordan Diamond at the guards. Both teams have bench players with starting experience. Provided Kouandjio is healthy for Alabama, though, Alabama has the better left tackle (although Robinson is much above average), more experience among the starters and a much more consistent situation at right guard. Advantage: Alabama
Ellis Johnson has had some success against his former two-time employer. Johnson’s career record as a defensive coordinator against Alabama is 3 wins, 3 losses – better than most. Johnson lost to Alabama in 2004 and 2005 while at Mississippi State, then beat the Tide in 2006 and 2007. He went 1-1 against the Tide while at South Carolina in 2009-2010. As a SEC coordinator, he’s faced off against Nick Saban two other times, losing to Saban’s 2004 LSU team while at Mississippi State and LSU’s 2000 team while at Alabama. As he did at South Carolina, Johnson has brought a 4-2-5 defensive scheme to Auburn. The use of the scheme may or may not have been predicated by Auburn’s lack of playmakers at linebacker. The Tigers surprisingly rank in the mediocre-to-poor range in several defensive categories. The Tigers are 69th in total defense, 51st in rushing defense, 98th in raw pass defense and 45th in pass efficiency defense. Alabama, meanwhile, is 1st in scoring defense, 3rd in total defense, 4th in rushing defense, 7th in raw pass defense and 11th in pass efficiency defense from its 3-4 over/under scheme. Aside from Alabama’s game against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M, the Crimson Tide is allowing just 6.0 points per game and has allowed double-digit scores only three times.
The strength of the Auburn defense is up front, but this unit actually has underperformed relative to expectations. By far, Dee Ford (11.5 tackles for loss, 8.5 sacks) has made the most game-changing plays, but he disappears for long stretches. He has only 22 tackles on the season, a low number for a defensive end in a four-man front. LaDarius Owens has probably overachieved at the other end position, but isn’t a game-changer. Up the middle, Nosa Eguae and Gabe Wright will start, and Wright has played well. The second team looks like a tour of Signing Day 2013: Freshmen Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson back up the ends, while freshman Montravius Adams and JUCO transfer Ben Bradley back up the tackle slots. Surprisingly enough, even with Ford’s numbers, Auburn is just 53rd in sacks. Alabama counters with Brandon Ivory in the middle flanked by Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan at the ends. A’Shawn Robinson will play across the line, while Jonathan Allen, Anthony Orr, Dee Liner and Dakota Ball back up the end positions and Darren Lake and Korren Kirven bolster the nosetackle slot. Depth is in Alabama’s favor, but Alabama has also been more consistent. Keeping Ford contained, though, will be a challenge. Advantage: Alabama
There is no way around saying it – Auburn’s linebackers are a liability. Jake Holland lacks the lateral mobility and quickness to be a weapon, and Kris Frost hasn’t lived up to the recruiting hype. They’ll split the middle position, with Cassanova McKinzy ahead of Anthony Swain at the weakside position. McKinzy is the main player here. He’s big enough to stuff running plays and has done a good job getting penetration. But he needs to be more consistent. Alabama starts C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest in the middle, with some combination of Xzavier Dickson, Adrian Hubbard and Denzel Devall at the outside spots. Tana Patrick and Reuben Foster back up the middle positions along with Reggie Ragland, while Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Dillon Lee provide depth outside. Again, depth is in Alabama’s favor, but the playmaking ability of Mosley by itself would be more than enough to tilt this one Alabama’s way. The fact Alabama has DePriest, who is no worse than McKinzy’s equal, in addition to bookend outside linebackers is thick icing on the cake. Advantage: Alabama
Despite having a veteran group, Auburn has been plagued by poor defensive back play for yet another season. Robensen Therezie, whose best position is arguably cornerback, is being forced to play near the line as a 200-pound Star safety – and it’s a slightly different incarnation than Alabama’s Star position is. Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy start at corner. They’ve combined for just 1 interception, but the most surprising stat is that Davis is the team’s leading tackler. Ryan Smith and Jermaine Whitehead start at the safety positions. Because of the weakness in the linebacker group, there is more pressure on this unit each week than is really fair. Therezie is at his best when he can drop into coverage (4 INT), but Alabama will force him to play closer to the line. Both Mincy and Davis – and particularly Davis – can be worked by Bama in man coverage. The Crimson Tide will start Deion Belue at one corner slot, with either Cyrus Jones or Bradley Sylve at the other. Sylve looked healthy again against UT-Chattanooga, but Jones has improved since the start of the year. Both will play. Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins will start at the safety positions. Geno Smith and Jarrick Williams will play at Star, dime and back up the safety positions, while Maurice Smith, John Fulton and Eddie Jackson are available at corner. Auburn holds the edge in experience, but Alabama holds the edge in every other way. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn was thought to have a major edge over nearly every other SEC program prior to the season, but it hasn’t necessarily worked out that way. There’s nothing wrong with the Tigers’ special teams – they rank 6th nationally in net punting, 25th in punt returns and 13th in kickoff returns – but some other SEC teams have caught up. One of those teams is Alabama. At kicker, Auburn’s Cody Parkey has plenty of big-game experience and has been mostly solid in 2013. But he’s 0-of-2 from long distance and has missed two other kicks between 30 and 49 yards, a rarity for him. Punter Steven Clark has been solid, averaging 42.5 yards per punt. But Alabama’s Cody Mandell has helped the Crimson Tide to a ranking of 1st in net punting, and he’s the best in the league in directional and plus-position punting. Kicker Cade Foster has better raw numbers than Parkey, but the difference is really negligible, and Parkey has a major experience edge. As for kickoff coverage, both teams are in the middle of the SEC (Alabama is 7th, Auburn 9th). Alabama is 9th in punt returns and 10th in kickoff returns, but Auburn has been a bit more consistent. This is still probably an Auburn edge due to Parkey’s experience, but the margin is much, much closer than anyone thought it would have been three months ago. Advantage: Auburn
Alabama leads in six categories, Auburn in two. Both of Auburn’s leads are slim, but so is Alabama’s edge at offensive line. As for the OL-DL matchups, Alabama holds the edge in the matchup of its offensive line versus Auburn’s defensive line. As for the reverse, it’s very close to a push, but Alabama eeks out a slight edge in a comparison of its DL to Auburn’s OL. That edge isn’t significant, however.
Despite Auburn’s miracle year, when put to paper, the Tigers simply don’t look equal to Alabama, or anywhere close. LSU was a tougher matchup for Alabama, but that game was in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Whether or not you buy into the oft-overpuffed mystique or quality of Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn does have a significant, measurable home-field advantage in big games.
The real problem with deducing the results of this game before it is played, is that Auburn tends to play Alabama differently than it does anyone else, Georgia included. If Auburn is a 7 throughout the season, the Tigers will be a 9 for Alabama. The old adage of Alabama being everyone’s biggest game is certainly true when applied to Auburn.
Oddsmakers are seeing this game as a double-digit Alabama victory. We’re not so sure. While on paper, the line certainly holds up, this is not and has never been a paper game. The principal difference in this game and the two blowouts that preceded it in this series is that Auburn, like Alabama, is playing for a championship as well. Any win will be a good one, and this one might be closer than anyone wearing crimson wants to see.
The key for Alabama, like it is in most every SEC contest, is to stop the run. If Alabama can control the Tiger running game, it’s highly unlikely Auburn can manufacture enough offense to keep pace.