Covid-19 waited in the wings to make its biggest sports-related impact in the state of Alabama until the moment when the spotlight was the brightest, throwing back its cloak, twitching its mustache and stealing the spotlight of Alabama-Auburn week by kidnapping Nick Saban and rushing from the stage, cackling as it departed.
Given all of what has transpired during this season, was anyone surprised?
As of Wednesday night, Saban was reporting only mild symptoms, if any. An earlier false-positive test the week of the Georgia game is certainly in everyone’s minds, and one of the good things about the size of the spotlight Saban commands is that if this latest test also proves to be false, or even if Saban remains unaffected by the outcome, it stands a chance of redirecting some of the narrative that has been allowed to swirl around the issue of Covid-19 in general. But those are non-sports discussions to be held in non-sports weeks.
For now, Alabama is on pace to be the top seed in the College Football Playoff. After Auburn, Alabama must face schizophrenic LSU, a scrappy Arkansas team whose coach has also been sidelined due to Covid-19 protocols once this year, and then a Florida team that is dangerous but not so multi-dimensional that Alabama shouldn’t be able to handle the matchup. It’s not a glide path for Alabama in the least, but it’s manageable.
But Auburn still stands in the way. The only thing that could have been more 2020-esque would have been for this game to somehow have been swapped over to Jordan-Hare Stadium rather than taking place at Bryant-Denny Stadium. At least Alabama will not have to deal with Jordan-Hare’s crowd and all its other home-cooked voodoo, but Alabama will be playing this game without Nick Saban’s steadying presence on the sideline. Steve Sarkisian will be the designated head coach, and Alabama must rally around him and the other assistants.
The matchup on the field will revolve around Alabama’s ability to stop Auburn’s hurry-up, no-huddle spread offense, something the Crimson Tide has failed to do consistently in most years anyway. Having to do it without Saban offering his input – that’s a challenge in and of itself.
Auburn’s HUNH spread, by now, is nothing new. It’s a run-heavy offense with just enough passing to keep defenses honest up front. But it is most effective when Auburn has a running back quarterback or (especially) a top-shelf offensive line, and it has neither this year. Bo Nix is mobile enough, but he isn’t Nick Marshall or Cam Newton, and he’s still growing even as a pure passer. The bigger concern is an offensive line that has kept Auburn to rankings of just 56th in rushing offense and 69th in passing offense, for a total offense ranking of 59th. Alabama’s multiple, pro-style attack has achieved rankings of 48th in rushing offense and 3rd in passing offense, for a total ranking of 6th nationally.
Bo Nix’s best game in 2019 was arguably the win he helped post over Alabama. If want-to is a factor in a quarterback’s play, Nix has no shortage of that, given his family’s distaste for Alabama football going back decades. This is his Super Bowl, and Alabama should be prepared for the event he plays it like one. Statistically, Nix is average as a passer: 136-of-222 (61.3%), 1,627 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5 interceptions. He makes enough plays, but he’s prone to bad throws when he has to make multiple reads. His running talent – 71 carries for 284 yards, a 4.0-yard average, and 3 touchdowns – is good, and also necessary in Gus Malzahn’s offense. He’s best off the scramble, rather than as a true option quarterback, but he can move well enough that Alabama will have to treat him as a running threat on every play. His backup is graduate transfer Grant Loy, who has played very little at Auburn this year but who was a decent soldier for Bowling Green prior to the transfer. Loy isn’t going to wow anyone, but if forced into the game, he would likely be competent.
Alabama counters with Mac Jones, who remains in the Heisman Trophy conversation despite having a somewhat ho-hum week against Kentucky. Jones is 155 of 201 (77.1%) for 2,426 yards, 18 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. He isn’t a dual-threat by any means, but his pocket footwork is fantastic and is probably his clearest strength as a quarterback. Backup Bryce Young finally flashed some of his future potential against Kentucky, and like Auburn’s Loy, would be competent if called upon here. Nix has already beaten Alabama once, although the question of whether he out-dueled Jones head-up last year more or less comes down to whether Jones gets a pass for at least one of the two pick-sixes he threw in the game. This year, it’s been a fairly wide gap. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn’s Tank Bigsby is a bit different from the typical Malzahn-era running back. He has enough speed to do the required corner work, but his nickname isn’t completely theoretical; he’s effective running inside and has a knack for breaking tackles. He’s also injured and may not play. The injury in question – a hip problem of some kind – is one of the least tolerable things for a running back to have to cope with, and if Bigsby plays it’s not likely he’ll be close to 100 percent. If he can’t, scatback Shaun Shivers will likely get the call on most snaps, with D.J. Williams providing backup when Auburn needs to run inside. Both players have value, but they’ve combined for just 68 carries on the season and the far bigger issue is that they’re both more pigeonholed into specific roles, whereas Bigsby is a more complete running back.
