Since I moved to Tennessee a year and a half ago, I naively try to explain the Iron Bowl to people when it comes up in conversation.
Unless you’ve lived in Alabama or grown up around this rivalry or experienced it first hand, it’s hard to understand the intensity and ferocity with which it is approached every day of the year. It extends well beyond the gridiron, though the football game is the best representation of the rivalry.
Both sets of fans genuinely think their school preference (and way of life) is better than the other. In a state with no professional sports and limited distractions, college football has been the biggest attraction for decades. Add in the success of both football programs and the national relevance of the game, and you have something spectacular.
Auburn has won 6 of the last 10, and 13 of the last 25. Since Pat Dye arrived at Auburn, it’s pretty easy to argue that Auburn has had the upper hand overall. But Alabama has won 4 of 7 since Nick Saban arrived, and has been the more consistent program in that time span.
The Crimson Tide clearly has the momentum in this year’s matchup. They’re the #1 team in the country yet again. They control their own destiny in the SEC title race and in the College Football Playoff. They’ve played wonderfully at home, though they have struggled mightily on the road.
Blake Sims has been tremendous as a first year quarterback. Though the offensive line and running game isn’t as dominant as some recent great Alabama teams, the passing game has been fantastic when needed. The key component to their air attack is should-be Heisman Trophy finalist Amari Cooper. He presents the biggest challenge to the Auburn defense.
Oh yes. And they’d like revenge for last year’s game. There’s never been a play shown more often in more situations than the Kick Six. Just as Georgia was motivated to bounce back from the Prayer in Jordan Hare, Alabama will return home to get last year’s bitter loss out of their minds.
Auburn, meanwhile, stumbles in losing their last two conference games to Texas A&M and Georgia. As has been the case all year, turnovers and penalties and mistakes have made the difference in their losses. The Georgia game was particularly concerning, as Gus Malzahn hadn’t been held below 20 points as Auburn’s head coach. They left Athens with only 7 points on the board.
It’s going to take a tremendous effort for Auburn to go to Tuscaloosa and beat the top ranked team in the country. Fortunately, Auburn has walked into hostile environments this season in Oxford and Manhattan, Kansas and emerged victorious. Since this is their fifth battle against a highly ranked team on the road this year, they know what to expect.
Gus Malzahn has kept the Iron Bowl competitive in all of the years he was allowed to run his offense (2009, 2010, 2013). Can he draw up a game plan to score points against Alabama’s tough defense? Duke Williams will be playing, and that can only help the Tigers. On defense, Auburn is going to have to play like they did early in the season. Poor tackling, silly penalties, and a lack of pass rush have all become major issues in the last few weeks.
The biggest issue in my estimation, has been special teams. We have been spoiled at Auburn in the last few years with exceptional kicking units. This season, Daniel Carlson has been a solid field goal kicker, but the punt team and return teams have really struggled. Ricardo Louis fumbled a huge kickoff return against Mississippi State. Texas A&M returned a block field goal for a touchdown. Quan Bray fumbled a punt against Georgia. Notice a pattern?
I expected at the beginning of the season that Auburn would not catch any breaks. That has held true. They’ve had to earn every victory and have been punished with brutal losses when they make mistakes. Can Auburn put together a mostly clean game and make it a four quarter game against Alabama? I sure hope so. Here are some of my keys to the game:
1. No Easy Points for Alabama – We got away with giving up a 99 yard fourth quarter touchdown last year. I’m not sure we can do that again. No special teams touchdowns for the Tide, no defensive touchdowns for the Tide, and limit how many short fields Blake Sims gets to work with. And please – once we get a stop, no penalties or mental errors to let their offensve back on the field. We must make them earn every point they get. 2. Run the Ball After Tempo – Auburn needs early first downs in drives to get in sync. This did not happen against Georgia. When Auburn does move the chains, they need to go tempo and run the football. When you look back at last year’s scoring drives against Alabama, that was the one thing present in each of them. We need to achieve tempo, then wear the defense out. 3. Win Special Teams – It seems so insignificant until it costs you football games. We must not only hold on to the football, but also make a big play or two. Win field position. End every possession with a successful kick.