Alabama ended up winning comfortably, 49-27. It did so on the back of a solid offensive gameplan, good offensive execution overall, and a defense that … well, at least the defense was capable of reinforcing the reality that this Auburn team has been, and still is too one-dimensional to beat the SEC’s top-half teams.
If you’re going to have just one dimension in the SEC, though, the ability to run the ball at will is a nice dimension to have. Auburn ran for 348 yards, the most against a Nick Saban Alabama team in almost 15 years. Two runners eclipsed the 100-yard mark – and neither was Tank Bigsby, although Bigsby managed to chip in another 63 yards on 15 carries. Jarquez Hunter was the leading ground-gainer, running 11 times for 134 yards; Alabama never stopped him. But the guy that did the most damage was QB Robbie Ashford, who scored twice and racked up 121 net yards on 17 carries, which included some yardage lost to sacks.
Unfortunately for Ashford, his gross rushing total was about double his passing total: 11-for-23, 77 yards, 1 TD.
Giving Ashford his due credit, the touchdown pass was a dart thrown to Ja’Varrius Johnson, perfectly placed and delivered with authority. But far too often, Ashford was forced into difficult throws while scrambling, or simply didn’t have the arm talent to deliver the ball to where it was needed. His mere presence under center was confirmation that among all the other sins of the Bryan Harsin era – as well as the last couple of years of the Gus Malzahn era – the failure to recruit to a level matching the Alabamas, LSUs and Georgias of the world is the sin that gets top billing.
Into this mess was thrown Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, who was tasked with the impossible – getting Auburn home with a better-than-.500 record over the final four games, all while Auburn was conducting a pseudo-public search for a coach to ultimately take his job.
Williams handled himself, and the job, about as well as could be expected. As a leader, he probably did more in a month than the inept Harsin did in almost two years on the job. Auburn gave everything it had, emotionally, against Alabama on Saturday. It just wasn’t enough, because it was never going to be enough given the gulf that exists between the talent level of the two teams.
After watching Auburn struggle to put two field goals on the board late in the game – a pair of drives that took more than 11 minutes of game clock to complete – while Alabama answered with touchdowns, all that was left for Williams to do in the end was show considerable class in the season’s final press conference, and return home to await his beloved alma mater’s decision as to who will lead the program, and where his place will be in it, if he continues to be in it at all.
Alabama has a much different fate awaiting it, of course. There is still the most outside of chances to make the College Football Playoff. But then there’s the larger issue, that of the direction of the program. In a year in which Alabama lost two games by four total points on two last-snap plays, it just feels like changes need to be made. A frustrated Nick Saban three times in his postgame press conference chastised complainers and “naysayers,” but it’s very likely that Alabama starts making changes fairly soon, maybe before Christmas. If Saban chooses to stand pat, it will be seen as more of a gamble than change would be, and another season of frustrating lapses in defensive discipline and/or offensive stagnation might end up sending the kind of uncomfortable signal no Alabama fan wants to see.
But those are long-term discussion best suited to be discussed over family Christmas dinner gatherings, between frames at bowling league or at the gym. The immediate result of Saturday’s game was that Alabama fans get another 365 days of bragging rights. And Auburn fans get to grit their teeth at “Dixieland Delight” once more.
Here’s the Five-Point Breakdown for Alabama-Auburn:
1. Bill O’Brien called maybe his best game at Alabama. The offensive gameplan was cohesive, focused and aggressive. Alabama committed to running the ball in any down and distance, and was too unpredictable for Auburn’s defense to ever get comfortable. Aside from two drives in the second quarter, Alabama mostly stayed away from the sandlot configurations its offense has taken on in recent weeks. The offensive line gave Bryce Young phenomenal protection all game, and Young judiciously worked in a couple of scrambles after several weeks of mostly protecting his injured shoulder. If this was the last time O’Brien will call the signals for Alabama’s offense, he picked a good way to go out.
2. Bama got excellent production from its offensive line. Its defensive line, not so much. Consistency is the name of the game for lines of scrimmage, and Alabama’s OL has done a much better job at finding consistency in 2022 than has its defensive line. Bryce Young was not sacked in this game, and Auburn only stopped Alabama for losses in the running game three times. But the defensive line, which carried the day at Ole Miss two weeks ago, was largely absent from a game that saw the Crimson Tide give up a staggering amount of yards on the ground to Auburn runners.
Jaheim Oatis opened the game strongly, and was probably Bama’s most consistent lineman throughout, and finished the day with three tackles. He was the only down lineman with multiple stops. D.J. Dale, Jah-Marien Latham and Jamil Burroughs had moments of effectiveness, but were also ridden out of the play several times as Auburn operated essentially from a single wing offense most of the day. Byron Young, the hero of the Ole Miss win, had a single tackle and a QB hurry, but was mostly not a factor. Alabama needs to fix DL production issues going into the 2023 season, assuming something patchwork cannot also be done in the present.
3. Bama finally got a glimpse of consistency from its WRs and TEs; can it continue? The one downside to getting a good performance from an unexpected source is that it highlights what has been missing the entire season. Alabama’s wide receivers and tight ends put together a solid performance Saturday against an Auburn secondary that isn’t bad, but isn’t what we’re accustomed to seeing from Auburn, either.
There was one critical drop from Traeshon Holden, and a couple of difficult fingertip catches that weren’t made, but Alabama finally saw someone other than Holden effectively working back to the QB when the play broke down – in today’s case, Jermaine Burton and Kendrick Law. Holden also had a touchdown catch on a tunnel screen that sort of played against the notion that he lacks a top-end gear. Probably the most talked-about performance, though, was that of reserve TE Robbie Ouzts, who had two nice catches and runs, and a third one that was wiped out by a penalty. Alabama has struggled to develop options at tight end all year, and with both Cameron Latu and Kendall Randolph leaving the program after this year, it is critical that Ouzts or someone else step up.
4. RB play was solid, and also a commentary on injuries. If you think even minor injuries don’t have an effect on players, consider the case of Auburn OLB Derick Hall, who went down with a leg injury early in the game, came back in, and record a whopping 2 tackles. Hall has been one of the few bright spots of the Tiger defense, and was the one player Auburn had that it thought could affect Bryce Young. Instead, Hall spent a good part of his day protecting against further injury when the play went away from him, rather than pursuing it. For Bama, getting Jahmyr Gibbs back – as well as losing Jase McClellan early to a knee injury, but thankfully seeing him return soon afterward – played a big part in what Alabama did on the ground. McClellan also ran with downhill purpose all day, but especially before the injury. There was very little lateral dancing, and a whole lot of forcing Auburn backwards. Having its most dynamic running back approaching full health showed just how important the rushing element is to this offense.
5. Bryce Young’s final game at Bryant-Denny Stadium was a magnum opus in playmaking. Young completed 20 of 30 passes for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he rushed for another 48 yards and a touchdown on 5 carries. He just missed on a couple of long throws, including one to Jermaine Burton that saw Burton almost make an NFL-level one-handed catch to reel in. Saban specifically mentioned Young as finally being healthy during his postgame press conference, noting that Young at full health made Alabama a different team. Contrast Young’s work to that of Auburn’s Robbie Ashford, whose lack of downfield accuracy or vision made Auburn easy to defend (even if Alabama didn’t always follow through on the task). Alabama will move on from Young, because that’s what happens in college football, but whoever leads Alabama next year is unlikely to have the kind of feel for playmaking that Young does. If this was the end for Young at Bryant-Denny – and it almost certainly was – then Alabama fans got to see two years of mastery.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN