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A Grudge Match for the Ages!


The only SEC unbeatens of the 'Aughts, the 2004 Tigers, and the 2009 Tide!

The Tide and Tigers tangle at Birmingham's equivalent of a dirt lot, Legion Field!

     War Eagle, everybody! It's time now for a bit of fun, the week before national signing day. Most of the great kids have made up their minds where they are going to play football, and it's now mostly a waiting game till signing day. Today, we'll have fun. What follows is totally speculative, and purely for entertainment. I'm going to break down a fantasy title game between the 2004 Auburn Tiger football team, and the 2009 Alabama Crimson Tide. For old times sake, we'll stage this parking lot brawl at Legion Field, in Birmingham, Alabama!


     Those who read this space regularly know that I preview each of Auburn's upcoming opponents in the spring and summer prior to the season. I'll use pretty much the same format here. I was fairly pleased with my prediction success in 2009. I was pretty accurate not only picking the winner of each game, but the overall closeness of the games as well. I only missed badly on the Auburn/West Virginia game (who'd have predicted that Jarrett Brown was going to gift wrap us six turnovers?) and the Kentucky game. On the other hand, I'd have done better in 2008 with my predictions if I had just flipped a coin! Feel free to opine on, differ with or ridicule my observations in the comments! It's all in good fun...


     The time-travel aspect of this matchup presents problems. The states of the SEC in the two years was very different. In 2009, there were basically two elite teams, and most of the rest of the league was hovering around 7-5 or a little better. With the exception of Vanderbilt, anyone could beat anyone on any given Saturday. In 2004, there were several elite teams (Auburn, LSU, Georgia), and half of the league would finish without a winning overall record. I'm going to have to give the schedule difficulty edge to Alabama. In conference, 2009 Bama faced a threat every week. 2004 Auburn had MSU, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kentucky down by multiple TDs before halftime. In addition, Bama beat a good Virginia Tech team out of conference by ten points. Auburn didn't have a quality non-con opponent till the Sugar Bowl. Auburn only had 3 non conference games to Alabama's 4, due to the changing NCAA schedule rules.


     In terms of blow-out wins, I'm going to stipulate that a "blow out" is a 17-point or better win. Three scores, basically. 2009 Bama had 7 during the regular season, plus one in the SEC title game against Florida. This includes 4 regular season SEC blowouts. The 2004 Tigers had 9 regular season blowouts, and 6 of them were SEC jobs. In the SEC title game, Bama manhandled an unbeaten Florida squad featuring the best player (Tebow) in college football. Auburn at times dominated Tennessee, but kept letting them back in the game. Tennessee had 3rd team quarterback Rick Clausen starting the SEC title game. Bama's BCS Title game was against a good (not great) Texas team, and Texas had to play most of the game with a true freshman QB off the bench. In the 2005 Sugar Bowl, Auburn played a two-loss Virginia Tech team that NO ONE want to tangle with at the end of the season. Bama opened up the big lead, then let Texas come back, before slamming the door emphatically. Auburn had the upper hand for most of the game against Virginia Tech, then fumbled near the red zone with a 16-0 lead late. Tech scored two quick TDs, and nearly came back on Auburn.


     As interesting as the schedule comparisons are, ultimately it tells me little. Auburn had the easier schedule, but it blew out more teams. That's as it should be, if you were comparing two equal teams. The style of the two teams were very different. Alabama tended to engage in a punching duel early, then wear teams down. Auburn tended to jump on teams early, get the big lead, and cruise to victory. There were exceptions on both sides, of course, but that was the general flow. To get to the meat of the comparison, we have to speculate on direct matchups on the field. Below are a few numbers, then we'll get to the battles!



2009 Alabama

2004 Auburn

Rushing Yards per game



Passing Yards per game



Total Offense per game



Average gain per play



Rushing per game allowed



Passing per game allowed



Total Offense allowed



Average gain per play allowed



Scoring per game



Score allowed per game



Turnovers per game



Turnovers forced per game





2009 Bama vs. 2004 Auburn unit matchups, after the jump!

Auburn defensive line vs. Alabama offensive line: Auburn's 2004 unit was a ferocious pass rushing machine totaling 36 sacks and many QB hurries. Against the run, the line was more modest, giving up a little over 100 yards per game. Expected perhaps to be a cause for concern, Alabama's offensive line became a force over the course of the season. The biggest advantage for Auburn in this matchup would be depth. Auburn had as many as 9 linemen who rotated, and could play at an SEC level. This included 5 ends who were all good pass rushers. I suspect that James Carpenter and Drew Davis would have problems with Brett Eddins, Doug Langenfield, Stanley McClover, Quentin Groves, and Marquise Gunn. In the middle, Bama would fair better. Johnson, Vlachos, and Jones would be trying to fight off Auburn's T. J. Jackson, Jay Ratliff, Wayne Dickens, and Josh Thompson. Many of Auburn's opponents played the tackles to a stalemate, but the 2-gap Auburn D did allow a fair amount of slide-over tackles by the tackles. Against this Auburn line, Bama could ill afford to become pass-happy. Slight Advantage: Auburn.


