By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 22, 2017
If there has been one thing regarding SEC football that seems out of place in this era of Nick Saban’s domination at Alabama, it’s been that Auburn has not only survived in Alabama’s shadow, but thrived.
Auburn has won a national title (2010), played for it a second time (2013), and if Auburn beats Alabama this week and Georgia a second time in the SEC Championship Game, the Tigers seem all but assured of representing the SEC as a two-loss hopeful in this year’s final four.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Once Saban’s Alabama got rolling, the rest of the SEC was supposed to slither off into irrelevance. It’s happened – except for the one place everyone thought would be first to go, Auburn.
However Auburn has bleen able to do it, they’ve done it. The Tigers still recruit consistently within the nation’s top ten, they find the quharterbacks they need, they play great defense and they don’t look particularly intimidated when Alabama comes to town.
What’s made this reality even more painful for Alabama is that Nick Saban is 7-3 against Auburn in his 10 tries so far, but should by all rights be 9-1. Alabama flat-out gave away the 2010 game, a mixture of costly turnovers, weird bounces and one horrifically bad coaching decision – leaving an injured Mark Barron in the game at safety instead of swapping in Will Lowery. Whether a loss there would have ultimately derailed Auburn’s title shot against Oregon is unknown; most observers believe Auburn would have made the game anyway.
The 2013 loss, though, would have knocked Auburn well out of BCS contention, and Alabama would have gone in Auburn’s stead. The SEC East was barely competitive, so a win in Atlanta would have been all but assured, and it would have eventually allowed Alabama the opportunity to stack three national championships in a row. Instead, costly turnovers, weird bounces, subpar officiating (no conspiracy theories, here; the SEC admitted later calls were missed) and a bad-but-at-least-not-horrifically-bad coaching decision – trotting out Adam Griffith for a too-long field goal attempt that got returned for a touchdown – killed the Crimson Tide that day.
Really, the only “honest” loss becomes the one Saban endured in his inaugural season, 2007, and even that game was played more closely than expected, and if an Alabama receiver doesn’t drop a sure touchdown pass heading into halftime, who knows what might have happened?
So now we find ourselves in 2017, and like in 2013, Alabama has a title shot in its hands, and Auburn has to play its way into one. Alabama comes into this game suddenly with a question mark at placekicker (Andy Pappanastos is injured), Auburn has a hot quarterback, and there are questions as to whether Alabama can run the ball on a strong Auburn front.
No, Auburn has not slunk off into the night yet. In fact, one could very well make an argument that the Tigers are enjoying the pinnacle of their program’s all-time success, right under Nick Saban’s nose.
Gus Malzahn can bring in all the new offensive coordinators, assistants and analysts he wants, but the base offense for the Tigers is always going to be the HUNH (hurry-up, no-huddle) spread attack that relies almost completely on deception and trickery to set up mismatches in the running game and lure defenses into biting on trick-play action to open up the passing game. Malzahn always seems to tread a fine line between being too cute with the trick-play frequency, and going too much the other way and trying to power through the opposition. The offense doesn’t work without some degree of trickery. Auburn ranks 17th in total offense and 18th in rushing offense; the new wrinkle this year is the presence of a real passing game. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that ranks 15th overall and 9th in rushing, meaning that against all odds, Auburn statistically has more balance than Alabama.
At this point, this game probably represents a matchup of the top two quarterbacks in the SEC. Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham isn’t the kind of athlete former Malzahn quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Nick Marshall was, but he’s not a slug. Stidham was a receiver prospect according to some talent evaluators coming out of high school. His lack of footwork probably would have made that an iffy proposition at a major power, but he’s found his niche in Auburn’s offense. He’s Chris Todd with a whole lot more athletic ability.
Stidham is 181-of-267 (67.8%) for 2,445 yards, 16 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions on the year. His biggest liability is probably that pressure in his face causes him to lose poise more often than you’d expect from a guy with this set of numbers. Stidham isn’t a runner, but if Alabama leaves a wide-open field, he has the straightline speed necessary to hurt the Crimson Tide.
Alabama counters with Jalen Hurts, who is still yet to crack the 2,000-yard mark on the year, but the other numbers are pretty much equal to Stidham’s: Efficiency rating of 160.4 for Hurts compared to 161.5 for Stidham, 9.14 yards per attempt for Hurts to 9.16 for Stidham. Stidham has the edge in raw accuracy, but Hurts has almost seven times the rushing yards.