Alabama will start Najee Harris, who has put 16 rushing touchdowns on the board already and has developed into the SEC’s best running back. Backup Brian Robinson has been used sparingly for a couple of weeks now while getting healthy, but when he has played, he has been markedly improved over last year and even over the first couple of weeks of the 2020 season. That’s probably as far as the depth chart will go unless Alabama begins to rout Auburn; Jace McClellan and Roydell Williams both looked sharp late in the game last week against Kentucky, but they’re both true freshmen who haven’t played with the 1s this year. The loss of Trey Sanders to injuries sustained in a car accident is unfortunate. Shivers and Williams are good players, but they’ve gotten about as much work for Auburn as Robinson has as Alabama’s backup, and neither compare one-on-one to Najee Harris. Advantage: Alabama
Suddenly this is a lot closer than it probably should be, due to injuries. Alabama, of course, lost Jaylen Waddle to an ankle injury against Texas A&M, which created a hole the Crimson Tide still hasn’t really filled. His replacement, Slade Bolden, was on pace to put up nice – but fairly typical – numbers as a slot receiver, until he, too, suffered an ankle injury last week, albeit a much more minor one. Whether Bolden can return this week is still up in the air, no pun intended. If he can’t go, then Alabama will have to start either true freshman Javon Baker or sophomore Xavier Williams in the slot, and neither player has even been targeted with a pass attempt yet.
The real key for Alabama is going to be John Metchie III, who brings a lot of physical strength to the position but also goes missing for long stretches. It’s imperative he be on his A-game this week to keep some of the heat off DeVonta Smith, the SEC’s best wide receiver in 2020. Alabama will also get tight end Miller Forristall back this week, which could free up Jahleel Billingsley, who started in his place against Kentucky, to flex out to receiver in this game. Billingsley is a hard matchup at either spot; he’s got a receiver’s fluidity at tight end, and he’s a big target at wide receiver.
Auburn has a pair of fine receivers in the physical Seth Williams and speed demon Anthony Schwartz. Third receiver Eli Stove hasn’t made nearly the impact most thought he would in 2020. Outside of Ze’Vian Capers, no reserve receiver has done anything of note, so Auburn may have more bodies right now than Alabama does, but it hasn’t translated to the stat sheet. Auburn has a couple of unique cases at tight end – John Samuel Shenker is viewed as mostly a blocker, but he is also dangerous as a receiver around the goal line, while J.J. Pegues is a 300-pound athlete who can even line up at quarterback. As receivers, neither has put up much production this year, but the potential is there.
This is a hard category to rate, because Alabama has the best overall receiver (Smith) and the best overall tight end (Forristall), but Auburn has more even quality top to bottom. Closer than it should be, for sure. Advantage: Alabama
This was already a mismatch, but injuries have put Auburn really behind the 8-ball. Both tackles, Alex Jackson and Brodarious Hamm, are listed as questionable for this game. Auburn could probably stand the loss of one, as backup Austin Troxell knows what to do and was pushing Hamm at one time for a starting job anyway, but the loss of both tackles can’t really be managed. Brenden Coffey would have to get the start at the other tackle slot, and he’s on the small side for a college lineman and hasn’t really backed up his JUCO reputation since signing with the Tigers.
The backup to both sides would be Kilian Zierer, another JUCO transfer – who hasn’t played yet in 2020 at all. Auburn was already dealing with a season-ending knee injury for guard Brandon Council. Right now, the plan is Nick Brahms at center, with Tashawn Manning and freshman Keiondre Jones at the guard spots and then whatever can be cobbled together at tackle. The backups at the three interior positions have played one game each in 2020.
Alabama, meanwhile, is playing at an elite level. Landon Dickerson will start at center, with Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor Jr. at the guard positions and Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal at tackle. Alabama has been able to develop strong depth across the line during the 2020 season, as several of the backups have been in and out due to Covid tracing each week. Chris Owens is the sixth man and has excelled in that role. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which Auburn takes this category, even before the injuries to Jackson and Hamm popped up. Advantage: Alabama
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