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Auburn wrap-up: When a trend becomes a pattern, self-examination must follow

By Jess Nicholas Editor-In-Chief
Nov. 26, 2017

For the third time in eight years, Auburn walks away from the Alabama-Auburn game not just a winner, but a winner either by miracle, a winner over an allegedly better team, or both.

Three times now Auburn finds itself the beneficiary of a potential national title shot when Alabama had something to say about it. For potentially the second time in five years, Alabama will lose a title shot of its own at the same time.

It’s a good bet you’ll hear “Saban can’t beat an Auburn team with nine or more wins” a few times this week. The reason you’ll hear it, is because it happens to be true.

Saban’s record over Auburn now stands at 7-4, a 63.6 winning percentage. Roughly two wins every three years. That’s better than the school average of 55.5 percent. But it also puts him behind the following names in career winning percentage against Auburn: Paul Bryant, Gene Stallings, Harold “Red” Drew, and at least a couple of guys from football’s dark ages, J.W.H. Pollard and Jack Leavenworth. Readily-available records stop circa 1901.

And his record against Auburn teams with nine or more wins? 0-4 at Alabama, 0-7 career.

This wouldn’t be an issue, except there are three goals for every Alabama coach that steps foot on campus: Compete for national titles, compete for SEC titles, and keep Auburn’s hands pinned behind its back.

Notice how the third one is worded, because that’s what the expectations are. Even if they’re not contractual, ask a fan whether those are the expectations when they cut that Tide Pride check.

Nick Saban has managed to do a phenomenal job of handcuffing the Tennessee program – not just a decade of wins, but a decade of abject dominance plus an 11th win for good measure – and that same degree of domination has recently taken hold on Alabama’s third-biggest rivalry, LSU.

But not Auburn. The same Auburn team that got outfoxed by Ed Orgeron earlier this year kept this game under control for the vast majority of its duration. Aside from Alabama’s first drive of the second half, Auburn stayed in control, kept Alabama off-balance, controlled both lines of scrimmage and made every play in every key situation it had to make.

Alabama, on the other hand, looked like it had barely prepared for this game. Alabama played tight. It made mistakes. Players more talented than the ones they were going up against got pushed around, pushed out of position, pushed to make forced errors. This was the kind of Alabama-Auburn game that harkened back to an earlier era – the era of Mike Shula.

The game plan Alabama brought from Tuscaloosa did it no favors. Apparently convinced it wouldn’t be able to run on Auburn’s front seven, Alabama stopped trying after the TD drive to go up 14-10. Convinced Jalen Hurts could replicate his Scott Field magic at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Alabama asked him to shoulder almost all the load in the fourth quarter. He wasn’t up to the task.

The list of mistakes was a long one, and when J.K. Scott bobbled a snap on a field goal try and Alabama got stopped short of making the first down instead of getting the kick away, the air went completely out of the entire team. Nick Saban and his staff were unable to come up with whatever it needed to say to get things back on track. There were far too many shots of both players and coaches on the sidelines with arms either folded, or wide open in a “what happened?” pose, than encouraging themselves and each other to flip the switch.

For whatever reason, this has become an occurrence too familiar in the regular season’s final week, particularly when the game is played in Jordan-Hare Stadium. And again, it wouldn’t be such as issue, if so much wasn’t on the line, and … a loss to Ed Orgeron and LSU?

The cumulative record of those seven Auburn teams Nick Saban has beaten while at Alabama? 47-42. The narrative is going to be framed nationally as Auburn being Kryptonite for Saban, and the numbers don’t disagree with that assessment.

Saban has all but killed off the Tennessee program and buried it. LSU awaits a coroner’s decision. But unlike in the Bryant era – Auburn’s best team was the first Bryant faced, 1958, and the Tigers slowly wilted until Bryant’s health failed and Pat Dye arrived to resurrect the program – Auburn doesn’t seem to be going anywhere this time. And in a sport where late-season losses matter a ton more than the ones coming early in the year or in its middle, this one will stick in Bama’s craw for a long time to come.

So the real question, for the long-term, is this: If you have a bad trend that’s turning into a bad pattern, what self-examination do you do to correct those issues? Are little tweaks needed, or is there something amiss in Alabama’s chosen systems overall?

Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Auburn:

1. Game management approach, to include playcalling, was by far the worst of the year. You’d have to go back to some of Major Applewhite’s worst-laid eggs to find something similar to this debacle, but it qualifies. Alabama had its ground game working at one point; where did it go? Why did Jalen Hurts run the ball as much as his top three running backs combined? Why ask Hurts to shoulder nearly the entire load of the offense in the most hostile environment Alabama sees? Was this Brian Daboll’s doing, or did he get direction from Nick Saban to change the flow of the plan? No one knows, and no one is going to publicly say. Saban bristles at questions that get down in the weeds regarding game strategy, so at best some unlucky reporter will get half a line before being targeted for the inevitable firestorm. Whatever the plan, or wherever it came from, it was about as poor an effort as Alabama has ever trotted out for a game that meant so much.

2. Offensive line got pushed around, especially in pass protection, which was expected, which then goes back to playcalling. The second thing that happens when you put a gameplan in the hands of a quarterback known more for his dual-threat capabilities than his raw accuracy, is that you get pressure, or tight throwing lanes, and have to adjust for it. To the surprise of no one, Auburn’s stellar defensive line got pressure on Hurts all day, from all across the line. What Auburn was able to do that made the most difference, though, was get outside pressure to collapse the pocket edges and force Hurts to step directly up. In prior games, this would have been the trigger to get Hurts running loose on scrambles, but Auburn did a good job containing with linebackers to minimize the damage. Alabama might have only yielded 2 sacks, but Hurts was affected far more often than that. Auburn recorded 9 QB hurries on the day, and given Alabama only officially had 23 pass attempts, that has to set some kind of rush-efficiency record.

3. Hurts wasn’t up to the challenge this game brought. Given his late-game heroics against Clemson and Mississippi State, it’s easy to ask why he simply didn’t do the same thing against Auburn, but that would be a little unfair given that Hurts left one series ready to help pull his team within 3 points, then got on the field next down 12 points. A two-score, fourth-quarter comeback at Jordan-Hare Stadium doesn’t happen often, and wasn’t going to happen tonight given all the other factors. Still, Hurts bears responsibility for regressing in regards to his route-tree reads, his accuracy and his ability to make plays in the clutch. This wasn’t his worst game statistically, but may yet have been the worst game he’s played at Alabama and is certainly the worst game he’s played this year. Refer back to complaints about the playcalling for not going to the running game often enough, but Hurts missed enough open throws and failed to see enough open receivers that if those errors had been reversed, Alabama might still have won the game.

4. Injured defenders didn’t make enough plays, and defense failed to get a stop when the chips were down. The drive that will go down as having lost this game for Alabama was Auburn’s final touchdown, when Alabama blew an opportunity on a kicking play (where have we heard that before?) and this time, it was the defense that gave up the rest of the “six” following the “kick.” Auburn marched 74 yards in 7 plays, going up 26-14 and putting the game to bed. The return of Alabama linebackers Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis and Mack Wilson didn’t exactly go as hoped; the three combined for 4 tackles, none for losses, and 1 QB hurry, and all three looked rusty. If anything, true freshman Dylan Moses, who was supposed to be the unit’s weak link, played the best of all, leading the team in tackles. Ronnie Harrison had arguably his strongest game of the year, and Da’Shawn Hand finally seemed to be running full-throttle, recording Alabama’s only sack on the night. Even if Alabama had held Auburn to a field goal on that first drive of the fourth quarter – which still would have put the Tigers up by two scores – it might not have had such a sobering effect on the team. The fact it came from a QB run made it even more painful.

5. Fault the secondary or praise Jarrett Stidham, but either way, his performance mattered. Stidham has gotten progressively better as the season has gone along and now stands undeniably atop the list of SEC quarterbacks. He was 21-of-28 for 237 yards and ran for a 16-yard touchdown to put the game away. Alabama largely controlled Kerryon Johnson – he averaged 3.5 yards per run, with a long of 15 yards – but couldn’t seem to bring Stidham down when it mattered. Stidham will never be confused for Jalen Hurts, but he was good enough to get himself out of harm’s way consistently, taking just one sack on the night, and got in for the backbreaking touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Note to Alabama fans in the future: When Auburn takes a transfer quarterback in recruiting, make sure the trophy is polished.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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