By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 24, 2014
If there’s a box Nick Saban has yet to fully check off at Alabama, it’s the one marked “dominate one’s in-state rival.”
Despite talking about dominating Auburn “365 days a year” in his introductory press conference, it just hasn’t happened. In Saban’s seven seasons at Alabama, he’s 4-3 against the Tigers, with two of those losses coming in mind-blowing fashion after the Tide held leads.
Only the initial loss in 2007, a year in which Auburn had a good, sound team and Alabama was a disjointed mess, looks defensible. Alabama absolutely handed Auburn the game in 2010, and the ending of the 2013 game was so far beyond the scope of logic that Alabama fans probably wanted to dig up the turf at Jordan-Hare Stadium in search of buried voodoo dolls.
In the other four seasons, though, Saban has won three times by blowouts – 2008, 2011 and 2012. In 2009, Alabama needed a final, go-ahead drive to beat an Auburn team that was far overmatched in the game. It’s because of this resume that the Auburn game would worry most Alabama fans even if Auburn was planning to start its band, with the English faculty set to come off the bench in reserve.
This game, on paper, is a two-score Alabama victory. Alabama enters the game 10-1 and is strong in all the places Auburn is weak. The Tigers have lost three games, and ever since the second loss of the season, to Texas A&M, Auburn has looked noticeably deflated.
Too bad it doesn’t seem to matter in this series.
While the better team typically wins this game, that wasn’t the case in 2013 and may not have been the case in 2010, either, although Cam Newton’s presence in that game made it much harder to make the argument.
Alabama needs not only to win this game, but to do so in no-drama fashion. There has been a need for a statement in this series for years – one that Alabama can take care of business against Auburn when both schools field decent teams.
Auburn will run its hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense. While many pundits have claimed Auburn’s offense is not as potent as it once was, the numbers still show it to be a solid attack. Auburn ranks 22nd in total offense, 28th in scoring offense and 8th in rushing offense. Where the Tigers are struggling is through the air, where Auburn ranks just 81st in the country. Graduation at the fullback position and along the offensive line is mostly to blame for the step back. Alabama will utilize its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 20th in total offense, 25th in passing offense, 29th in scoring offense and 32nd in rushing offense. Alabama hasn’t been able to maul people on the ground in 2014 like it has in previous years, but the Crimson Tide also has uncanny balance.
Nick Marshall made a name for himself in 2013 as a talented dual-threat quarterback, but he hasn’t been nearly as much a part of the offense in 2014. While Marshall has helped Auburn rank 17th in passing efficiency, his success as a downfield passer has taken a few steps back. Marshall has thrown for only 1,859 yards this year on 59.6% passing, which aren’t terrible numbers but out of line for what he should be doing given the confusion his team’s offense creates. Marshall has, however, done a good job of limiting his interceptions (6, versus 15 touchdowns). His primary weapon is his ability to run; Marshall is Auburn’s second-leading rusher, carrying 133 times for 731 yards (5.6 avg.) and 11 touchdowns. Marshall’s wheels make it difficult for defenses to get a clean hit on him. The Tigers rank 12th in the country in fewest sacks allowed. Alabama will counter with Blake Sims, whose skill set is similar to Marshall’s, although Sims doesn’t run the ball as much. Sims has completed 187 of 301 passes (62.1%) for 2,676 yards, 20 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He’s added 279 rushing yards on 59 carries (4.7 avg.) and scored 5 touchdowns on the ground. Both teams’ backups have talent, and both are much more suited to pocket passing than spread running, although both are good athletes. Jeremy Johnson will back up Marshall for Auburn, while Jake Coker is Sims’ understudy. This one comes down simply to who has been the most consistent, and Sims takes it. Advantage: Alabama
Cameron Artis-Payne has taken heat all season long for not being Tre Mason, but he doesn’t really need to be. Artis-Payne has carried 252 times for 1,405 yards (5.6 avg.) and 11 scores. He’s a talented back between the tackles and plays his position solidly. Nick Marshall is Auburn’s second option as a runner, but the Tigers also have quality backups in speedster Corey Grant (51 carries, 300 yards, 5.9 avg., 2 TD) and Roc Thomas (42 carries, 223 yards, 5.3 avg., 2 TD). The Tigers don’t use a true fullback this year, preferring to let tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse handle those duties as H-backs. But it hasn’t worked nearly as well as it did while Jay Prosch was at Auburn, and Alabama might be able to exploit this weakness. Alabama will counter with T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at tailback, but neither is 100 percent healthy. Alabama held Yeldon out of the Western Carolina game, hoping to get him ready for heavy duty in this game. Henry is closer to full health but also could have used a breather against WCU. Backups Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny have shown promise in blowouts, but neither has been called upon much in close games. Jones’ speed might lead to an increased role against Auburn. Fullback Jalston Fowler suffered a minor shoulder injury while backing up Henry at tailback last week, and he’s too valuable in his fullback role to chance a more significant injury. If something did happen to him, Michael Nysewander would take his place. Alabama would probably take this category if Yeldon was healthy, but he isn’t, so Alabama doesn’t. Advantage: Auburn
