Alabama’s path to college football’s Final Four is clear. But even the clearest of paths can encounter an obstruction during a trip to Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.
For all the talk about throwing out record books, the better team usually wins this game. Notable exceptions have been in 2013 (Kick Six) and 1984 (Wrong Way Bo). That’s the thing about this rivalry: Games are named after their defining plays, and are replayed for decades to come as if they just happened last week.
It doesn’t help Alabama’s cause that the last time the Crimson Tide visited Auburn, the Tide was upset. So not only does Alabama have to be concerned about an upset happening this year, most of the current team knows first-hand that it’s possible – they lived it. On the other hand, this Auburn team is nowhere near as good as the one from two years ago. Auburn lacks consistency at the quarterback position, it lacks playmakers at receiver, and the special teams play hasn’t been as tight.
Alabama’s defense is also better by several degrees, and the strength of the Tide’s defensive line makes it unlikely that Auburn will be able to run the ball with impunity. Still, Alabama must be careful here. Strange things have been known to happen in this venue.
Auburn runs the hurry-up, no-huddle offense developed by the Tigers’ head coach himself, Gus Malzahn. But the 2015 edition hasn’t held up well in comparison with earlier Auburn teams. The Tigers are 87th in total offense and 109th in passing offense, although Auburn is a respectable 31st in rushing offense, thanks mostly to recent performances. Auburn’s scoring ranks 69th. The Tigers will base from a three-wide set that includes frequent package substitutions and heavy use of the option. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that prizes efficiency. Alabama ranks just behind Auburn in rushing offense (32nd) and is 70th in passing offense, for a total ranking of 54th. Alabama’s scoring ranks 31st.
Alabama still doesn’t know which enemy quarterback it will face. Jeremy Johnson has played much better in recent weeks after getting off to a horrid start; he’s 84-of-133 (63.2%) for 873 yards, 8 touchdowns and 7 interceptions on the year. Sean White (75-of-130, 57.7%, 1,064 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT) had taken over in the middle of the season, but he’s nursing a knee injury and might not play. If Johnson is the starter, Alabama will try to confuse him with complex schemes and also attempt to bring as much contact to him as possible.
While Johnson is an able runner (38 carries, 129 yards, 3.4 avg., 5 TD, which includes yardage lost to sacks), he is not a game changer with his legs and also has the tendency to let repeated contact hurry his decision-making. White would be more dangerous to Alabama insofar as his rushing skills are more in line with Auburn quarterbacks like Nick Marshall, but White’s arm strength is subpar and there are some throws he simply cannot make.
Alabama counters with Jake Coker, who cracked the 2,000-yard barrier against Charleston Southern and is currently completing around 65% of his passes. Backup Cooper Bateman has gotten sufficient work over the course of the season to be considered a legitimate option should Coker be injured. Johnson has impressive arm talent, but Auburn’s quarterbacks have been too erratic and neither is a perfect fit for the Tigers’ chosen system. Advantage: Alabama
Probably the best thing to happen to Auburn recently has been the emergence of Jovon Robinson (76 carries, 462 yards, 6.1 avg., 2 TD) as a legitimate second option to starter Peyton Barber (218 carries, 947 yards, 4.3 avg., 13 TD). Barber isn’t a gamebreaker, but he’s consistent, a hard worker and tough in short yardage and around the goal line. Roc Thomas matches Robinson’s 6.1 yards-per-carry average, but ball security is an issue for him and he lacks consistency. True freshman Kerryon Johnson provides depth.
Alabama will counter with the presumptive current Heisman front-runner, Derrick Henry (249 carries, 1,526 yards, 6.1 avg., 21 TD), who is clearly better than any Auburn back. The real question here is how much of a role depth will play. Kenyan Drake is practicing with a cast on his right arm this week, which means it’s unlikely he’ll be asked to tote the ball against Auburn. Damien Harris (44 carries, 153 yards, 3.5 avg., 1 TD) has been getting most of Drake’s work, but he clearly isn’t ready yet for the job. Bo Scarbrough and Derrick Gore are available to provide depth, but it’s unlikely either will play unless there’s another injury, or the game turns into a blowout. It might happen, though, that Xavian Marks gets action on Alabama’s jet sweep plays.
