While Gus Malzahn was still Auburn’s head coach, one of the truisms of the Auburn-Alabama game was that in years in which Auburn won 9 games or more, Alabama would struggle to beat the Tigers. Anything short of that, and you could pretty much mark up an Alabama victory.
The Tigers come into this game at 6-5, but they are also hosting the game, and Jordan-Hare Stadium has been anything but hospitable to Alabama over the years. It is one of Nick Saban’s rare pressure points, a nagging negative in an otherwise illustrious time at the helm of the Bama program.
A few things are different, of course, in 2021. Auburn no longer employs Malzahn, for one thing. Leading the Tigers is now Bryan Harsin, who came to Auburn from Boise State, where he was thought of as a solid coach, but whose dour demeanor and early struggles on the recruiting trail have made a lot of Tiger fans very, very nervous. Auburn’s struggles in the second half of several games have also raised the temperature, as Tiger fans try to ascertain exactly how good Harsin is (or isn’t) at in-game adjustments.
On top of all this, Auburn will be going through its second straight game without starting QB Bo Nix. Nix’s ultimate ceiling as a player has yet to be determined, but he was in the middle of a fairly solid 2021 season when he injured his ankle. Nix had cut down on his interceptions and wild throws, but whether he can succeed in Harsin’s pro-style attack rather than be allowed to freestyle to his heart’s content, is a question for another season.
Alabama has already won the SEC West. This game may determine whether Alabama gets a shot at a bigger prize, the College Football Playoff.
Harsin has ditched most of Malzahn’s frenetic, but yet elementary HUNH (hurry-up, no huddle) attack, preferring more of a traditional pro-style offense. Transition years always seem to lead to issues here and there; Auburn has simply been on the upper end of mediocre. They rank 46th in total offense, 52nd in rushing offense and 51st in passing offense, along with 60th in scoring. Even with Nix’s improvements, Auburn is 93rd in passing efficiency, a number that is likely to go lower with backup T.J. Finley at the controls. Alabama counters with an explosive offense that ranks 6th overall, 8th in passing and 71st in rushing. Alabama has the No. 2 scoring offense in the country and is also 2nd in passing efficiency.
With Nix not part of this discussion, the only question is whether T.J. Finley has a Zach Calzada/Stephen Garcia-type game in him. Finley is huge (6’7”, 246) but not particularly a big running threat. His size does, however, make him a difficult tackle, and Alabama’s smaller inside linebackers won’t be able to get away with glancing blows if they intend to bring him down.
Finley actually has averaged more touchdowns per attempt than did Nix, and has yet to throw an interception, but his accuracy has been a problem dating back to 2020, when he won the starting job at LSU only to get later benched in favor of Max Johnson. He’s completing only 52.3 percent of his passes at Auburn, and has only 13 rushing yards on 11 attempts on the season. His backup will be either Bowling Green transfer Grant Loy or freshman Dematrius Davis, who has yet to play in a game.
Alabama counters with Bryce Young, who is one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy. He’s completing 71.7 percent of his passes and has racked up 3,584 yards and 38 touchdowns against only 3 interceptions. Paul Tyson and Jalen Milroe back him up. Barring some kind of otherworldly ascension into a new form, Finley can’t compete with that. Advantage: Alabama
Brian Robinson Jr. has had consecutive strong games for Alabama after being shut down by LSU. He needs 55 yards to hit the 1,000-yard mark on the season, and his value as a receiver and a blocker makes him tremendously valuable. The issue here is he’s going up against a potential future Heisman candidate in Tank Bigsby; the secondary issue to discuss is Auburn’s far superior depth.
Bigsby actually has 5 fewer yards than Robinson, and about half the output in the passing game, but Auburn rotates backs more than Alabama does and anyone who has seen Bigsby run knows the effect he can have on the game. The fact he has essentially matched Robinson’s output without having nearly the same quality passing game to help take the heat off, is remarkable in and of itself.
Jarquez Hunter has developed into a fine backup for the Tigers, while Shaun Shivers offers a changeup as both an outside runner and receiver out of the backfield.
Alabama will back up Robinson with Trey Sanders and Christian Leary. Both had nice (and significant) plays against Arkansas, but it’s pretty much the Robinson show unless something happens to his health. Bigsby’s ability to dictate games would probably be enough by itself, but add the Alabama injury situation at running back into the mix and it’s a pretty clear edge for the Tigers. Advantage: Auburn
Auburn doesn’t have any real bellcows in the depth chart, but the receivers have improved quite a bit over the course of the season, and they are capable of making plays. Shedrick Jackson always seems to have something to say in close games, even though he has scored just 1 touchdown. Demetris Robinson has the most homerun ability, and his 4 scores leads the unit. Kobe Hudson and Ja’Varrius Johnson will split the third spot; they’ve combined for 51 catches for 737 yards so far.
Auburn likes to use the tight end a lot, much to Alabama’s chagrin. John Samuel Shenker, Tyler Fromm and Luke Deal have combined for 44 catches, and Shenker in particular has been thorny for Alabama in the past.
Having said all this, Alabama’s wide receivers have also solidified as the season has gone along, particularly Jameson Williams and John Metchie III. Williams’ 13 touchdowns are just one fewer than the entire Auburn team. Together with Metchie, they’re over the 2,000-yard mark in receiving. Slade Bolden has made several clutch catches in the slot. Neither team has phenomenal depth at receiver. Auburn has just two other receivers, Malcolm Johnson Jr. and Ze’Vian Capers, with notable catch numbers – and Hudson may not even play in this game.
Alabama, too, is seeking depth, as Ja’Corey Brooks appears to have moved ahead of Traeshon Holden for the fourth receiver spot. Javon Baker and Agiye Hall are also available. Tight ends Cameron Latu and Jahleel Billingsley have had ups and downs, but if Billingsley shows up mentally for this game, he can do some damage.
Auburn doesn’t have Bama’s stats here, but due to in-season improvement, it’s a comfortable edge for Alabama and not something bigger. Williams’ ability to stretch defenses really makes the difference. Advantage: Alabama
Auburn’s has far exceeded expectations. This was expected to be the worst unit in the SEC, save for maybe Vanderbilt, but the metrics say otherwise. Auburn ranks 20th in sacks allowed and 9th in tackles for loss allowed in the running game, which is a near miracle.
Offensive line coach Will Friend, an Alabama alum, ought to get consideration for some assistant-of-the-year awards for this. Nick Brahms will start at center, with Keiondre Jones and Brandon Council at the guards and Brodarious Hamm and Austin Troxell slated to start at tackle. Troxell, who has been banged up, may have to yield to Kilian Zierer or Brenden Coffey, but for now no changes are expected. Auburn has been able to build good depth at guard in the form of Alec Jackson and Tashawn Manning.
Alabama will start Darrian Dalcourt at center, with Emil Ekiyor Jr. and Javion Cohen at the guard slots and Evan Neal at left tackle. Damieon George Jr. is the likely right tackle, with Chris Owens potentially figuring in there as well. Going back to preseason evaluations, Auburn’s potential weaknesses are either at center, or with Troxell’s lack of flexibility caused by multiple injuries over the years.
However, the Tigers’ statistical advantages over Alabama can’t be brushed off, especially since these two teams have played mostly the same opponents. Bama’s Neal is by far the best lineman on either team, but the Tigers have to get the edge based on performance. Advantage: Auburn
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