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Auburn preview: Tigers eyeing spoiler role after NMSU loss sends them back to the drawing board

It’s hard to describe just how catastrophic last week’s loss to New Mexico State – by a final score of 31-10, at that – was for Hugh Freeze’s inaugural season, but to hear some Auburn supporters tell it, the loss means nothing in the grand scheme of things for this week, as Alabama comes to town.

Maybe, maybe not. Each game is indeed its own wrapped package, and what’s inside this week doesn’t have any direct ties to what happened the week before, or what will happen in the weeks to come. But the actual things on the field that led to Auburn’s loss – namely, not being able to get off the field on defense for a change – could very well carry over unless Auburn finds a way to fix what got broken in the first place.

Overall, Auburn is playing for a better flavor of third-tier bowl game at this point, and the real prize is to deny Alabama a shot at the College Football Playoff while also making some kind of statement in Hugh Freeze’s favor as he prepares to head down the final recruiting stretch against Alabama’s Nick Saban. Alabama will be the heavy favorite, but we’ve seen that before in Alabama-Auburn games played in Jordan-Hare Stadium. This one is far more likely to end up inside the betting line than in excess of it.

OFFENSE

It’s hard to get a handle on what Auburn is doing, but that’s because Auburn can’t do what it really wants to do. The talent just isn’t there at receiver to run Freeze’s preferred offense, which requires receivers who are able to win isolation plays and force the defense to commit extra help. Without that element, Auburn has become a running team, ranking 21st nationally in that stat – mostly because both its top quarterbacks can run well – and 119th in passing for a total offense ranking of 87th. There is plenty of RPO action and tempo, but there have been plenty of misfires, too. Alabama, meanwhile, is climbing the rankings over the past month, up to 49th in total offense, 43rd in rushing offense and 62nd in passing offense via its multiple, pro-style attack.

QUARTERBACKS
Payton Thorne has been the starter, then not, then back again, and up until the New Mexico State game, it looked like Thorne was settling in as the player Auburn had hoped it would get when it lured Thorne down from his former gig at Michigan State. Thorne has played in all 11 games and has started 10 of them, but is just 144-or-222 (64.9%) for 1,580 yards, 14 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. It’s the last stat this most concerning. As a runner, Thorne is second-highest on the team, carrying 110 times for 463 yards (4.2 avg.) and 3 touchdowns, which includes yardage lost to sacks. When he’s on, he’s competent as an SEC starter and can create some pressure points on a defense. But when he’s not, Auburn tends to fall apart at the seams.

What’s most concerning for this game is that Thorne is listed as “questionable” with a foot injury at the moment. If he can’t go, one would assume that Robbie Ashford (14-of-27, 51.9%, 145 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT; 44 carries fo 220 yards, 5.0 avg., and 5 TD) would be the replacement, but Holden Geriner (4-of-9, 44.4%, 67 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT) has been listed as the primary backup the last couple of weeks. There is some question as to whether Ashford is still fully engaged with the team or not, and with Thorne’s health in question, it might very well get down to Geriner in this game.

Alabama will start Jalen Milroe, who is now being heralded by media as both a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate and the reason Alabama is winning, rather than the reason it isn’t. It’s been quite the turnaround for Milroe, as well as backup Ty Simpson, who looked sharp in a couple of quarters of work against Chattanooga last week. If Thorne is fully on, healthy and locked in, he can match Milroe’s effectiveness, but all elements have to be in place. Otherwise, it’s a pretty big gap here. Advantage: Alabama

RUNNING BACKS
It’s the strength of the Auburn offense, due in large part to how well both Payton Thorne and Robbie Ashford run the ball from the quarterback position. But just as important, or even more so, is the performance of Jarquez Hunter at tailback. Despite not having much to keep the heat off him, Hunter has carried the ball 132 times for 772 yards (5.8 avg.) and 7 touchdowns. He also has 16 receptions out of the backfield, making him the team’s sixth-leading receiver. Hunter has excellent speed to go along with decent power and can run the ball effectively both inside and outside. His primary backup, USF transfer Brian Battie, is mostly a threat on speed plays given his small size. Damari Alston is built more like Hunter and rounds out the top group of rushers. Both backups are frequently used as receivers. Alabama will use Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams in a rotational system, and Jamarion Miller has been playing more and more in recent weeks and gives Bama a nice changeup. Like a lot of areas on Alabama’s team, the running back group has played better in recent weeks, especially Williams, who has flashed dynamic ability at times rather than being just serviceable. Alabama’s depth chart is probably better-built for the task than Auburn’s, mostly because Battie may be a bit overexposed in the offensive scheme. But Hunter has the best numbers and the most explosive potential of anyone on either roster. A tough call to make. Advantage: Auburn

WIDE RECEIVERS
This is probably the unit most holding Freeze back with what he wants to do. The top receiver is a FIU transfer, tight end Rivaldo Fairweather, who has 33 catches for 349 yards (10.6 avg.) and 6 scores. It goes without saying that Alabama will have to account for him in the red zone and any situation in which Auburn needs to convert 3rd-and-medium. But he doesn’t have a lot of help in this attack.