Both teams use hybrid H-back types in fullback roles. Alabama’s Michael Nysewander is currently the best in the conference in the role, but Kamryn Pettway and Chandler Cox are talented options for Auburn. Robinson could be the wild card here because of his unique blend of power and speed, but the real question is whether Auburn’s superior numbers make up for Henry’s star power. It’s close. Advantage: Alabama
Injuries and defections have crippled Auburn’s group, which at the moment is basically speed demon Ricardo Louis and a bunch of role players. Louis has true top-end explosiveness, but his hands are suspect. Louis’ production (44 catches, 675 yards, 15.3 avg., 3 TD) pretty much equals that of Auburn’s other two starters (Melvin Ray, Marcus Davis) and top reserve (Jason Smith). Ray, a former Alabama commit, is the closest thing Auburn has to a big-time vertical threat. Given that Auburn often uses four receivers in its sets, there really is no depth beyond Tony Stevens. Converted QB Jonathan Wallace has no catches on the year, nor does freshman Ryan Davis. Gray King is available. Freshmen tight ends Jalen Harris and Chris Laye have yet to catch a pass. Alabama counters with Calvin Ridley, Richard Mullaney and ArDarius Stewart as its starting three.
Like Auburn, Alabama has a depth problem; Cameron Sims and Derek Kief have emerged as the top two, with Daylon Charlot and Parker Barrineau also available. The tight end position is a big edge to Bama; O.J. Howard has emerged as a legitimate receiving threat, while Brandon Greene, Ty Flournoy-Smith and Hale Hentges provide depth behind him. Both teams use their running backs effectively as receivers. Assuming Ridley and Louis were to cancel the other out, Alabama still has better quality among its starters, and the tight end position especially tilts toward the Tide. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn could have an issue in the middle of the line. Reserve Xavier Dampeer was already out with a broken jaw; now, starter Austin Golson is hobbled with a knee injury. If Golson can’t go, senior guard Devonte Danzey will be forced into action at a position unfamiliar to him. Guards Alex Kozan and Braden Smith are solid players, while tackles Avery Young and Shon Coleman both have talent. Coleman is a walking penalty flag, though, and needs to show more consistency. Will Adams will back up the guard slots and Robert Leff the tackles.
Alabama counters with Ryan Kelly at center, Ross Pierschbacher and Alphonse Taylor at the guards and Cam Robinson and Dominick Jackson at the tackle spots. Jackson missed the Charleston Southern game with an ankle injury, and if he struggles early on in this one, either Korren Kirven or tight end Brandon Greene will replace him. Bradley Bozeman provides depth at the guard spots, while J.C. Hassenauer backs up Kelly at center. Auburn has excelled at keeping pass-rushers off its quarterbacks, and the Tigers don’t have a lot of negative plays. Auburn would hold a modest edge here if not for the uncertainty surrounding Golson’s knee, but even with Golson questionable, it’s a slim Tiger advantage. Advantage: Auburn
For all the bluster over Auburn hiring Will Muschamp over the offseason, Auburn hasn’t gotten the results it wanted. Part of that was due to systematic changes Muschamp had to introduce; former coordinator Ellis Johnson had become a devotee of a fairly straightforward, attacking 4-2-5 style, while Muschamp’s schemes are rooted in the same 3-4 over/under that Alabama uses under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart.
Auburn, however, has transitioned back to a 4-2-5 base package as the season has gone along, or more accurately, it has stayed in nickel with the Jack playing a down position, presumably to take advantage of the talent Auburn already has on hand. The Tigers rank just 83rd in total defense, 71st in scoring defense, 82nd in both rushing defense and raw defense, and 45th in pass efficiency defense – and the struggles have been fairly consistent from one end of the season to the other. Alabama, meanwhile, ranks 3rd in total defense, 2nd in rushing defense, 6th in pass efficiency defense, 3rd in scoring defense, and ranks “only” 21st in raw pass defense.
DE Carl Lawson is back for this game for Auburn, but he isn’t 100 percent. Still, he’s better than reserve DaVonte Lambert, who will likely rotate with Lawson to reduce the workload. Lambert will also work some at tackle, where Montravius Adams starts at one slot and either Dontavious Russell or Maurice Swain gets the call on the other side. Depth is a major issue here. Devaroe Lawrence is the only other tackle of note. If Lawson has to bow out of this game, look for Gimel President and Raashed Kinnion to get more playing time.
With Auburn in a full-time 4-over look, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy moves down from an inside spot to start at the other defensive end. Byron Cowart will get some time there. Auburn has not gotten adequate pressure on opposing quarterbacks; the Tigers rank 98th in sacks. The issues extend to the running game, where Auburn is only 119th in tackles for loss.