Auburn suffered a huge blow when D’haquille Williams suffered a knee injury against Texas A&M. Williams had been the team’s ace, catching 38 passes for 609 yards (16.0 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. His size and speed allowed him to match up favorably against just about any cornerback in the league. But a knee injury has forced him to miss the last two weeks and his status for this game is uncertain. In addition to Williams’ injury, Auburn has also been handcuffed by Sammie Coates’ inconsistency. Coates is averaging more than 20 yards per catch, but he has only 25 receptions on the season and numerous drops. Quan Bray is Auburn’s slot receiver option, but he is also inconsistent and turnover-prone. Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray add depth. C.J. Uzomah will start at tight end, but he’s another player who has had a disappointing year (10 catches, 125 yards, 12.5 avg., 2 TD). Brandon Fulse is just adequate as a backup, and is really a blocker only. Presuming Alabama has Amari Cooper at 100-percent health for this game, the Crimson Tide already has the advantage here over an injured Williams and a sputtering Coates. But Cooper’s knee will be a subject of concern for this entire contest. Alabama also gets DeAndrew White back, whose presence makes Cooper at least twice as effective as usual. Christion Jones will provide depth and start in the slot. The question now is who will replace freshman ArDarius Stewart, who had become a member of the primary rotation prior to a knee injury last week. Cameron Sims, Robert Foster and Chris Black are the main candidates, along with Raheem Falkins and Parker Barrineau. Alabama will be without starting TE Brian Vogler, who tweaked a knee against Western Carolina. Brandon Greene and O.J. Howard will likely split time there, along with Dakota Ball or perhaps Malcolm Faciane. Faciane, despite not playing much in 2014, is built most like Vogler and probably is the best all-around option, when he’s healthy. Howard is by far the best receiver, but his blocking skills are suspect. If Williams was back and completely healthy, Auburn might get a slim edge here due to Vogler’s injury. But there’s no guarantee Williams will even play. Advantage: Alabama
It’s hard to argue that Auburn’s offensive line took a giant step back with the loss of Greg Robinson. The Tigers aren’t what they were in 2013, that’s true, but this is a good offensive line that is effective in its system. Tackles Avery Young and Shon Coleman are effective run blockers, but Coleman struggles in pass protection and has sloppy technique. Auburn is stronger inside, where center Reese Dismukes is probably the best at that position in the conference, the ending of the Texas A&M game notwithstanding. Chad Slade has developed into a serviceable guard, and Devonte Danzey is a strong player with good upside. Patrick Miller and Braden Smith provide good depth. Alabama might be playing this game without LT Cam Robinson, who suffered a second ankle injury against Western Carolina. If Robinson can play, Austin Shepherd will start at right tackle, and Arie Kouandjio and Leon Brown will flank Ryan Kelly inside. If Robinson can’t go, Shepherd will go to left tackle and either Grant Hill or Dominick Jackson will start at right tackle. Alphonse Taylor and Bradley Bozeman provide depth inside. This one is hard to get a read on because of Robinson’s injury. If he’s good to go on Saturday, Alabama probably leads this category. But Auburn is 8th in rushing offense and 12th in pass protection, which is a sign of great line play. Plus, the Tigers are healthier at the moment. Advantage: Auburn
Auburn’s 4-2-5 defensive alignment has holes, and has managed to look better statistically than it really is. Auburn ranks 38th in rush defense, 40th in scoring defense, 51st in pass efficiency defense, 52nd in total defense and 74th in raw pass defense. The rush defense ranking is probably the most surprising, given how ineffective Auburn has looked at times against power teams. Alabama will counter with its 3-4 over/under scheme that has had problems in the past stopping some tempo spread teams, most notably Auburn’s. The Tigers ran for far too many yards against Alabama in 2013, but Alabama looks to be in better shape in 2014 thanks to a much improved defensive line. Alabama ranks 5th in total defense, 2nd in rushing defense, 2nd in scoring defense, 19th in pass efficiency defense and 27th in raw pass defense.
