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By Jess Nicholas
Nov. 21, 2018
In previous seasons – specifically the Cam comeback of 2010, the Kick Six of 2013, or last year’s unexpected but ultimately explainable upset in Jordan-Hare Stadium – there had been an aura of significant concern about that particular year’s Auburn team, or a glaring shortcoming regarding Alabama’s squad.
In 2018, none of those variables exist. Auburn has a solid quarterback, but not one that would threaten to take over a game against a secondary many believe to be elite. The game isn’t in Auburn, where weirdness is born, fertilized and cultivated into something so bizarre it begins to appear as if it should have been scripted by William S. Burroughs. And Alabama, most certainly, doesn’t have an explosiveness problem. The Tide has been as combustible as a sack of nitroglycerin in 2018.
This doesn’t mean Auburn isn’t a threat, or that the Tigers couldn’t still find a way to knock this Alabama team off. It’s just that this particular Auburn team doesn’t appear to be the kind of team that can hit Alabama’s pressure points.
And if it does, well, that brings up a completely different line of discussion. Auburn is the one team that has vexed Nick Saban with some degree of consistency, and given how Alabama has relegated all other SEC competitors (including LSU and arguably Ole Miss) to a status of being victims of complete domination, how Auburn has managed to win four games against Saban during his tenure already sticks out. A fifth time? It’s almost unthinkable.
So that is Auburn’s charge this week: do the unthinkable. If Alabama plays its game, though, the unthinkable isn’t going to happen.
Auburn’s signature hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) spread offense this year has been more of a hurry-up-and-wait … for production that never comes. Auburn’s offense ranks 84th overall in FBS, 69th in rushing and 81st in passing. Scoring offense is 66th, passing efficiency 67th. It’s an offense that has struggled more than any of the Gus Malzahn era to pressure defenses. Problems at running back and especially the offensive line have forced Malzahn to pick his spots carefully, as the explosiveness hasn’t been there to recover from mistakes. Alabama brings its multiple, pro-style spread attack to the dance, an offense that ranks in the top 10 of four of the five major offensive categories and 30th in the fifth (rushing offense).
Jarrett Stidham’s career path has been a circuitous one, starting in the wide-open spread teachings of Art Briles at Baylor, then to sort of a Chris-Todd-on-steroids role in Auburn’s offense as a distributor and occasional runner.
The 2018 season hasn’t been his best, but Stidham’s numbers aren’t bad. He’s thrown just 4 interceptions all year, and is 196-of-318 (61.6%) for 2,294 yards and 12 touchdowns and an efficiency rating of 132.2. The issue comes from yards per attempt, low at 7.2, and greatly impacted by a lack of playmakers at receiver. As a rusher, he has 65 carries for just 3 positive yards – a function of the aforementioned offensive line woes more than anything – but he does have 3 touchdowns. He has gained 160 yards on the season beyond the line of scrimmage.
Stidham’s arm strength has been a matter of discussion, although nothing appears wrong with him at the moment and he has proven himself in the clutch. He’s certainly no worse than the near-mythical Stephen Garcia of South Carolina, who put his Gamecock team on his back in 2010 and led USC to an upset of the Crimson Tide. But he’s also not been the gamechanger Auburn thought it was getting when he transferred in.
It probably won’t matter in this game, but he also doesn’t have much of a backup situation going on behind him, either. Malik Willis is a good athlete but not really a passer yet; Cord Sandberg is a former minor league baseball player who has thrown 1 collegiate pass.
Alabama appears to be back at full strength, or close enough, now that Tua Tagovailoa is healthy and Jalen Hurts is playing in games again. First, on Hurts: He wasn’t moving at full speed against The Citadel, but his passing was on point and if Alabama needs a backup, it has the best one in the conference by far.
The presence of Tagovailoa – who is all but assured of broaching the 3,000-yard mark in this game, if not the first half – at 100-percent health is akin to listening to Ian McDiarmid warn Mark Hamill about witnessing a fully armed and operational battle station. Assuming both starters stay healthy, it’s no contest. If Alabama has to go to Hurts for whatever reason, it’s still a pretty close call given Hurts’ improvement as a passer in 2018. Advantage: Alabama
All the talk of Auburn’s scoring troubles have centered on its offensive line, but the running back group bears equal responsibility. Malzahn’s offense needs two things to be successful above all: a good center and guards, and a true difference-maker at running back. This Auburn team lacks all of that, but especially the latter.
JaTarvious Whitlow has nice burst and at 6’0”, 215, has a bit more size than the trademark Malzahn-era scatback. But he’s also been banged up and in and out of favor all year and there’s no real read on how many snaps he’s going to get. When he’s not been in, Kam Martin has typically gotten the call, but he’s small and plays smaller, and hasn’t been able to make his mark.