Slot receiver Jay Fair is the only other receiver on the team with more than 16 catches on the year; Fair is averaging just 10.0 yards per catch on 30 receptions and has just 2 touchdowns. Shane Hooks, Ja’Varrius Johnson and Caleb Burton III split the other two spots. Johnson has shown some nice deep-field capability, but there’s nothing here Alabama hasn’t seen before. Malcolm Johnson Jr. and Camden Brown provide depth; Auburn has gotten only 4 total catches from a couple of players (Jyaire Shorter, LSU transfer Koy Moore) who were expected to do bigger things. Brandon Frazier is a nice complement to Fairweather at tight end.

Alabama will start Jermaine Burton and Isaiah Bond as its main receivers, and both have developed into weapons. The slot-of-the-week will be either Kendrick Law, Kobe Prentice or Malik Benson, with the other two becoming the top backups along with Jalen Hale. Prentice was slowed last week with a hamstring injury, and Ja’Corey Brooks, who came out of nowhere to catch the game-winning pass in this game two years ago, will play if his arm and shoulder allow it. The tight end group, especially C.J. Dippre and Amari Niblack, is tough to deal with. Danny Lewis Jr. and Robbie Ouzts, who had a big game in last year’s contest, provide depth. Advantage: Alabama

OFFENSIVE LINE
This has been a bit of a revolving door for Auburn, with three players starting all 11 games, RG Kameron Stutts, a fifth-year senior, LG Gunner Britton, a Western Kentucky transfer, and JUCO transfer RT Izavion Miller. At center, East Carolina transfer Avery Jones yielded to true freshman Conner Lew four games ago. The most likely starter at left tackle will be Tulsa transfer Dillon Wade, although another Tulsa transfer, Jaden Muskrat, has started there as well. The whole thing has been a patchwork of mid-card transfers held together by Stutts, reserve Tate Johnson and packing tape. Auburn ranks 95th in tackles for loss allowed and 88th in sacks allowed.

Alabama has finally found the right formula, which is Seth McLaughlin at center, Tyler Booker and Jaeden Roberts at the guards and Kadyn Proctor and J.C. Latham at the tackles. Darrian Dalcourt will be the top interior backup with Elijah Pritchett the backup at tackle. Alabama ranks 80th in tackles for loss allowed and 118th in sacks allowed, but the key here is the performance over the last three weeks, where Alabama’s metrics are among the best in the nation. Alabama is peaking at the right time here. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSE

Both teams operate from a 3-4 over/under scheme, and whereas Auburn’s offense has underachieved in Hugh Freeze’s first year, the defense has been more effective than expected. Auburn also comes into this game a bit healthier than Alabama. Auburn ranks 45th in total defense and 38th in scoring defense, with the strength being the back end, where the Tigers are 28th in raw pass defense and 48th in pass efficiency defense. Rushing defense has suffered, especially lately, where Auburn now ranks 78th. Alabama is 17th in total defense, 14th in scoring defense, 27th against the run, 23rd in raw pass defense and 16th in pass efficiency defense.

DEFENSIVE LINE
Auburn is solid up front, ranking 38th in sacks and 45th in tackles for loss. Kansas transfer Marcus Harris has been the big performer up front, recording 38 tackles, good for third on the team and impressive for any tackle in a 3-4. He also leads the team in tackles for loss (9.5) and sacks (6). Purdue transfer Lawrence Johnson is his backup. The nosetackle spot will be a combination of Kentucky transfer Justin Rogers and Oregon transfer Jayson Jones. Keldric Faulk and Zykeivous Walker will handle defensive end. None of the other line players besides Harris have had much production in regard to pressuring or sacking quarterbacks.