This category goes back and forth forever until the backups are added in, and then Alabama clearly pulls away in regard to total unit strength. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa may also be a top-five SEC quarterback – certainly no worse than a top 10 – while Auburn’s backup, Malik Willis, has barely played. When he has played, Willis has shown more potential than most observers might have thought he had, but he’s still not in Tagovailoa’s area code. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn has a good one at the top of its depth chart, but the depth chart doesn’t go nearly deep enough. Kerryon Johnson has rushed 220 times for 1,172 yards (5.3 avg.) and 16 touchdowns. He’s a smaller back than what the SEC usually calls for, but one of the advantages of Auburn’s offensive scheme is that guys who would otherwise be pigeonholed into an outside runner role can find success as an every-down back. Still, Johnson up the middle against Alabama’s defense isn’t going to work unless the trickery component to the offense is paying dividends.
Kamryn Pettway, who could be a real force as an inside banger and part-time H-back, hasn’t been healthy all year and if he plays in this game, it won’t be for many snaps. He’s listed as highly questionable. Fortunately enough, Auburn has been able to get decent mileage out of Kam Martin, but Martin is even smaller than Johnson. Malik Miller is the only other running back besides Pettway with any size, and he’s averaging less than 3 carries per game.
Auburn doesn’t seem to trust him, for whatever reason. Auburn is one of the few teams that employs anything close to a true fullback. Chandler Cox is that guy, and it’s a good thing for Auburn he’s as good as he is, because the Tigers don’t have a true tight end weapon on the roster.
Alabama will counter with Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and Joshua Jacobs in this game. While Najee Harris is available and Brian Robinson Jr. may get some action at H-back, for the most part, the rotation has been distilled down into the three veterans. Damien Harris has a shot to pop the 1,000-yard mark on the season with a strong game here, but Alabama has been managing carries all season and it’s more likely – if Alabama is running the ball well – to see the production split between Harris, Scarbrough and Jacobs. There’s no wrong pick here, and Alabama probably gets the nod largely on the absence of Pettway. Advantage: Alabama
This might be the biggest gulf between the two teams we’ll look at. Alabama’s receiver corps has been getting stronger and stronger with each passing week and is now playing at a tremendously high level. Auburn’s group, on the other hand, is a mixed bag, and the statistics highlight both the issue, and how fakery plays a big part in the opportunities they do get. Example: Ryan Davis has 58 catches on the year, but averages less than 10 yards per catch, even with a 75-yard touchdown catch in there to throw the numbers off. Eli Stove has similar per-catch numbers. But the third starter.
Darius Slayton, has 533 yards on just 19 receptions, a gaudy 28.1-yard average, which is the intersection of legitimate deep-threat ability and plays that were heavily augmented by busted coverage. Auburn’s top bench receiver, the slight Will Hastings, is in the same boat – averages less than 2 catches per game, but picks up chunks of yardage with those catches, often because he’s been left alone.
The key for Alabama is to minimize coverage mismatches with the inside receivers, which is typically what leads to Auburn’s big plays through the air, because Stidham is more than good enough to get the ball where it needs to go. Alabama counters with a group led decisively by Calvin Ridley, who may have worked himself in to a first-round draft position with his recent play. Cameron Sims has come on nicely as a second option, and the three-headed true freshman class of Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III are all asserting themselves nicely. Robert Foster’s immense potential continues to remain largely untapped, and who knows whether he’ll make a showing in this game.
Alabama’s tight end combo of Hale Hentges and Irv Smith Jr. is a no-contest advantage over Auburn’s Jalen Harris. Depth at receiver is similar between the two teams – Alabama may have one or two extra bodies – but the real difference here is that Alabama’s downfield players are more capable of creating their own openings. Advantage: Alabama
The middle of Auburn’s line stacks up with just about anyone, but the Tigers’ tackles need help in pass protection and can be highly erratic. Auburn ranks 86th in sacks allowed despite being primarily a running team, and 77th in tackles for loss allowed. Alabama? 49th and 5th in those two categories. Auburn has had health issues as well, although all players are listed as available for the weekend. If everyone is running at optimum efficiency,
Auburn’s best lineup is likely Austin Golson and Darius James at the tackle spots, Casey Dunn at center and Braden Smith and Mike Horton at guard. Smith is far and away Auburn’s best lineman, with the versatile Golson next on that list. Horton’s availability is most in question, and if he’s out, the reshuffling probably moves Golson inside somewhere and brings Prince Tega Wanogho into the game. Depth is a huge issue for Auburn; Golson is the backup at two other positions besides wherever he starts, and Marquell Harrell is the only other bench player besides Wanogho capable of starting and succeeding.
Alabama will start Bradley Bozeman at center, Jonah Williams and Matt Womack at the tackles and Lester Cotton at right guard. The only question is whether Ross Pierschbacher is healthy enough to return at left guard this week, or whether J.C. Hassenauer continues to start there. To be frank, Hassenauer has played better since taking over the spot, so this is win-win either way it goes for Alabama. Depth is no contest; Alabama goes 12-13 total players deep in this unit. Alabama is also more consistent from far left to far right. Advantage: Alabama
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