Auburn linebackers vs. Alabama runners: Stopping the Heisman winner Mark Ingram and his sidekick Trent Richardson would be a tall order for any team in any year, but it can be done. Auburn was able to do it in 2009, and I suspect the 2004 trio of Kevin Sears, Travis Williams and Anterrious Williams would be up to the task as well. If there was a flaw with that linebacker corps, it was that they would occasionally give up a big draw play. Against Bama, those lapses could be fatal. When Ingram and Richardson get running downhill, they usually go the distance. I think it's fair to chalk up two long-distance scores to the Bama guys here. I seriously doubt that the Tide runners would be able to sustain long drives on the ground, though. Auburn didn't give up a 100-yard rusher till Gerald Riggs did it in the SEC title game. Advantage: Even.


Auburn corners vs. Alabama receivers: There is little doubt that we'd see Julio Jones and Carlos Rogers locked in a duel. Not only was Rogers a lock-down cover guy, he was extremely physical. Most games, Bama's Jones abuses corners with his run blocks. I think things would be even in that arena with Rogers. On the other side, Montae Pitts was the Achilles heel of the Auburn D, and there would be opportunities deep for Marquis Maze and co. The question would be whether there would be time to get open deep. Pitts had good size and was good at jams and run support. There was no depth at corner for Auburn in 2004. Advantage: Even.


Auburn safeties vs. Alabama quarterback and secondary receivers: Auburn had two very capable run-stopping safeties in Will Herring and Junior Rosegreen. In addition, Rosegreen was a dynamite cover guy as well, as he showed with 5 interceptions against Tennessee. Herring could occasionally be exploited deep, but he did a great job for the most part coming up and helping stop runners. Tight end Colin Peek would be a problem to cover for this Auburn unit, but you'd have to wonder how long Greg McElroy would survive with Peek in frequent pass patterns. Alabama would need Peek's blocking to try and establish the run, as well as protect. Auburn caused this dilemma with many of the offenses they faced. You'd see that flat-route to the tight end work a time or two, then a sack would force a 3rd and long. Generally, when teams scored on the 2004 Tigers, it was big plays. No quarterback Auburn faced in 2004 was able to pick 'em apart. That included Jemarcus Russell, Eric Ainge, Matt Jones, Andre Woodson, and David Greene. I doubt Greg McElroy could manage the feat either, against Auburn's fast blitzing front seven. Advantage: Auburn.


Punting: Bama's P. J. Fitzgerald managed a very respectable 41.5 yard average with 19 killed inside the 20 and 12 touchbacks. Tide coverage was a bit suspect, giving up 9.2 per return. On punt returns, the ever dangerous Javier Arenas ripped opponents for 15.4 yards per return. Auburn counters with Cody Bliss, who managed 42.3 yards per kick with 17 pinned inside the 20, and 7 touchbacks. Auburn's coverage gave up only 6.4 yards per return. Auburn return man Carnell Williams averaged 11.4 per return. I think Bliss' slightly better punting and Auburn's superior coverage cancel out the Bama threat of Arenas. Advantage: even.


Kickoffs: Rule changes make this difficult to compare. In 2004, teams kicked off from the 35, and touchbacks were pretty routine. Auburn's Phillip Yost had 43 touchbacks in 79 kicks in 2004. Strategies have definitely changed. Stats show a 62.4 yard kickoff average. Bama's Leigh Tiffin averaged 63.5 yards per kickoff. In coverage, Auburn held opponents to 21.0 yards per return. Bama gave up 25.1. Auburn's return unit featuring Carnell Williams and Devin Aromashodu averaged 22.1 yards per return. Bama's Javier Arenas managed 29.0 yards, despite teams deliberately trying to kick it away from him. Advantage: Alabama.


Placekicking: Bama's Leigh Tiffin was very good in 2009, hitting 30 of 35 field goals, and 42 of 46 on extra points. Auburn's John Vaughn hit 12 of 15 on field goals in 2004, and nailed 51 of 52 extra points. I definitely think Tiffin has the stronger leg, but those missed PATs would worry me. Tiffin really didn't face the "clutch game-winning kick." John Vaughn did, and missed on his opportunity against LSU. Thanks to the officials, he got a second opportunity! Slight Advantage: Alabama.


Auburn offensive line vs. Alabama defensive line: This would be a dynamite matchup to watch. Auburn faced a similar alignment in 2004, against Nick Saban's LSU Tigers. Auburn got almost nothing going into the line, and Jason Campbell faced heavy pressure all day. There would be a huge mismatch in the middle, with walk-on Auburn center Jeremy Ingle trying to handle Bama's Terrence Cody. Ingle would have to have blocking help, and those double teams would free up Bama 'backers. Auburn guard Danny Lindsey was very good as a senior in 2004, and would be a help, as would Ben Grubbs. The edges favor Auburn. Big Marcus McNeil was one of the best Tiger tackles to ever suit up, and Troy Reddick on the other side was solid as well. Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington would have their hands full. Auburn's Ingle was one of the smarter players, and made great line calls. You likely would see correct protections against Bama's zone-blitz package. Even though the numbers may favor Auburn, I think Cody would be a difference maker in the game. Advantage: Alabama.


Auburn backs vs. Alabama linebackers: This is a match between NFL talents across the board. McClain, Reamer, Anders, and Hightower will likely have good NFL careers, and Carnell and Ronnie have made their mark on the NFL as well. It's too tough to call. Advantage: Even.


Auburn receivers vs. Alabama corners: Alabama was very solid at corner in 2009 with Kareem Jackson and Javier Arenas. Where they might have trouble against Auburn is size. All of Auburn's guys were over 6 feet, and stocky. Numerically, Auburn could put 4 future NFL guys out there at once in the bunch set, too. Taylor, Aromashodu, Mix and Obomanu were one of the best Auburn receiving corps in history. Slight Advantage: Auburn.


Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Alabama safeties: Bama's Mark Barron and Justin Woodall turned in good years in 2009, both in coverage and run support. As the 2009 Iron Bowl showed, as well as the Longhorn comeback, those guys CAN be had from time to time. Auburn would counter with screens to Ronnie Brown, and throws to slot guys like Mix and Obomanu. Jason Campbell was basically unflappable in 2004, and made clutch throws with pressure in his face against LSU, Tennessee, Georgia, and Virginia Tech. Campbell's worst game was against Tennessee in the SEC title game, with two lost fumbles. That was because Al Borges decided to run a bunch of QB keepers in that game. Despite the fumbles, Campbell recovered, ripped the UT secondary for 374 yards, and launched two late game-sealing TD bombs. Spot Campbell a couple of opportune scramble-bombs that set up scores. Advantage: Auburn.


     I think neither team would be able to line up and just run it at the other. Auburn's running game stalled against better teams in 2004. Bama's "wear 'em down" philosophy would be difficult against an Auburn front seven that could effectively substitute at every front-seven position. Two dynamite run stopping safeties would help there, as well. Bama would need a quick passing game and some draws to keep Auburn's rush off the quarterback. For all of Bama's reputation as a smash-mouth offense, they do run some surprisingly effective spread-type packages. They would have some success, I think, even against the 2004 Auburn D.


     On offense, Auburn would have to put a premium on getting to the edge and getting hats on Bama linebackers. Jason Campbell would also need to have a big day buying time, and hitting some downfield throws. That's a tough sell, against the 2009 Bama defense. Quarterbacks had a miserable year against the Tide, hitting only 46.8 percent of their passes. A lot of passes were thrown, and the Tide picked off 24, vs. 11 TDs allowed.


     To be perfectly honest, I saw a LOT of similarity in the numbers of the two teams. Normally, you'd say "coin flip" on speculating about those matchups. There was one area that exposed a stark difference: turnovers. As much as it pains me to admit it, the Tide was significantly better at both protecting the ball, and taking it away from the other team. Add it up, and Auburn was even in turnovers. Bama was plus 1.3 per game. For purposes of the fantasy title grudge match, I'm going to point out that a LOT of Auburn's 21 turnovers were in "trash time," i. e. with the game not on the line. 2 Brandon Cox turnovers late in a blowout of MSU, Carnell Williams fumbling twice against the Citadel, Cox wounded duck picks against Arkansas and Kentucky, etc. Totaling up the "advantages" from the matchups yields 4 "evens, " 2.5 Auburn "advantages," and 2.5 Alabama "advantages." WHEW, this thing is close!


Prediction: The battle of the unbeatens turns into a knock-down drag-out brawl on Graymont Avenue. Neither team can run it, or get the ball downfield consistently through the air. Except for a handful of big plays, it's a futile game of dink, dunk, and failed runs into the line. Late in the game, tied at 17-all, an increasingly frustrated Jason Campbell fires into a crowd of red shirts and is picked off. Bama sets the ball up for a long field goal attempt, and with no time on the clock, Leigh Tiffin honks one wide left. In overtime, Stanley McClover gets a key sack of Greg McElroy, and forces a long attempt. This time, Tiffin is true. Auburn gets the ball, and goes backward. On 4th and 15 from the Tide 30, Auburn is out of John Vaughn's range. Auburn lines up in the shotgun, and Bama at the last minute goes from a 3 man rush to bringing both Javier Arenas AND Cory Reamer on the blitz. Both are unblocked. Somehow, Campbell escapes, lets it fly, and Anthony Mix is wide open at the 10! With good downfield blocking, Mix is able to stretch it out, and score! Auburn wins, 23-20 in OT!