Auburn preview: Tiger defense will keep AU in it

Oct 8, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn reacts after a ruling during the second quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 8, 2016; Starkville, MS, USA; head coach Gus Malzahn reacts after a ruling during the second quarter of the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 23, 2016

Projected Depth Chart

Depending on how deep one’s crimson blood runs, news Monday that initial Las Vegas lines were coalescing around an 18-point spread in ’s favor could either be considered easy money, or a sucker’s bet.

Analysis of the two teams suggests the latter, especially if Alabama’s earlier game against LSU this season is any indication. Alabama and Auburn will meet at Bryant-Denny Stadium – where Alabama has been effective lately, but not historically, against Auburn – but the key issue is not the venue, but the strength of an Auburn defensive line that is a clear step above the LSU line that gave Alabama fits earlier this month.

Auburn comes into this game an exceptionally banged-up team, with uncertainty at no fewer than four key starting positions, and depth concerns elsewhere that have resulted in spectacles like a walk-on placekicker starting at wide receiver. That’s not a misprint.

But Alabama has issues of its own. Two starting offensive linemen went down against UT-Chattanooga last week, and although both – including the bellcow of the line, left tackle – are expected to be ready to go against AU, the specter of this group’s struggles against LSU are fresh on everyone’s minds in Tuscaloosa.

Blowouts in this game are rare, almost never expected, and sometimes – like in 2014, when Alabama got all it wanted from a far inferior Auburn team and had to mount a comeback of heroic proportions in order to avoid a loss – even when they are expected, the results turn out to be much, much different.

OFFENSE

Auburn has been back-and-forth on its offensive style all year, but at its heart, no matter who is at quarterback, this is the textbook version of the HUNH option spread in action. Auburn ranks 30th in total offense and it’s almost completely on the strength of its rushing attack, which ranks 5th in the country. The passing game, in no uncertain terms, has stunk. Auburn ranks 108th there and even that ranking seems generous given the lack of weaponry. Scoring offense is 39th, though, suggesting passing the ball may be overrated for the Tigers. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that has led to rankings of 13th in rushing, 71st in passing, 14th in scoring and a ranking of 27th in total offense. Perhaps more importantly, Alabama has displayed much more effective balance and is a threat to score through the air.

QUARTERBACKS
It’s much easier to talk about Alabama here, where will start and Cooper Bateman will back him up, as there is no drama. Hurts, like just about every other Alabama player, had an off week against Chattanooga, but on the year has been an effective dual-threat triggerman (2,168 yards and 19 touchdowns passing, 803 yards and 11 touchdowns running). Bateman, when given the opportunity, has been sharp in the short-to-mid passing game. As for Auburn, literally, who knows?

was the starter at the beginning of the year, then was benched and dropped to third team, but he started against Alabama A&M and should be considered the prohibitive favorite to do the same this week. Johnson’s value in the HUNH is borderline; he’s not a bad athlete, but he’s not a true dual-threat QB and it takes one to run this offense to its greatest potential. If Johnson doesn’t start, John Franklin III – who has thrown only 15 passes on the year – might get the start. Franklin’s value as a passer goes up only on gotcha plays; if he must stand in the pocket and throw, Alabama can probably pick his bones. Franklin, though, is the team’s third-leading rusher, despite playing a minority percentage of the snaps.

The reason for the Johnson-Franklin debate at the moment is that , who managed to stabilize the position in the middle of the year, is hurt. White’s arm strength was already questionable, and now he has some degree of a shoulder injury. He’s a decent scrambler but not a great runner, but his real value is as a calming influence under center and in the ability to competently operate a short passing game. White has completed 65.2% of his passes for 1,644 yards, 9 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. If he was healthy, Auburn would challenge this category based on its edge in depth, but there’s no way a Johnson/Franklin combo backing up a one-wing White is going to hold the advantage over Jalen Hurts. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
Auburn managed to make not just a competent running back, but a true weapon out of a guy who should have been a fullback, . And, predictably, he’s now hurt. Pettway suffered a quad injury against Vanderbilt and his absence was felt in the loss to Georgia the following week. Prior to the injury, Pettway had accumulated 1,106 yards on 173 carries (6.4 avg.), scoring 7 times. But quad injuries are notoriously hard to heal, and Pettway probably will not play this week. If he does, it will not be much, and he’ll be especially susceptible to a hit. With Pettway likely out, all the pressure goes onto the shoulders of , who is a little bigger than the typical Auburn jet-sweep scatback, but not by much. Johnson has averaged 5 yards per carry this year and scored 11 touchdowns, but there’s concern about his stamina.

