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Auburn wrap-up: Tigers’ dilemma — not enough horses, too many elephants

It took about two carries from Tank Bigsby to know Auburn didn’t have the running game it needed to challenge Alabama. It took one third-down pass rush to confirm it didn’t have the offensive line for the job, either.

Even so, there’s a difference between challenging Alabama, and beating Alabama. Auburn wasn’t going to do either of those things Saturday – Bigsby or no Bigsby, offensive tackles or no offensive tackles.

Besides offering a stark reality for fans of Auburn regarding the talent gap that has emerged between these two programs, the game was also an object lesson in coaching and adjustments. In what has become a trend, Alabama played with its food for about two quarters, then made adjustments on both sides of the ball and feasted on the spread laid out before it.

Malzahn, on the other hand, went looking for answers and came up with empty hands and empty hope.

Alabama has become masters of the New Normal in college football, where instead of having a great defense that shuts down offenses and forces untenable scenarios in regard to field position, the offense instead puts relentless pressure on the other team to keep up the pace. It causes opponents to feel like recreational runners trying to stay with a pack of Olympic track athletes at the local 5K fun run.

Additionally, in years in which Alabama’s defense is also good – and this year seems to be one of those years – it’s a bad combination for a team stuck in transition, as Auburn is in 2020.

Auburn would have had to have hoped for mass injuries, a wave of positive Covid-19 tests, a real-life recreation of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” playing out in downtown Tuscaloosa, or something similarly dire and weird to have happened in order to have had a shot here.

Instead, on a night when Mike Tyson prepared to face off against Roy Jones Jr. in an actual, professional boxing match, Alabama and Auburn staged a recreation of the Tyson-Spinks fight. We’ll let you figure out who played the role of Tyson and who got stuck with channeling Michael Spinks.

Alabama’s offense has found a way to combine all the traditional things that lovers of hard-nosed football like with the volatility and explosiveness of nitroglycerin. Have trouble stopping physical running backs? Good luck dealing with Najee Harris and Brian Robinson. Pretty good against the run, but your corners and safeties struggle in man coverage? DeVonta Smith is waiting.

Even one of Alabama’s biggest offensive weaknesses heading into 2020 has been made a strength, as offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian found a way to take a somewhat motley collection of seven guys and collectively make a tight end position that has logged timely receptions while keeping the running game chugging along. Included in that group? Two actual tight ends, a high school quarterback, a linebacker, a defensive end, a big wide receiver and an offensive guard.

It isn’t that Auburn lacks the same potential to develop options – it’s simply that the Tigers aren’t doing it right now. Whether that’s due to the league’s familiarity with Malzahn’s tendencies, or whether Malzahn simply doesn’t have a second act, is hard to say. It’s always been most evident in seasons like this one, where Auburn finds itself thinned by injuries or early NFL defections from the year before, but the chasm has rarely been this wide.

The question for Auburn going forward is whether it can build a competent offense around Bo Nix’s impressive scrambling ability. And not just any offense, not just a competent offense – but an offense capable of keeping pace with Alabama’s pack of sprinters, powerlifters and decathletes. On Saturday, Alabama made Auburn’s future look bleak, even if Nick Saban wasn’t there in person to help bring it all about.

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

1. For three quarters, Alabama DL closed all gaps. For all the eye candy around Malzahn’s offense, the basic platform is a simple one: Run the ball with effectiveness, inside and out, by creating mismatches and mistakes off misdirection. Those same words could be used to describe the old wishbone attack Alabama fans love so much. Saturday, Alabama’s defensive line played the game of the season against the run, keeping Auburn’s backs contained to short gains on first and second down and forcing Nix to fit passes into tight windows. None of that played into Auburn’s strengths.

Tank Bigsby, who Auburn desperately wanted to get going in this game, was clearly not up to the task physically, still trying to shake off a hip injury. As previewed by before the game, Shaun Shivers simply isn’t physical enough to go inside against a top-level SEC defensive line. By the time Auburn found something that worked – Mark-Antony Richards, who got most of the carries in the second half – the deficit was too large to overcome. With the defensive line shutting down the run, it forced Bo Nix to do the one thing he can’t do very well, and that’s pass with accuracy on a consistent basis.

