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Game Preview and Open Thread - #15 Auburn vs #5 Alabama

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The Iron Bowl. Oh God, it’s here.

I won’t lie by saying that today is an opportunity. For the last decade, Alabama has been the standard in college football. Five national championships — no matter how lucky they got to be there in the first place — tell the tale and let you know that everyone else has been looking up at the Tide. Aside from Clemson, there’s no team that’s frustrated and played the equal to Alabama more than Auburn.

Gus Malzahn, despite his faults, has the measure of how to scheme against Nick Saban. The only issue comes when you don’t have the talent, or the depth. No team in the nation has had the type of competitive advantage that Alabama’s had over the years, but Auburn’s played them tougher than anyone else.

Now, that’s not a cause for celebration. “WE PLAYED YOU CLOSE, GOTCHA,” isn’t what you want to hang your hat on at the end of the day. You don’t want to be the side pointing to moral victories while the other side is hoisting trophies. But right now, you can almost feel the tide begin to turn.

Auburn has the best defense it’s had maybe ever, and an offense that’s struggled to find footing against the top teams on the schedule. We’re confident that things will go the way they have for Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, K.J. Britt, Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas, and others this afternoon. If they were going to give up this year, it would’ve happened already. Even down 21-0 against Georgia, it was the defense that kept plugging and making plays until the offense found a little footing.

Today, Auburn plays a team that can claim on the surface to be desperate. Alabama is in a must win situation if the College Football Playoff is still in its future. They need a ton of help elsewhere as well, but none of that matters unless they win the Iron Bowl. Everyone knows the biggest story heading into this game as well — they’re a team missing its biggest star. Unfortunately, I don’t know if that matters all that much.

WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL

It’s all going to focus on the quarterback position. Tua’s out. There’s no Jalen Hurts waiting in the wings. Instead it’s the Mac Jones show. However, as it’s been for years, the quarterback is not the most important player on this offense. Who have you been worried about when you think about Alabama? In the early Saban days it was Julio Jones. Then Amari Cooper. Then Calvin Ridley. Now it’s Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, Devonta Smith, and Jaylen Waddle. All Jones has to do is get the ball to those four with a little bit of space and good things likely happen for Alabama’s offense.

The offensive line is pretty solid, and Najee Harris has turned out to be a dual-threat running back, increasing his role in the passing game as well this season. The point is, Alabama has never been a quarterback-centric offense, and even Tua’s emergence didn’t change that. It just gave you something to look at while the rest of the five-stars did their thing.

So, how does Auburn defend against the most talented offense it’ll play this season? Simple, if not easy. The Tigers have to do the little things correctly. It’s cliche, but winning first down, allowing 3 yards per rush or less, and keeping things in front of you are all a combination for a good start. Harris hasn’t been the big play threat this season, but he’s a solid back that likely won’t lose yardage. He’s a major safety valve for Jones in the passing game, and if Auburn can neutralize him relatively well, or at least get pressure to force him to sit at home as a blocker, then good things will happen.

We remember the 3-1-7 defense that Kevin Steele invented for LSU. The Bayou Bengals rolled up yardage, but it was largely meaningless, and Auburn got turnovers and pressure on Joe Burrow. I trust that we’ll have a good plan in place, but I believe that we have to be even more careful. Alabama’s receivers are more dangerous than anyone else’s, and the smallest mistake turns into a long touchdown. If that happens, we’ll need MSU Bo Nix to show up.

WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL

Have you read about the injuries that Bama’s sustained this year? Tua’s the headliner, but it seems like eons ago that Dylan Moses injured his knee and was declared out for the year. His absence has been missed, as you could see in the one tough game that Alabama played. LSU posted 46 points, and Auburn can make similar noise with the right gameplan. I’m not calling 46 for the offense (if we do that, Bo Nix ascends into Auburn heaven on a pillar of flames), but these guys will be facing a hurt and inexperienced defense.

Raekwon Davis and D.J. Dale are both questionable to play, and they’ll likely be limited if they do take snaps, which means that the inner working of the Alabama defensive front is more vulnerable to the run that it’s been all year. With the reentry of a healthy Boobee Williams and the emergence of D.J. Williams at tailback, Auburn has a bonafide combination in the backfield. When you look at turning loose some of the other guys who’ve proven to be effective in different ways, it suddenly looks tempting to try to test the middle early and often. That includes getting Bo Nix involved in the running game as well. A quarterback draw or two early wouldn’t go amiss, and would likely temper any nerves that the freshman has. Yeah, he’s played against Georgia, and LSU, and Oregon, but this is Alabama, and he grew up knowing the meaning of this rivalry.

What’s something else that we’ve heard all season long? Putting Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz on the field at the same time has been one of Auburn’s best strategies. Both receivers command attention — Williams due to his play-making ability at all ranges and Schwartz due to his pure speed — and it prevents the double teams and defensive shading that you might see with just one of those guys in formation. This is the game where Auburn has to play unafraid, and take shots early. I believe that Gus will empty the kitchen, throwing not just the sink, but every utensil at this defense. I trust that the script will look pretty good, and Auburn playing with a lead wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world as it would let the defense really tee off.

In short, it’ll take the best effort that Auburn’s given against a top team to win this game, but it’s completely doable. Several years ago, teams went into games against Alabama afraid. Auburn never did, though, and now that aura of invincibility is gone for Alabama against even mediocre teams. With a win, Auburn puts a ten-win season into view, and clips Alabama’s Playoff wings. With a loss, an 8-4 season is exactly what everyone expected when they looked at the schedule, yet nobody will be happy about the way we got there.

It’s been said that if you go 1-11, it doesn’t matter what else happened if the one win comes against Alabama. Now, add in the ruination of their postseason hopes and end the only meaning in their pathetic existences. Let’s play some football. War Eagle.