If Auburn really wants to go small, Shaun Shivers, all 5’7” and 170 of him, is available, but his value beyond jet sweeps is suspect. He is, however, averaging 6.3 yards per carry on 49 tries this year. Malik Miller may be used in short yardage, but he lacks the speed to be an every-down option in Auburn’s offense.
Alabama may be without Damien Harris, who suffered a concussion against The Citadel. He returned to practice Tuesday, however, and his prospects for playing look better now than they did the day of the injury. If Harris can’t go, or is limited, look for Josh Jacobs to get the start with Najee Harris providing depth off the bench. Both Harrises for Alabama have numbers similar to Auburn’s Whitlow, and Jacobs’ army-knife set of skills makes him a defense disruptor whenever he’s playing.
If Damien Harris is out altogether, Brian Robinson Jr. might find a few carries as well. If everyone is healthy, Alabama strongly carries this category, if for no other reason than Najee Harris is starting to play like a man with his hair afire. If both Whitlow and Damien Harris are out or limited, same deal. Alabama would have to be missing Harris altogether and Whitlow be 100 percent to even discuss alternatives – and even then, Bama is unlikely to yield the edge. Advantage: Alabama
Injuries and defections have made this unit sort of a bad Xerox of what it could have been. The current unit basically breaks down to Seth Williams and Darius Slayton, a pair of quality midrange receivers who can hold their own; Anthony Schwartz, a bona fide deep threat who needs to work on his route discipline, and Ryan Davis, who leads the team with 60 carries and 508 yards, but the resulting 8.5 yards per catch and 0 touchdowns explains where he really is in regards to matchup ability.
The quality of the depth drops off really fast; only Sal Canella, a hybrid tight end/receiver, really demands attention from the next group, and he still averages less than 10 a reception. Marquis McClain has played in every game yet has no catches. Shedrick Jackson has 2 catches on the year.
The tight end and H-back positions are manned by Tucker Brown and Chandler Cox, respectively, but Brown is a blocker only and Cox has been well-contained by defenses. Canella will sometimes play out of these spots as well. Williams is probably the item of greatest concern, as he has the talent to transition vertically.
Alabama finally has its group back at 100 percent, or close enough to count. The last piece of that was getting DeVonta Smith back from a hamstring injury, and he finally showed signs against The Citadel that it’s happening. Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle round out the unit; Jeudy has already popped the 1,000-yard receiving mark, but Ruggs and especially Waddle have become dangerous enough that opponents can’t really focus on one guy when designing coverage schemes. It’s not outside the realm of possibility that this is the best wide receiver corps ever fielded in the SEC – especially when tight end Irv Smith Jr. is added to the mix. Those five names alone have 34 touchdown catches between them.
Hale Hentges gives Bama a solid on-the-line blocker at tight end when needed, but like Auburn, production at receiver firmly stops behind the primary four. Derek Kief has been on the fringe of the playing rotation for three years but can’t seem to break through, even though he has become reliable when the ball is thrown his way. The coaches continue to try to get the ball to Tyrell Shavers but haven’t been successful at it yet. Really no contest here. Advantage: Alabama
We previewed this as an issue for Auburn in the preseason and the predictions came true. While Auburn isn’t terrible in the metrics – tackles for loss allowed, 25th; sacks allowed, 45th – numbers do lie a bit sometimes. Auburn has had an issue generating its signature interior push, and it’s mostly this unit’s cross to bear.
The raw talent just isn’t up to previous years, especially at center, where both Nick Brahms and Kaleb Kim have been tried and found wanting. Guards Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton have been serviceable, and are probably the strength of this unit, but only because the tackles – UMass transfer Jack Driscoll and especially Prince Tega Wanogho – have not been able to take their games to the next level. Auburn may be missing reserve guard Calvin Ashley, who has a start as a freshman this year, due to an undisclosed injury. The second unit is already a very green space without having to worry about Ashley’s health.
Alabama, though, has issues of its own. Both guards may be out for this game, as Deonte Brown is trying to shake off turf toe and Alex Leatherwood went down with an ankle injury against The Citadel. Lester Cotton would start for Brown at left guard and senior Josh Casher would get his first career start at right guard if nothing changes, but it’s expected to be all hands on deck to get Brown and Leatherwood ready. Brown’s injury is considered the more severe.
Ross Pierschbacher will start at center, with Jonah Williams and Jedrick Wills the tackles. If both Bama guards are out, it’s going to make things dicey. Depth would immediately become an issue, with little-used Chris Owens and Richie Petitbon forced into critical situations. If they both play and are healthy besides, it’s a landslide win in the category for the Crimson Tide. Advantage: Alabama
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