Auburn preview: Tigers will be tough, but upset chances are low

Sep 15, 2018; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn reacts to a pass interference call during the fourth quarter against LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium. LSU beat Auburn 22-21. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 15, 2018; , AL, USA; head coach reacts to a pass interference call during the fourth quarter against LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium. LSU beat Auburn 22-21. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

DEFENSE

Both teams are running a version of the 3-4 over/under now, although Auburn’s version leans more toward the position groupings of a 4-man base in more situations. Whether it’s due to Auburn’s offensive struggles, or just some personnel not being what they were predicted to be, Auburn has not been as dominant as expected on this side of the ball.

The Tigers rank 36th in total defense, 43rd in rush defense and 46th in raw pass defense. Pass efficiency defense is a much-better 16th, though, and scoring defense is a fine 10th. Overall, though, it’s not been a memorable year, and highlight plays have mostly eluded AU. ranks 3rd in scoring defense, 7th in total defense, 8th in pass efficiency defense and 10th in raw pass defense. Against the run, Bama is 17th, a respectable number indeed coming off a baptism-by-triple-option last week.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Auburn was expected to have perhaps the best defensive line in the country in 2018. It’s not a bad defensive line by any means; it’s not the best, either, or close to it. Sacks rank 13th and tackles for loss 10th, about what was expected, but the lack of consistent production in stopping opposing rushing attacks has been a concern.

Of greater concern this week is that star end Nick Coe, who leads the team in TFL (13.5) and sacks (7) may miss the game with a wrist injury. If he plays, he won’t be 100 percent. The rest of the starting unit – tackles Derrick Brown and Dontavious Russell and end Marlon Davidson – are all capable of being “the man” on any given play, especially Brown and Davidson.

If Coe is out, Markaviest Bryant will start there. He’s been highly productive in spot work, but can be overly aggressive and lacks discipline at times against the run.Andrew Williams and Tyrone Truesdell offer good depth inside; T.D. Moulton has ability at end but production has been spotty.

Alabama will counter with inside and Raekwon Davis and Isaiah Buggs at the ends. Alabama almost hit a titanic iceberg last week when Williams got cheap-shotted by a Citadel blocker, but it appears he suffered no lingering effects. Alabama’s starters have been more productive than Auburn’s, but the Tigers rule in depth.

LaBryan Ray has been the only Bama second-teamer to really make an impact. Phidarian Mathis and Johnny Dwight offer acceptable work in relief, but neither has shown the ability to affect blockers consistently. Dwight has the ability to, but also tends to get ridden out of a lot of plays. If we were sure Coe were healthy, we’d probably give Auburn a slim edge here, but with him out and what that does to the rotation behind him, we’re taking the Tide. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Alabama’s group has made a nice recovery after starting off the season as the weakest unit on this side. The outside linebackers in particular, and , have put together consistent performances for the last several weeks, with no off days. Inside linebackers Mack Wilson and continue to improve, but there are some holes in their coverage games.

Auburn’s unit is senior-laden and largely unsung, but it’s a solid group and MLB has become a wrecker. Davis has rolled up 102 tackles already despite flying under the radar in a way that recalls the career of Josh Bynes pre-NFL. Auburn has one of the most productive strongside linebackers of any team running the 3-4 over/under in Darrell Williams, who is left on the field enough to be the team’s third-leading tackler. He and Davis have combined for 19.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks, along with an assortment of supporting stats.

Montavious Atkinson isn’t as productive as the other two (and is often off the field with Williams moving over), but he works well in unison with the other two when Auburn is generating a 3-man front with a down SLB look.

Neither team plays a lot of bench players; Alabama basically will use Jamey Mosley or Eyabi Anoma sometimes as a late-game pass rusher, while Auburn’s K.J. Britt is being positioned as the next bellcow once the three seniors are gone. This is a very close call between two deserving units, but we’ll take Auburn for Davis’ instincts, even though Alabama is probably better on the perimeter against the run. Advantage: Auburn

DEFENSIVE BACKS
It’s not going to show up in the numbers, but Auburn can be hurt back here. Auburn can turn offenses over, though, as the 12 team interceptions can attest. Safeties Thomas Daniel and Jeremiah Dinson have plenty of experience and are both sound tacklers, although with just 4.5 tackles for loss and 1 sack, they appear to be more of pursuit safeties rather than guys the defense builds big plays around.

