Auburn preview: AU’s chances for an upset may come down to the myth (or reality) of Jordan-Hare voodoo

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DEFENSE

Auburn didn’t just make wholesale changes with the offensive system, it also moved from a hybrid 4-2-5 with elements of a 3-4 over/under, to more of a set 4-3 look with nickel and dime subsets. Understandably, the have struggled at times, coming in with a total defense of 56th.

The are 37th against the run, 77th against the pass and rank 95th in pass efficiency defense. Despite some Alabama fans’ assumptions that the Bama defense is a liability, Alabama ranks 8th in the nation in total defense, 5th against the run, 54th against the pass and 67th in efficiency defense. Alabama is 19th in scoring defense versus 95th for Auburn.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Auburn is 45th in sacks and 13th in tackles for loss, but the quality of the line varies greatly left to right. Auburn’s defensive end tandem – Colby Wooden and Derick Hall, backed up by T.D. Moultry and Eku Leota – are as effective as any. Hall in particular can be a game-changer, and Leota is explosive. Alabama’s offensive tackles will get a workout.

Unfortunately for Auburn, as strong as the ends have been, the middle of the defense is vulnerable. Marcus Harris and Tony Fair are far below the quality level most Auburn fans have come to expect, while J.J. Pegues went from a quarterback/tight end combo player to being the primary backup at nose. Marquis Burks is a slightly better option off the bench, but this is a team badly in need of scoring some wins in the transfer portal over the next offseason.

Alabama will start Phidarian Mathis in the middle, with LaBryan Ray, Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe rotating at tackle/end. Tim Smith and Stephon Wynn Jr. will provide depth at nose. The question is whether will be available after sustaining an injury in pregame warmups last week. His absence clearly affected Alabama’s run defense against Arkansas. Even with Dale out, Alabama has a big edge up the middle with Mathis compared to anyone Auburn has.

As for the outside players, Alabama gets its edge support from the linebacker level, so the comparison doesn’t quite line up. This one is closer than you’d think but Bama takes a slim edge because of Mathis. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe are both likely going to play at the next level, perhaps as soon as next year. Pappoe’s season, though, has been derailed a couple of times by injury, and it’s not certain he’ll start or even play in this game. McClain has more than picked up the slack, recording 88 tackles so far and being active in the backfield.

If Pappoe can’t go, Chandler Wooten will again get the start. He’s an active tackler, but lacks Pappoe’s presence. Wesley Steiner would back up both positions. If Pappoe does start in the middle, Wooten will slide out to the strongside linebacker spot; otherwise, Cam Riley will play there, but most likely Auburn would fill the spot with a defensive back.

Alabama’s inside linebackers – Christian Harris and Henry To’o To’o, backed up by Jaylen Moody – have developed into a solid unit over the course of the year, with To’o To’o coming off yet another strong game against Arkansas. But it’s the outside backers – Will Anderson Jr., Dallas Turner and Drew Sanders – who are the real stars of the show. Anderson is legitimately in the Heisman discussion, and the true freshman Turner has been able to keep the starting job he was handed when Sanders originally got hurt. Chris Braswell offers further depth outside.

Because of Auburn’s issues at middle linebacker, Alabama – which probably held the edge anyway – sees its advantage expand. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Auburn has struggled in coverage in 2021, but Alabama may have yet another lineup change this week, and this one would classify as shocking. Ga’Quincy McKinstry – a.k.a., the true freshman “Kool-Aid” – took over for against Arkansas in what was purely a performance pull. One of those two will start at corner opposite Jalyn Armour-Davis, who has quietly put together a solid campaign. Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams and will play the high safety spots, while Malachi Moore and Brian Branch play Star and dime.

For Auburn, CB Roger McCreary has 10 PBUs, nearly a third of Auburn’s entire team total, and he’s the leader of the secondary. The other corner slot, however, has had issues, with neither Nehemiah Pritchett nor Jaylin Simpson really able to nail it down. Zion Puckett and Smoke Monday are set to start at safety, with Monday being the one to watch there. Puckett is suspect. Bydarrius Knighten and Donovan Kaufman provide depth and also will play the nickel and dime spots, while Ro Torrence will back up both corner spots.

This isn’t a vintage year for either team, but just like stats gave the offensive line category to Auburn, we can’t ignore Alabama’s superior performance in the secondary. Alabama also holds an overall edge in athleticism here. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
This would have been a walkaway win for Auburn had PK not been lost for the year with a knee injury. Suddenly, everything is up in the air, no pun intended. Ben Patton took over for Carlson at kicker, but he missed a short field goal attempt against South Carolina and freshman Evan McGuire may get a look now.

Auburn ranks 9th in net punting, a huge edge over Alabama there, with Chapman handling things. Auburn has been good on kickoff returns but mediocre at best on punt returns, and with Alabama getting touchbacks on almost every kickoff these days, Auburn might not get the chance to press an advantage there. Auburn does cover both kicks and punts very well.

For Alabama, is a weapon as both a placekicker and a kickoff man, but punter James Burnip seems to have an effective range of about 40 yards, tops. At least he’s been consistent at it.

Alabama covers kicks and especially punts well, but the return game is a question now that JoJo Earle has been lost for likely the balance of the calendar year. Slade Bolden is reliable, but not necessarily dynamic. A closer category than it was, but Auburn does more things better. Advantage: Auburn

OVERALL

Alabama leads in five categories, Auburn in three, and there are a couple of close calls on the board. The OL-DL cross-matchups are both very close, with both teams’ defensive lines probably holding the edge in their respective battles. However, Auburn has the better chance to have both battles pointing its way thanks to the offensive line’s performance in 2021.

That would make for an uncomfortable call for the if the do indeed control both sides of the line of scrimmage. The saving grace for Alabama is that Auburn lacks the speed or raw talent at defensive back to control Alabama’s receivers, to say nothing of the ultra-wide advantage Alabama has at the quarterback position.

We haven’t really had a comparison go this way yet in 2021. Alabama hasn’t had a similar scenario on its hands by which to draw any comparisons. And that’s before you take into account factors like venue and the recent history of this rivalry.

But there’s also the question of whether Auburn’s OL matches up well with Alabama’s total defensive front, which is a different way of looking at that particular battle. Alabama more frequently uses its 2-4-5 sub front at times than it does a front with three bigs, and when you change out Byron Young and Justin Eboigbe for Will Anderson and Dallas Turner, you get a much different set of that Auburn’s offensive tackles must answer.

If Alabama can at least contain without having to overcommit size on the defensive line, it’s going to be a long day for Auburn. Conversely, if Auburn is able to run the ball on Alabama and force Alabama to be more conservative with its looks up front, this could turn into another track meet, and Jordan-Hare is the wrong venue for that.

In end, the number of ways Alabama can win this game far exceed the number of ways the Crimson can lose it. This game won’t be a pushover, but Alabama should still wind up in Atlanta with just one loss on the year.

Alabama 30
Auburn 20

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