Injuries up front for both teams will have an effect, but Auburn will likely suffer more. End DaVonte Lambert, who leads the team in sacks with 3.5, will probably miss this game with a leg injury. While Lambert’s absence is a big deal by itself, the effect it will have on Auburn’s depth chart is even more profound. Tackle Gabe Wright might have to start at end, where he is poorly suited. If not Wright, then LaDarius Owens, a career role player, will have to start. Gimel President will start on the other side. Inside, things are a bit better, as Ben Bradley and Montravius Adams are solid players. But if Wright goes to end, only Angelo Blackson will be available off the bench, unless Jeff Whitaker is in better health than the Tigers are letting on. Blackson has only 15 tackles on the year, but 3 were sacks and another 5.5 were for loss, which points to his big-play ability. Alabama also has concerns about A’Shawn Robinson, who was injured on a chop block against Western Carolina. Robinson is by far the Tide’s best option in the middle against spread running teams. If he’s healthy, he’ll start with D.J. Pettway and Jarran Reed outside him. If Robinson is out, Reed will start in the middle, with Jonathan Allen getting the call at end. Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Shawn Hand and perhaps Dee Liner will provide depth outside, while Brandon Ivory, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier will back up the nosetackle position. If both Lambert and Robinson are out for this game, Alabama would probably still have the slimmest of edges; if Robinson plays for the Tide, it’s a big nod to Bama. Advantage: Alabama
Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy have both played decent football this year. Both have been active behind the line of scrimmage, and Frost is a good coverage linebacker. But neither is a truly elite player, and Auburn can probably best hope for them to simply hold their own against most offenses. McKinzy lacks the kind of lateral mobility needed for Auburn to leave him alone in the middle as often as the Tigers like to do. Alabama will counter with Reggie Ragland and Trey DePriest inside and a combination of Denzel Devall, Xzavier Dickson, Ryan Anderson, Dillon Lee, Tim Williams and Rashaan Evans outside, depending on the situation. Ragland has become a true enforcer in the inside of the Alabama defense, and is good in coverage as well. The question for Alabama is whether DePriest can hold his own against Auburn’s backfield speed, which is a problem for him sometimes. The ability of Dickson, Devall and Anderson to set the edge on defense will be huge; the inability of Alabama last year to do it effectively contributed heavily to the loss. Depth is on Alabama’s side here, and Ragland’s presence is more than enough to tilt this category to Alabama. Advantage: Alabama
Despite having a veteran unit, Auburn continues to struggle against elite passing teams. Robenson Therezie, who will play the hybrid Star position, is probably the best player overall, but his tweener size can get him into trouble both when stopping the inside run or when running after fleet receivers. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Jonathan Jones are erratic at times, but Jones has 5 interceptions on the season and Mincy can be effective in run defense. Safety Johnathan Ford has had a good season, but Joshua Holsey, one of the longest-serving veterans in the secondary, has been sort of an also-ran. Jermaine Whitehead is probably the best raw talent of the bunch, but he can’t stay out of the doghouse long enough to claim a starting spot. Bet that he’ll play a key role against Alabama, though. Derrick Moncrief will add depth at safety, while Trovon Reed and T.J. Davis will back up the corner positions. Alabama will counter with Cyrus Jones, Eddie Jackson and Tony Brown at the corners, and Landon Collins, Nick Perry, Jarrick Williams, Geno Smith, Jabriel Washington and Maurice Smith at the safety positions. Alabama’s cornerbacks have done a fantastic job in 2014, but it’s the improved safety play as the season has gone along that is the real story here. Auburn has been more opportunistic, but Alabama is more consistent, by a long shot. Advantage: Alabama
The big question here is what the story is with Tide placekicker Adam Griffith. Griffith missed the Western Carolina game, replaced on long kicks by punter J.K. Scott and short kicks by true freshman walk-on Gunnar Raborn. White the setup worked against the Catamounts, Alabama would much prefer to have Griffith back. Auburn’s strength on special teams is its punt return unit, which ranks 4th in the nation. Kickoff returns have struggled, though, as has kickoff coverage. Placekicker Daniel Carlson has been solid on short kicks, but results are extremely hit-or-miss from 40 yards or more out. Neither Carlson, Jimmy Hutchinson or Matthew Shiel have proven to be the answer at punter; Auburn ranks 70th in net punting and the kicking itself is the big reason for such a low ranking. Alabama has mediocre numbers on returns, but ranks 2nd in the nation in net punting and has been solid on kick coverage. This is a hard call and it basically comes down to questions over Griffith’s health. If Griffith were 100 percent for this game, Alabama would take the category. Advantage: Auburn
Alabama leads in five categories, Auburn in three. In the trench matchups, Alabama’s offensive line has a slight edge over Auburn’s defensive line, while the opposite matchup is a push.
Simply put, Alabama should come out the victor in this game. But this game is rarely “simply put.” The results of the 2013 game alone should be enough to cause even the most diehard fan to use a little extra caution.
The real factor here may be the one no one can measure: How big is Auburn’s heart? Auburn’s performances against Georgia and Samford hinted at a team that had lost most of its interest in the season. Alabama, meanwhile, is playing with emotion, optimism and fun. Typically, if that’s the matchup coming into this game, bet on the team currently expressing the better mindset.
As such, we’ll take Alabama to win the game, but don’t expect a blowout. If one happens, it will be because Auburn has truly quit, but no one knows whether that’s happened yet. Alabama will be happy with any win at this point.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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