Kam Martin had a big game against Alabama A&M, but hasn’t been a major factor in tough games. He and Stanton Truitt will have to step up here if Pettway is truly out, and Truitt isn’t 100 percent, either. And just when Auburn thought it couldn’t get worse, its fine fullback, , also suffered an injury and will be limited at best for this game. Without Cox, Auburn will be almost forced into playing a tight end on the line when an extra blocker is needed; his loss changes the whole offense.

While Auburn is losing players, Alabama gets one back this week, as rejoins the rotation to go along with and Joshua Jacobs. Harris and Jacobs have both proven their worth as guys that can be effective inside and out, in the running game and the passing game as well. Scarbrough’s up-the-middle brunt gives the offense an added dimension. Despite Pettway’s stats, his limitations outside the tackles would likely have seen this battle tip to Alabama even if he was healthy. But with him either out or at much less-than-optimal speed, Alabama wins going away. Advantage: Alabama

WIDE RECEIVERS
Provided ’s issues are behind him – he was suspended and missed the Chattanooga game – this one reads like a mismatch. Both Stewart and are bellcow receivers who win most of their one-on-one matchups. Together with tight end , they pressure even the best secondaries.

And in news Auburn doesn’t want to hear, Alabama has begun to get reserve receivers like Cameron Sims and Gehrig Dieter more involved in the offense in recent weeks. H-back Miller Forristall has also become a more involved part of the offense, as has electric freshman Trayvon Diggs. Depth behind Howard and Forristall at tight end – Hale Hentges, , Irv Smith Jr. – also affords Alabama an edge in multiple-TE sets. Auburn is led by Tony Stevens, who has put up respectable numbers (29 catches, 466 yards, 16.1 avg., 3 TD), but he hasn’t been a consistent breakaway threat. Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis and Ryan Davis each do a few things well, but no one has truly stepped up as a threat to take the heat off Stevens.

The aforementioned walk-on kicker, Will Hastings, provides depth but that’s about it. With Cox questionable at H-back, Jalen Harris becomes the only real option at tight end. He has caught one pass all year. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
The effectiveness of Auburn’s offensive line play may be dictated by who its quarterback is. Because of the athleticism of Franklin, and to a lesser extend White, Auburn’s OL has put up nice stats in regards to sacks allowed, as the nature of the offense when those two players are on the field mean defenses don’t have many chances to record negative plays. If Johnson is the QB, though, logic would follow that Auburn might pass more. If that happens, Alabama gets a big edge, because the tackle combination of Darius James and Robert Leff are vulnerable to quick defensive ends, especially Leff. Auburn is much better up the middle, where guards and Braden Smith are solid, as is center Austin Golson.

Depth isn’t outstanding by any stretch; Xavier Dampeer is capable at center, while Mike Horton is a good option at guard. If a tackle goes down, Golson will typically move out to the edge; Prince Tega Wanogho and Tyler Carr are also available, but there’s a significant step down from the starters.

For Alabama, it’s all about the health of tackle Cam Robinson, who suffered a shoulder injury against Chattanooga – not the injury you want a left tackle to have when facing a defensive line like Auburn’s. If he’s healthy, he’ll start opposite Jonah Williams, while Bradley Bozeman starts at center and Ross Pierschbacher at left guard. Right guard suffered a shoulder injury of his own last week, but his appeared far less serious. Even if he isn’t available, Josh Casher has been a time-sharer at the spot the last two weeks, and former starter Lester Cotton is also available. But if Robinson is out, or goes down in this game, hit the panic button.

Ordinarily, Kirven would move to tackle, either in place of Robinson, or to RT with Williams moving across. But if Kirven himself is gimpy, tight end Brandon Greene would have to fill in, or redshirt freshman Matt Womack, who hasn’t played yet when the game is close. Assuming no injuries – and that’s an assumption taken on faith at the moment – Alabama is better here. But it’s not by as much as it should be. Advantage: Alabama

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