Corners Jamel Dean, Noah Igbinoghene and nickel corner Javaris Davis have racked up a whopping 26 passes broken up between them, with Igbinoghene getting 11 by himself. It’s a deep unit, with Jordyn Peters, Christian Tutt and Jamien Sherwood giving quality snaps off the bench. The issue the Tigers have run into has been a matchup issue of pure athleticism. Top-end receivers can get around the corners with some regularity, and neither Igbinoghene or Davis are particularly big or powerful.

Alabama’s receivers are going to be a substantial matchup for this group and Auburn will have to play flawlessly to compete. Bama will start and at corner, with Xavier McKinney, and Shyheim Carter as the safeties. Jared Mayden will probably be the only other back to play much. Thompson suffered a knee bruise against The Citadel; if he needs relief, Alabama will use Keaton Anderson in that slot.

The real edge here is in what Alabama is able to do with its bigger, more physical corners against receivers, and the fact Thompson is no worse than the second-best defensive player on the field for either team, behind only Bama DT Quinnen Williams. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
Do we have to talk about this? Auburn has missed a surprising number of kicks this year – is just 15-of-25 (60.0%), but he’s 10-of-11 from inside 40 yards and hasn’t missed a PAT yet. He’s 2-of-9 from beyond 50, which is a crapshoot for any college kicker. The Tigers are 5th in net punting behind Arynn Siposs, and good enough on returns for Alabama to have to be worried about them.

Bama has more raw talent on its return and coverage teams, but teams have been able to neutralize Jaylen Waddle by kicking slightly shorter, yet higher-trajectory punts. Punter Mike Bernier will probably hold serve there but he’s not going to change the game unless the punt in question is kicked from plus-territory.

The real issue, of course, is the kicking situation. Austin Jones kicked the last PAT of The Citadel game and it didn’t automatically feel like a senior getting in his last kick of his career. Joseph Bulovas missed 2 PATs in that game so there may be some kind of “kicking committee” at work this week. On the plus side, Bulovas has 73.3% of his field goal attempts this year, and he’s 3-for-4 from beyond 40 yards. He’s got the range and reasonable accuracy when the kicks count three points; the struggles on PATs are a mystery.

Bama kickers have missed more PATs than the rest of the SEC combined. As long as this is a thing, we can’t give the Tide an edge in this category unless the opposition is awful, and Auburn isn’t. Advantage: Auburn

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Auburn in two, but any of the defensive categories could flip-flop. In regards to the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama strongly controls the matchup of its defensive line against Auburn’s offensive line. Flip it around, and it’s a push until we see move a bit (if he’s even in the game).

Assuming it works out that both teams’ DLs hold those edges, in a typical game in which that is true, scoring is usually suppressed. Auburn is likely to take a page out of The Citadel’s and Mississippi State’s playbook and slow the game down. That would be anti-Gus, yes, but it’s also his only chance to win. If he gives extra possessions, Tagovailoa will make Auburn pay.

If Auburn can’t maintain some level of discipline relative to pace of play, this is going to end up looking an awful lot like 2011, when Bama went into Jordan-Hare Stadium and whipped the Tigers 42-14 in a game that was embarrassingly uncompetitive for Auburn and led to a now-infamous (and profane) challenge from an Alabama assistant across the field to Gus Malzahn about his playcalling.

Auburn’s path to victory includes getting some early success against Alabama’s running game, exploiting Alabama’s injuries at offensive guard to get middle pressure against Tagovailoa, and hope for more special teams shenanigans, which inhabit this series like demons from the fifth dimension.

Without those items – maybe all those items together – this looks more or less like a normal Alabama matchup against a quality, but ultimately outclassed opponent. Auburn seems to lack the typical “Auburn rage” factor it has shown in previous seasons, where the Tigers would appear to be barely able to contain themselves in the weeks leading up to this game. If Alabama can leverage its own desire for an undefeated season – and revenge for what the Tigers almost did to its title hopes a year ago – that’s when there could be some real distance put between the two scores.

Alabama 38
Auburn 20

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