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Auburn preview: Bama faces the Auburn that could have been

When the 2022 book is finally closed on Auburn football, it will be a story told in two volumes: the Bryan Harsin chapters, and the emotionally reborn Tiger team helmed by Carnell “Cadillac” Williams.

The wisdom, or lack thereof, of naming an exceptionally popular former player as the interim head coach – and then conducting a very public search for Harsin’s replacement at the same time – will be debated long after this season is over. But what it has done, unequivocally, is refresh Auburn’s enthusiasm for the game, something that Harsin had seemed to completely suck out of the program like a leech.

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As a result, the Auburn team Alabama will play Saturday is more akin to the Auburn team a lot of prognosticators expected to see at the start of 2022. Alabama won’t get the staid, unsure-of-itself Tiger team that Harsin led the first couple of months of the season. The implications to the change are that Auburn should be expected to play with more emotion, more confidence, and probably keep the score of this game closer than the betting line.

OFFENSE

Auburn runs a pro-style offense heavy on spread concepts, and there’s enough innovation present in the general mix of things to believe the would have been more effective this year just by adding better personnel. The Tigers rank a respectable 31st in rushing offense, but the passing offense checks in at just 115th, dropping the total offense ranking to 78th. The playmakers are at running back, and Auburn is hurting elsewhere. Alabama has put forth much better offensive balance (25th rushing, 27th passing, for a total offense ranking of 17th), but has had trouble being imaginative and sometimes in closing the deal when it’s most needed.


QUARTERBACKS

This has been a train wreck all season for Auburn. Harsin originally hitched his wagon to LSU transfer T.J. Finley, but despite being an impressive physical specimen, Finley has now washed out of two programs and probably needs to transfer to a non- school next. He’s hurt at the moment and won’t play in this game. Neither will transfer Zach Calzada, who the undoubtedly took in part due to Calzada leading to an upset of Alabama last year.

What’s left are two freshmen, redshirt Robby Ashford and true freshman Holden Geriner. Geriner has barely played; this will be Ashford’s show so long as he stays healthy. Ashford has impressive scrambling ability – he’s the team’s second-leading rusher with 589 yards on 136 carries (4.3 avg.) and 5 touchdowns despite not playing the entire season – but he’s a one-read passer who too often struggles with knowing when to throw the ball away. Ashford is that rare starting quarterback who has more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6) at this point in the season, and he’s completing less than 50 percent of his pass attempts as well.

Alabama will start Bryce Young in what could very well be his last game at Alabama – Young demurred on the question this week of whether he would skip the bowl game – and there’s little comparison between him and Ashford. A better comparison for Ashford would be current Alabama backup Jalen Milroe – and Milroe would win that comparison straight-up. Advantage: Alabama


A big key to Auburn’s success on the ground has been in developing Jarquez Hunter to go along with Tank Bigsby. Together, they have combined for more than 1,400 yards rushing, 17 touchdowns and both backs are a load to tackle and stop for a loss. They are also key parts of the passing game, combining for 40 receptions. Both players have decent size, but Bigsby especially runs bigger than his frame.

Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs missed the Austin Peay game with an ankle injury, and missed most of the prior Ole Miss game with the same injury. How much of the load he can carry in this one remains to be seen. Jase McClellan stepped in nicely for Gibbs over the past two weeks, and Roydell Williams offers good depth. Trey Sanders announced this week his intentions to enter the transfer portal, but it’s unclear whether that means after this game or immediately. Most transfer portal hopefuls don’t continue to dress out; if Sanders doesn’t, Jamarion Miller will elevate to the fourth-team spot. This one is close but Gibbs’ injury and uncertain status push it to the Tigers. Advantage: Auburn


WIDE RECEIVERS

Both teams have struggled to put together a solid wideout rotation this year. Auburn has no one with more than 25 catches on the year, but that may be a function of the poor quarterback play. Ja’Varrius Johnson leads the team with 473 yards on 25 catches, but has scored only twice – and even that is good enough to tie for the team lead. Koy Moore and Shedrick Jackson will be the other two starters. Moore has had a nice year (19 catches, 297 yards, 15.6 avg., 1 TD) but Jackson has underperformed expectations.

The Tigers’ best receiver might be its tight end, John Samuel Shenker, due to the range of skills he brings to the spot. He can catch the ball or block, and can do the latter either as an inline tight end or as more of an H-back. Only one receiver of note, Camden Brown, has made any noise as a backup.

Alabama will use some rotation made up of Jermaine Burton, Ja’Corey Brooks, Traeshon Holden, Isaiah Bond, JoJo Earle, and Kendrick Law. Each brings a good collection of skills to the table, but consistency has been an issue for this group the entire season. At tight end, Cameron Latu is set to return after spending a week on the injured list, with Robbie Ouzts, Kendall Randolph and Amari Niblack playing various roles as backups.

Auburn’s Johnson can be a problem for some, even though he’s slight of build, and the tight end Shenker can be a matchup problem depending on how Auburn chooses to use him. But the production just hasn’t been there for the Tigers, and Alabama legitimately has two or three times the depth. Advantage: Alabama


OFFENSIVE LINE

Auburn has lost two senior starters this year to season-ending injuries, Austin Troxell and Nick Brahms. Yet, the will start five seniors in this game and have a sixth as the top backup at center. Kilian Zieier and Brendan Coffey will be the tackles, Brandon Council will be the center and Alec Jackson and Kameron Stutts the guards. Senior Jalil Irvin is the top backup at center. Despite the overall age and experience, Auburn’s OL metrics are poor, with the Tigers ranking 90th in sacks allowed and 108th in tackles for loss allowed. The have a problem with quickness level, and just aren’t as athletic as most of their peers.

Alabama will start Seth McLaughlin at center, with Emil Ekiyor Jr., Tyler Booker and Javion Cohen rotating at guard, and J.C. Latham and Tyler Steen at tackle. Steen was hurt against Austin Peay and Amari Kight played most of the game in his place, so it bears watching whether the injury will affect Steen especially in pass blocking. Even if it does, Auburn has lacked both enough talent and also enough development to keep pace with most of its opponents, and this week is no different. Advantage: Alabama


Both team base from a three-man front, with five defensive backs in the base package. Auburn’s front technique favors a 4-2 more, while Alabama leans toward a 3-3 alignment. This is the side of the ball that has unexpectedly cost the Tigers, as only in pass efficiency defense (18th) has Auburn found any success. The rank 78th in total defense, 94th against the run and 49th against the pass. Alabama has been up and down over the course of the year, but is coming off two strong performances in a row. Alabama is 15th in the country in total and has better numbers across the board than do the Tigers.


DEFENSIVE LINE

This has probably been the genesis of most of Auburn’s problems, as the have lacked production here, especially at the tackle slots, Jayson Jones and Marcus Harris. Jones has been barely visible, especially behind the line of scrimmage. has had a good year at end, notching 11 tackles for loss and 6 sacks, but he gets little help. Marquis Burks and Jeffery M’Ba will back up the middle while Marcus Bragg spells Wooden, but there’s a drop-off from the starters to be sure.

Alabama will counter with D.J. Dale and Jaheim Oatis rotating at nosetackle, with Byron Young, Tim Smith, Jamil Burroughs, Jah-Marien Latham and Damon Payne Jr. at the ends. The line has been Alabama’s most questionable spot, too, but is playing at a high level and the last two weeks have seen marked improvement from this group. Advantage: Alabama


LINEBACKERS

Despite what other challenges Auburn might be facing, linebacker seems solid. Both Owen Pappoe and Derick Hall have long pro futures ahead of them, and Cam Riley is a nice complementary piece. Hall’s ability to pressure quarterbacks (7 sacks and 11 total TFLs) is the one pressure point the Auburn has, and Pappoe is a sure tackler who is adept at both run control and in pass defense. Wesley Steiner is the top backup across the entire unit, and productive, ranking fifth on the team in tackles despite not starting. He’s a sure tackler and active, but has zero stats behind the line of scrimmage and isn’t athletic enough to make game-changing plays.