Nix is a great freestyler, but needs a lot of work on mechanics and reading defenses, something Auburn doesn’t tend to develop in any of its quarterbacks under Malzahn. Richards finally did enough damage to allow Auburn to get a late score, but all that did was break an internal streak of touchdowns allowed by Alabama’s defense. The damage to the Tigers had long been done.

2. Alabama’s freshman DBs gave fans a glimpse into a bright future. Malachi Moore has had an unlikely, almost vertical trajectory for a true freshman defensive back in a Nick Saban defense. There were times early in the year in which we posited he might be of similar makeup to Minkah Fitzpatrick, but there have been some rough spots along the way. Not today, though. Moore intercepted one Bo Nix pass and caused the other by blowing up a wide receiver screen. Brian Branch, who has played more and more at dime as the season has gone along, was the beneficiary of Moore’s disruption on the second interception, nearly taking it back for a defensive touchdown.

The entire secondary had a strong day; Josh Jobe led the team in tackles with 10, and aside from a long pass over Patrick Surtain that Seth Williams dropped, there weren’t any big busts and only a handful of small ones. This was the secondary’s best game of the season, given the complexity of assignments a secondary has to play against Malzahn’s scheme. Alabama and Auburn fans alike will be seeing a lot of Moore and Branch in the future, although only one fan base really relishes the fact.

3. DeVonta Smith has to be in the conversation for best Alabama receiver ever. For a school to have Don Hutson, Ozzie Newsome and Julio Jones among its alumni – not to mention more recent NFL success stories like Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III – the fact DeVonta Smith has come along and perhaps shuffled the entire deck is truly something to behold. Smith caught 7 passes for 171 yards (which was 6 catches for 174 yards before Javon Baker blew a blocking assignment on a wide receiver screen) and 2 touchdowns, including the first score of the game that set the tone for what was to come.

Smith has an incredible combination of speed, hands and route-running ability, the last trait being unmatched by any other receiver in school history. The buzzword of a modern receiver is “catch radius,” meaning the area around a receiver’s body inside which he can reel in passes. But Smith adds “catch area,” a space of more nebulous dimensions that he makes large, through his ability to come back to balls and otherwise edit route assignments. The injury to Jaylen Waddle has also allowed Smith to showcase his punt return skills, which appear to be significant. He’s the player Alabama can least afford to lose right now, including perhaps even QB Mac Jones.

4. Jones’ pocket footwork and offensive understanding were both key to this game, along with OL development. Jones outrushed Bo Nix (6 yards to minus-1 yard), but that’s not the point. The point is the pocket footwork. Whereas Nix’s best option to try to Johnny Manziel himself into open space, Jones is all about efficiency of movement. His slide up in the pocket on the touchdown pass to Jahleel Billingsley was a thing of beauty, but his purposeful lack of movement on the second touchdown to Smith – where he stood his ground long enough for Smith’s route to open up, eschewing an easier throw into the flat to Javon Baker – was just as important, as it got the game back to a three-score lead. Jones’ understanding of the offense has made Sarkisian’s gameplans look even better, and his level of execution makes Alabama a threat to score on every possession. The offensive line also should get kudos for steady improvement throughout the year, especially how players like Deonte Brown and Emil Ekiyor Jr. have gotten better since wobbly performances in the opener against Missouri.

5. The level of physicality in this game was off the charts, and Pete Golding and the defensive staff deserve praise for it. If eventual winners are determined by the hardness of the hits in the early going, Alabama had this game won before it really even started. Alabama was aggressive from start to finish, and especially on defense, brought contact with with extreme confidence. The development of the defense has been something special to watch in 2020, and now that the season is reaching its conclusion, it might be fair to categorize the earlier struggles in context: Alabama’s 2020 defense had one very bad game (Ole Miss) sandwiched between a lot of good outings. The defense is now peaking, and doing so at the most critical of times. If Golding is going to get criticism when things are going poorly, it is dishonest not to praise him when things are going well.

Alabama will have several stiff tests down the road, with all three of the other teams expected to reach college football’s final four possessing good-or-better offenses. But in such matchups, it’s not just on Alabama’s defense to stop those offenses – it is also incumbent upon opposing offenses to figure out Alabama’s defense, and that might not be so easy anymore.

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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