Auburn preview: An unfamiliar matchup will drive this game

The moment it became clear Tua Tagovailoa had suffered more than just a bloody nose as he lay on the turf of Scott Field in Starkville, every Alabama fan’s attention – and probably at least half of all Auburn fans’ attention, as well – turned to a redshirt sophomore quarterback named Mac Jones.

If Alabama is going to beat Auburn on Saturday, the game will go through Mac Jones. If the Crimson Tide is going to stake its claim to a playoff spot, Mac Jones will be the one to plant the flag. If Alabama is going to be able to overcome Auburn’s clear defensive advantage – on the road, in the turbulent hellhole known as Jordan-Hare Stadium, with Auburn’s Gus Malzahn possibly coaching for his job – then Mac Jones is going to have to be the guy that pulls it all together.

If this is starting to sound like a one-position preview, it almost is. If Tua Tagovailoa’s hip had held together in Starkville, Alabama probably enters this game a two-touchdown favorite, and we’d probably pick Alabama to cover. But Tagovailoa will either watch from a couch, or a golf cart if he makes the trip east. Thus the game becomes a question of how many points Tua is worth over Mac Jones.

Some betting analysts say the margin is as low as 3-4 points. We say that’s hogwash. Mac Jones is a better quarterback than Auburn probably wishes he was, but you would have a hard time convincing anyone in crimson that Tagovailoa means just an extra field goal or so toward the game’s bottom line.

Whatever the case, it’s time to get this one over already.


Auburn runs the football well out of its patented hurry-up, no-huddle (HUNH) offense. Alabama throws the ball well out of its multiple, pro-style spread. For that matter, Alabama actually got better in passing stats from last week to this week, and took over the No. 1 ranking in passing efficiency with Jones under center rather than Tagovailoa. More telling is the fact that Alabama ranks 2nd in scoring offense and 7th in total offense, while Auburn is 41st and 55th in those same categories.

We know many of you will read this category, skip to the summary at the end and then go somewhere and fret. While we would encourage you to hang around for the rest of the analysis, we understand. Alabama will start Mac Jones; Auburn will go with Bo Nix. Prior to the season, the two shared a common trait: Neither had played a college snap with the game actually on the line.

In the months since, Nix, despite much ballyhoo, has mostly looked like any other true freshman thrown into the fire. It doesn’t help that Auburn’s offense doesn’t really fit his skill set. Many Auburn fans argued that Joey Gatewood would have been a better fit to run this offense, and agrees with that assessment. But now, it’s Nix’s show and no one else’s. He’s thrown for 2,193 yards, but completed just 57.6% of his passes (below what one would expect in a run-based offense that sets up “gotcha” passes with regularity), 14 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Nix is a good runner (85 carries, 257 yards, 3.0 avg., 6 TD) but not a great one. Jones, meanwhile, has completed the exact percentage of passes (71.4%) as Tagovailoa did.

The major difference between these two QBs, of course, is volume of experience and the cumulative strength of the opposition. Jones’ stats mainly came against Arkansas, Western Carolina and Mississippi State. That’s the worst team in the SEC (Arkansas), one of the worst FCS teams in the country (WCU), and a handful of throws in the second half of a game Alabama already had in the bag (Mississippi State).

In regards to skill set, Jones’ arm strength probably exceeds Nix’s and when Jones gets hot, he has the ability to continue a hot streak almost infinitely. He seems to make fewer mistakes than Nix, but Nix has faced off against much stronger defenses. Looking at the entire QB units of both teams, Alabama’s Lia Tagovailoa is a much better quarterback with better raw skills than is Auburn’s Cord Sandberg, a 24-year-old former baseball player trying to catch a second shot at athletic glory.

Had Tua been around for this one, we might have spent three sentences on one of the biggest mismatches on the board. Now we have something much closer. We’ll pick Alabama and Jones (and especially Lia over Sandberg) but the gap isn’t that large. Advantage: Alabama

Go with the team with the stats, or the team with the best player? If you’re doing the latter, this is Alabama’s category by far because there is no one in the country playing running back much better than Najee Harris at the moment. Harris has the ability to take over games and we’ll see if Alabama has him attempt to do just that against Auburn. He’ll most likely go over 1,000 yards in this game and he’s already scored 10 touchdowns as a runner and another 7 as a receiver.

Auburn has nobody like that. JaTarvious Whitlow has gotten most of the work this year, but averages 4.8 yards per carry compared to Harris’ 6 yards per carry. Auburn no doubt has better depth, with Kam Martin, D.J. Williams, Harold Joiner, Malik Miller and Shaun Shivers all getting double-digit carries. There hasn’t been enough red zone contributions from this group, however, as no other running back has more than 2 touchdown carries.

Alabama will use Brian Robinson Jr. and Keilan Robinson as its backups, and there’s a chance Keilan Robinson might get more work this week than usual as a way to introduce some breakaway speed to the position. Quality over quanity here. Advantage: Alabama

Auburn has a pair of good starters, Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, and good depth behind them with Eli Stove and Will Hastings. Sal Cannella has found a role as a sometimes-tight-end, sometimes-receiver slot player. Of the next group, Zach Farrar, Shedrick Jackson and Matthew Hill have been adequate but not really memorable. When Cannella isn’t handling the tight end role, John Samuel Shenker and Spencer Nigh are tasked with it, but neither is a particularly potent receiving threat.

Alabama, of course, starts what might as well be called the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle. Any of the four would be Auburn’s best receiver if he switched teams. Kendall Randolph’s path from offensive guard at the beginning of the year to starting tight end has been something to see, but like Auburn’s Shenker and Nigh, he’s playing for his blocking ability. Major Tennison and Jahleel Billingsley provide depth there.

For Auburn, Williams is one of those guys who has quietly put together a fairly massive season (52 catches, 735 yards, 14.1 avg., 8 TD) and Schwartz has potential. But they’re not as good as Bama’s WR unit by a long shot, and the advantage at tight end for Auburn is negligible. Advantage: Alabama

Auburn ranks 27th in sacks allowed and 48th in tackles for loss allowed, but those numbers are both a bit questionable for a team built on a fast, option-based running game. Auburn certainly has the edge in experience; there are four senior starters (tackles Prince Tega Wanogho and Jack Driscoll and guards Marquel Harrell and Mike Horton) and could be five if Kaleb Kim gets the call over sophomore Nick Brahms. Having said that, Wanogho struggles against top edge rushers and none of the other linemen are particularly impressive in one-on-one situations, but as a group, they play well enough together that Alabama can’t just walk in and expect to lead an OL-DL cross-matchup against this unit.

Regarding Alabama’s own offensive line, it has performed steadily better as the season has gone along, and now ranks 7th in sacks allowed and 17th in tackles for loss allowed. Landon Dickerson will start at center flanked by guards Evan Neal and Deonte Brown and tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills. Alabama’s surging line play started mostly with Dickerson taking over at center and has only improved since then. Auburn’s line is capable, but Alabama’s has real star power. Advantage: Alabama

READ MORE:  Defense

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