Alabama will counter with Jaylen Moody, Henry To’o To’o and Deontae Lawson rotating at inside linebacker, and Will Anderson Jr., and Dallas Turner rotating at outside linebacker. Auburn can probably match Alabama at inside linebacker, but the presence of Anderson and the depth Alabama has outside allow to claim a narrow edge here. Advantage: Alabama


DEFENSIVE BACKS

Both teams have struggled to collect interceptions, which was especially disappointing for Auburn, as the have made a name for themselves over the years with opportunistic secondaries. Keionte Scott, the nickel safety, is the top tackler among Auburn DBs and is capable of making noise behind the line of scrimmage, but the other safeties – Zion Puckett and Donovan Kaufman – have been disappointing. Auburn also has been average on its best day at cornerback, where Nehemiah Pritchett and D.J. James will start. Jaylin Simpson, the third corner and most-used sixth DB, leads the team in interceptions with 2.

Alabama will start Ga’Quincy McKinstry at one cornerback slot and, if he’s healthy again, Eli Ricks at the other. Terrion Arnold will start in place of Ricks if Ricks has not completely recovered from a concussion he suffered against Ole Miss. At safety, Jordan Battle and DeMarcco Hellams will start at the high safety spots, with Brian Branch and Malachi Moore manning Star and dime. Alabama has improved in the back end by letting Branch be more aggressive, along with the promotion of Ricks. If Ricks is good to go, this one isn’t particularly close. Advantage: Alabama


SPECIAL TEAMS

Alex McPherson will start at kicker for Auburn, replacing Anders Carlson. Oscar Chapman is the punter. Chapman has had a solid season, resulted in Auburn’s highest single statistical ranking of the year (net punting, 9th). Kicking has been a little less dependable, but still better than most. Auburn has had issues covering kicks and punts, and while punt returns haven’t been terrible, the are one of the nation’s worst teams at returning kickoffs.

Alabama will start Will Reichard at placekicker and James Burnip at punter. Reichard has become one of the SEC’s best kickers, and one of the best in the nation overall, while Burnip’s second year as Alabama’s punter has seen him become quite consistent. The return and coverage games strongly favor Alabama. We have jinxed Alabama several times in the past by saying this, but … this category is solidly an Alabama lead. Advantage: Alabama


OVERALL

Alabama leads in seven categories, Auburn in one, and there aren’t many close calls on the board. Linebacker, wide receiver and running back could flip between the two teams depending on the circumstances, but Alabama simply is the more athletic and dynamic team. As for the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama holds a comfortable edge in a comparison of its offensive line versus the Auburn defensive line, and if Alabama’s DL plays the way it has the last two weeks, the Tide holds a solid edge going the other way as well.

The difference in Auburn the last few weeks has been the energy level and the passion of the players. Under Williams, Auburn has played more freely, especially on defense. There is untapped potential here, things that Harsin never could figure out how to bring out of his charges. Credit Williams for knowing this, but Auburn’s most basic problem is it just doesn’t have the horses to match up to Alabama.

There have been times in this rivalry where that didn’t matter, however. But in most cases, this game goes the way of which team has proven to be better over the course of the entire year – especially when the games are in Birmingham or Tuscaloosa, as this one is, and not Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Alabama will certainly get Auburn’s best shot. The players certainly support Williams as coach, and a win here would go a long way toward convincing the Auburn brass that Williams should get the full-time over any outsider. In a weird way, it gives Auburn more to play for than Alabama, even given Alabama’s chances of being included in the College Football Playoff. If Alabama simply goes through the motions here, Auburn could sneak in the upset, especially if Ashford gets hot at the right times.

Alabama 27
Auburn 16

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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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