Alabama will start Tim Keenan in the middle flanked by a combination of Justin Eboigbe, Tim Smith, Jaheim Oatis, Jah-Marien Latham and James Smith at tackle/end. Damon Payne Jr. provides depth at nose. Alabama ranks 12th in sacks and 34th in tackles for loss, and while most of that is driven by the linebacker play, the defensive line has improved a good bit over the course of the season. Both teams have quality units, but we like the Tide a bit more at this point in the season. Advantage: Alabama

LINEBACKERS
The parade of transfers continues for Auburn, as Appalachian State transfer Jalen McLeod and Vanderbilt transfer Elijah McAllister will split the spot. Auburn will use McLeod in situations in which his smaller size (6’1”, 230) isn’t a hindrance, while McAllister is bigger than some teams’ defensive tackles. Inside, North Carolina transfer Eugene Asante has been one of the more productive refugees from the portal, leading the team in tackles by a wide margin with 79 (reserve MLB Larry Nixon Jr. is second on the team with 44), to go along with 8.5 tackles for loss, 5 sacks and 5 QB hurries. Nixon, along with Austin Keys and Cam Riley, will play next to Asante and also provide depth. Riley in particular has a nose for getting behind the line of scrimmage.

Alabama will start the tandem of Chris Braswell and Dallas Turner at outside linebacker, while Deontae Lawson returns to start inside alongside either Trezmen Marshall or Jihaad Campbell. Quandarrius Robinson will provide depth outside while Kendrick Blackshire bolsters the main trio inside. Alabama would probably still hold the edge even with Lawson out, and he probably won’t be 100 percent for this game anyway, but he’ll be close enough. This group is probably Bama’s biggest advantage on defense. Advantage: Alabama

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Alabama will get S Jaylen Key back this week, which will allow the Tide to reset the secondary to its usual layout of Ga’Quincy McKinstry and Terrion Arnold at the corners, Key and Caleb Downs at the safeties, and Malachi Moore at Star. Trey Amos will be the third corner and allow Alabama to slide Arnold inside when it wants to, while Kristian Story will be the extra safety when needed. Auburn ranks just above Alabama in passes intercepted (30th vs. 42nd, nationally). Oregon transfer D.J. James will start at one of the cornerback spots, opposite long-time Auburn player Nehemiah Pritchett on the other side. Jaylin Simpson and Zion Puckett will start at the high safeties with Keionte Scott at Star. James (8 PBUs) and Simpson (4 INTs) are the players Alabama will need to watch in the back end. Auburn is solid but some of the Tigers’ numbers are due to statistical drift from teams being able to run the ball more effectively and thus not test the secondary as much. Advantage: Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS
We’re not sure what the personnel will look like just yet for Alabama, as Caleb Downs took over mid-game for Ga’Quincy McKinstry last week at punt returner, and Roydell Williams is still filling in for an injured Ja’Corey Brooks on the kickoff return team. We know the kickers, PK Will Reichard and P James Burnip, will be solid. Reichard is just a few kicks away from taking over the all-time scoring record in major college football. Auburn’s special teams have been a consistent high point this year.

Kicker Alex McPherson is probably the conference’s heir apparent to Reichard atop the list of kickers, while Oscar Chapman, like Burnip, is an Australian transplant who absolutely booms it. The Tigers are solid in the return game and cover punts reasonably well, but struggle on kickoff return coverage. This really comes down to what Alabama is doing at punt returner, because if McKinstry gets another chance from Saban – which would not be surprising – then the likelihood of shenanigans on punt returns goes pretty high. We’re taking the more predictable choice. Advantage: Auburn

OVERALL

Alabama leads in six categories, Auburn in two. The running back group is probably close to a tossup, as is perhaps defensive line. In the OL-DL cross-matchups, Alabama’s defensive line controls the matchup against Auburn’s offensive line, while Auburn’s DL is closer to a push against Alabama’s OL, but maintains a slim edge in the end.

Hanging over everything are the Jordan-Hare ghosts, which have seemed to affect Alabama more than most other teams. Something like Bama fielding a punt and having everything go awry would be the prototypical Jordan-Hare experience.

Still, Auburn is not nearly the team Alabama is. Too many transfers were needed to get Auburn to respectability this year after prior years’ recruiting from the Bryan Harsin staff proved to be insufficient. This has led to sort of a football-by-hired-bandit mentality on Auburn’s side, and the Tigers – as they showed last week – have had an issue navigating tough situations when they pop up. In addition to that, too many outside transfers waters down Auburn’s typical edge of having more in-state talent that is born into the UA-AU rivalry.

Alabama is on a run, and is playing at a high level. It must win here to keep its national championship hopes alive. We believe Alabama will do exactly that.

Alabama 27
Auburn 13

Follow Jess Nicholas on X at @TideFansJessN

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