Alabama counters with the best defensive line in college football. Against the Auburn spread, look for Jarran Reed or A’Shawn Robinson to play the nose, with the other playing end opposite Jonathan Allen. D.J. Pettway, Da’Shawn Hand and Dalvin Tomlinson provide depth outside, while Daron Payne, Darren Lake and Josh Frazier are available at tackle. McKinzy has been productive for Auburn and the starting tackle combination is adequate, but depth is strongly in Bama’s favor and Auburn still hasn’t solved the riddle of penetration. Advantage: Alabama
With Auburn moving McKinzy down to end on most downs, it leaves only two full-time starters. Seniors Kris Frost and Justin Garrett will start this game, with Tre Williams providing depth at both positions. Unless Auburn turns McKinzy into some kind of rover for this game, those will be the only three linebackers Alabama sees. Frost has been a tackle collector, second on the team with 85 stops, but he has only 2 tackles for loss and no sacks on the year. Frost also has multiple holes in his game, primarily in coverage, but he’s the best Auburn’s got. Garrett has been more productive in every area besides total tackles, while Williams typically gets results when he’s on the field in 3-LB alignments.
Alabama will play Reggie Ragland, Reuben Foster and Shaun Dion Hamilton inside, with Denzel Devall starting at Jack linebacker. Because of the nature of the Auburn offense, don’t look for much of strongside backer Dillon Lee, although his backup Rashaan Evans will get snaps on obvious passing downs. Ryan Anderson and pass-rush specialist Tim Williams will spell Devall. This one isn’t very close. Advantage: Alabama
The sight of Auburn DBs falling over themselves trying to tackle LSU’s Leonard Fournette earlier in the season was a sight to behold, particularly a halfhearted leaping attempt from safety Tray Matthews. Matthews, Blake Countess and nickelback Johnathan Ford will start at the safety positions in Auburn’s 4-2-5, while Jonathan Jones and freshman Carlton Davis handle cornerback duties.
Due to injuries, Countess also doubles as a backup corner. Tim Irvin, Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin offer depth inside. Auburn has done a good job in picking off passes (13), and it’s not a surprise, therefore, that pass efficiency defense is the team’s long suit. But the Tigers aren’t getting the results Alabama is getting.
The Crimson Tide will start Cyrus Jones and Marlon Humphrey at the cornerback positions, while Eddie Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith get the call at the safety slots. Minkah Fitzpatrick returns this week at Star, while Maurice Smith, Tony Brown and Jabriel Washington provide depth over the middle. Alabama is peaking at the right time and all players listed above have been solid in recent weeks. Auburn has better talent than the numbers have shown, but there’s not enough of it. Alabama is deeper, and makes more plays. Advantage: Alabama
Usually, this is a clear win for Auburn, as the Tigers are noted, on a yearly basis, for strong special teams play. But this year has been different. Aside from kickoff returns, where the Tigers are 5th in the nation thanks to Johnathan Ford and Kerryon Johnson, the rest of the numbers are downright disappointing: 72nd in net punting, 67th in punt returns, 63rd in kickoff return defense. Kicker Daniel Carlson has been a bright spot, hitting an impressive 20 of 23 kicks (87.0%) including 4 of 5 from beyond 50 yards with a long of 56. Punter Kevin Phillips does a decent job by himself, but coverage has failed Auburn, meaning Cyrus Jones could have another big day for the Tide.
Alabama is 13th in the nation in punt returns. Alabama’s other numbers are a mixed bag. The Tide is 18th in kickoff coverage, but only 107th in kickoff returns and 82nd in net punting. The low net punting figure is deceiving, though, as J.K. Scott took a few games to get back to form at the beginning of the year.
Kickoff returns, though, could be worse than reported, as Kenyan Drake likely won’t run kicks back. Damien Harris and Richard Mullaney will be the likely go-to players there. Adam Griffith has become one of the nation’s best kickoff men over the past couple of months, and his placekicking has come around. In a comparison of kickers and punters, Auburn probably holds the edge, but once the return game is factored in, Alabama goes ahead, but not by much. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in seven categories, Auburn in one. Alabama also strongly controls the matchup of its defensive line versus the Tiger offensive line, while the reverse matchup is a push. It’s an interesting take, given that Auburn’s OL got the edge over Alabama’s OL in a straight comparison of units.
If you take out the rivalry aspect of this game and don’t account for Jordan-Hare voodoo, Alabama is three scores better than Auburn. The Tigers have sputtered on offense, they don’t seem to have a plan in most cases and the defense is not only still a work in progress, it’s a work in progress with a lot of veteran members who won’t be back in 2016. The future, in other words, is a bit cloudy.
But all Alabama cares about is the present. Specifically, Alabama must win this game to remain in the national title conversation, and the Crimson Tide would take a 3-point win as soon as it would take a 30-point win. The mission here is to get in, get a win, get out and not get hurt in the process. Then, prepare for Florida.
Auburn ruined Alabama’s title shot in 2013. The Tigers would love to do the same in 2015. But it just doesn’t appear Auburn has enough firepower on its side this time around.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN