Today we move along and hit the final regular season stop on our opponent preview series. You’ve already seen the toughness of Auburn’s schedule, with a neutral site game against one potential playoff team (Washington), a true road game against another (Georgia), and then finally a second true road game against a third potential playoff team in Alabama.
If Auburn wasn’t a potential playoff team themselves, this would be nigh undoable, but the Tigers had to deal with the same obstacles last year and went 2-1 against playoff attendees during the regular season.
Now, it gets even tougher with none of those three games coming in the decidedly unfriendly (for visitors) confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. Auburn ends up with a schedule that’s as top-heavy as any in the country, and it finishes in Tuscaloosa with the Tide.
We were all conflicted in some form or fashion this past January. For everyone that said “you’re crazy if you pull for Alabama”, there were just as many that went the other way and said “you’re nuts if you want Georgia to win”. The year ended with Alabama winning its fifth national championship under Nick Saban. There’s no denying that it’s an impressive run, and that Nick Saban is likely the greatest coach in football history. He’s built an absolute monster that you or I could end up keeping afloat for at least a season.
However, there’s one guy that’s made as strong a push against Bama as anyone else.
Gus is 2-3 against Alabama while at Auburn, with two of those losses coming with backup quarterbacks, while the other resulted in one of the greatest offensive games in Auburn history (‘twas the defense that let us down in 2014). He’s had pretty magnificent game plans against Alabama in each of his meetings with the Tide, and in his tenure, Auburn’s matched up as well with Bama as anyone in the country.
So, how do things looks this year? What’s Gus going to have to scheme against? The defense shut down Jalen Hurts and company last year, while the offense had an efficient and wonderful plan to put the ball in Auburn’s most capable hands. How do the Tide shape up in 2018?
OFFENSE - When you have Tua quarterbacks, you have none.
Bama fans got a nice surprise when Tua Tagovailoa started the second half of the National Championship Game and led the Tide to a comeback win over Georgia. He threw for three touchdowns, and went 14-24 through the air after halftime. He was electric, but that game set up a few potential problems.
First, you benched the guy that had lost two games as a starter in two seasons to bring in the freshman. Yes, it worked, but there’s no telling what kind of message that sends to the locker room. What kind of dynamic does it create with the established leader taking a spot on the bench?
Auburn fans have seen this before. Jeremy Johnson torched Arkansas (different caliber opponent, I’m aware), when there was no pressure, but once he was the guy, it all collapsed in on him and he couldn’t handle it. He was named a Heisman favorite before the season started, and dubbed one of the best players in the conference after a single half of football.
Now that’s what’s happening to Tua.
Maybe he does handle it and become a superstar. That’s great for Alabama, but what happens to Jalen Hurts? Tua has openly said that he was going to transfer if he didn’t get to play in the title game, so what kind of message does that send to future underclassmen that feel they’re not getting a fair shot? Either way, and whether Saban would like to admit it or not, Alabama’s going to have a quarterback controversy on its hands once fall camp starts. The sample size for Hurts is much larger than it is for Tua, who played with nothing to lose in Atlanta. Whoever is named the starter, come the first sign of trouble, it will get sticky in Tuscaloosa.
Of course, that’s assuming that the Alabama offense runs through the quarterback. Nick Saban has always had guys that were talented, but never asked to do much. It’s defense and running game. Overpowering athletes at every position. It’s no different for the Tide offense across the board.
At running back, Bo Scarbrough is gone, but Damien Harris is explosive enough to turn into an absolute demon in the SEC this season. Harris has averaged 6.7 ypc during his three years, and is good for a burst through the line for a long gainer nearly every game. He won’t be alone either, as Najee Harris (the nation’s top back in 2017) will join him to fill out the 1-2 punch. Josh Jacobs also comes back to add his carries with 6.2 ypc last season.
On the outside, Alabama should have a couple guys that played well in the title game, and a group that came on at the end of last season as a whole. Jerry Jeudy should be the Calvin Ridley replacement, as the two share an almost identical build. Jeudy only caught 14 passes last year, as most of the passing game ran through Ridley (49 more catches than the next receiver), but he’s got the talent to make the passing game work no matter who’s throwing.
He’ll be joined by Devonta Smith, who only caught eight balls last year, but nabbed the game-winner in Atlanta, and Henry Ruggs, a Montgomery product with 12 career catches. The problem for Bama at receiver is the youth. None of these guys have been the guy in college, and if nobody emerges as the main target, the offense could sag. Fortunately, Hale Hentges returns at tight end with Irv Smith, and the tight end passing complement saw an uptick in the spring game.
Up front, it’s business as usual. Four and five-star players dot the landscape and there’s always going to be talent to work with at Alabama on the offensive line. What might be a bit of a problem is that in the spring there were injuries (Matt Womack missed all practices), and the unit that spent much of spring ball together may not have gelled enough for Saban’s liking.
Jonah Williams and Ross Pierschbacher should end up on All-SEC teams at the end of the season, and there just needs to be a former blue chip recruit or two to step up to complete an absolute elite unit.
Overall, I think it depends on which quarterback ends up winning the job, and whether the wide receivers end up progressing into maturity. Auburn completely neutralized the Bama passing game with Calvin Ridley last year, and nobody else stepped up to make enough of an impact. With more options and someone that can throw the ball, Bama can be a great offense week in and week out. There just have to be some decisions made first.
On the opposite side of the ball, we should see the usual collection of mammoths that have been stockpiled for years in Tuscaloosa.
And once again, it all starts up front with another endless line of future first-round talents. This time around, Raekwon Davis is the main guy to watch stuffing the middle, but Isaiah Buggs and Quinnen Williams join him on that three-man front to wreak havoc. They totaled six sacks in the spring game, with 12 combined last season.
Behind them, the Bama linebackers will try to steal the show. After losing Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton, the group may be a little inexperienced, but there’s still (like everywhere else) five-star talent across the board.
On the outside, Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis were supposed to be the guys on one side, but Lewis suffered an ACL injury just recently that could keep him out the entirety of the season. This comes after both guys missed 10 games in 2017 with arm injuries. Opposite them, Anfernee Jennings looks ready to morph into that dominant pass-rushing presence. He’s a typical large Bama linebacker (6’3, 262), but he’s got the speed to get to the quarterback and to bang around with offensive linemen when necessary.
In the middle, Dylan Moses and Mack Wilson should be the dudes. Wilson has made some splash plays on special teams and roaming the middle (4 interceptions last year), but they’ll need him to be more involved and turn into that Rashaan Evans clone. Moses had a foot injury late last season, but he was one of the surer tacklers on the Tide lineup before that. Behind them, Ben Davis flirted with Auburn but stayed at home, and they’ll be looking for him to finally flip the switch and become the future in the middle.
And as always, Nick Saban’s secondaries have usually been ball-hawking, play-making groups. Like the receivers, though, this group will be inexperienced. Trevon Diggs and Shy Carter look to be the heirs apparent at corner, but they only had 13 combined tackles last year. Patrick Surtain, Jr. does come in as a true freshman, so you can bet he’ll see some time at some point on the field.
In the very back end, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Hootie Jones, and Ronnie Harrison have all graduated, leaving a ton of empty space for new faces. Deionte Thompson has the most experience of any of the returning safeties, with 25 tackles last season, and he could very well be joined by Xavier McKinney, who showed promise in the spring for Alabama. Either way, the secondary got pretty depleted by the Draft, and Alabama will be looking for new faces to step up and play well immediately.
On special teams, Alabama has been notoriously bad at placekicking over the years, and they’ll have to break in a new victim with Andy Pappanastos graduating. They did grab a grad transfer kicker from Temple named Austin Jones, who went 37-45 on field goals over three years in Philly. He may not be a strong kicker, but he’ll probably give Alabama a little more consistency closer in. At punter, JK Scott leaves after four stellar seasons, and it looks like Skyler DeLong will replace him after averaging 39 yards per kick in the spring game.
To be blunt, Alabama will be 11-0 when we roll into Tuscaloosa at the end of November. The slate begins with Louisville in Orlando, but this won’t be a Cardinal team with a Heisman contender at quarterback. After that, it’s Arkansas State, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M, and Louisiana-Lafayette to round out September. Maybe Jimbo gives the Tide a game at Bryant-Denny, but probably not.
October gets a little tougher, but a road game at Arkansas doesn’t pose much of a threat, then a home game against Missouri shouldn’t be any trouble. Bama goes to Tennessee on 10/20 before a bye week, and I don’t think Jeremy Pruitt will have much success against his old boss. November begins at LSU, and the Tigers may keep pace with a new quarterback, but Coach O will have to have the best motivational game of his career to beat Bama.
After that, home against Mississippi State on 11/10 could end up being the toughest game for the Tide, especially since it comes directly after Baton Rouge, but they’ll have The Citadel to warm up before Auburn hits town the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
All in all, the road games are easy with two new coaches and Matt Luke, while there aren’t any outright threats out of conference. Unless the offense sags and the pass defense doesn’t mature, Alabama will be in the thick of the playoff hunt come mid-November. It’ll be up to Auburn to stop that run again.