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GAME PREVIEW AND OPEN THREAD: #22 Auburn @ #1 Alabama

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How many times have we been in this situation before?

You know, before we actually kick off, maybe 2020 has been a year promoting healthy attitudes and actions across the board. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had way too much on my plate and on my mind this year to even worry about hating Alabama. Don’t get me wrong. The enmity was still there, but I couldn’t focus on it like I would be able to in a regular year.

First of all, this game came up way too quickly. Yeah, we all realized that Thanksgiving was nigh on the autumn winds, and we knew that the Iron Bowl was the next game after the big meal, but not having any time to take a breath to worry about it has made it almost just another game this season.

Normally, I’d get to watch us ritually slaughter Alabama A&M, or ULM, or Furman, or someone like that the weekend before Thanksgiving. During that game, I’d enjoy the mirthless murderball, and every now and then feel a pang of nervousness about the impending matchup with what’s been a likely top-ranked team the next weekend.

When involved in the normal hustle and bustle of a football season, or a mid-May Tuesday afternoon at the gas station, or an interaction at your favorite breakfast spot in August, you hear the digs.

“I won’t allow a guy wearing that Auburn hat to fill up at my Chevron!” from your favorite gas station attendant.

“Won’t be touching a credit card from a War Eagle!” from your favorite Waffle House cashier.

These are just the normalities of life as an Auburn fan. We have to deal with the cracks on a regular basis. This year, however, they’ve been reduced. COVID has done quite a bit to put a damper on the rivalry. The game doesn’t seem to mean as much. Even if both teams were winless heading into today, the stadium would be sold out. Not in 2020. Roughly 20,000 fans will get to watch this one without the magic of television, instead of the befrothed mass that usually inhabits the stadium.

We won’t even have both coaches in attendance. Nick Saban is at home, annoying Miss Terry, who’s assuredly claiming that Little Debbies don’t help you breath any better. In his place will be Steve Sarkisian, who may be able to remove the emotion of the Iron Bowl from the game itself and coach a regular old ballgame.

Meanwhile, you wonder what kind of magic Gus Malzahn is cooking up. Last year, according to Bama fans, he slipped the refs several Benjamins apiece to allow Auburn to get off a last second field goal at the end of the first half, and then again to speed things up in the flag-throwing department when Alabama had 12 men on the field late. I’m only hoping that Gus found some super incriminating pictures of Greg Sankey or Steve Shaw and we’ll be able to get them to call 15 penalties on the Tide this afternoon.

In actuality, it might take way more than that.

Auburn goes into today’s matchup with Alabama as a decided underdog. 24.5 points to be exact. The Tide have two Heisman candidates in quarterback Mac Jones and tailback Najee Harris, both of whom will be heavily involved in the game plan today. Auburn has plenty of experience against these two, as they returned Mac Jones passes 129 yards for two scores last season, but Harris rumbled for more than 140 yards in Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2019.

It still wasn’t enough, because Bo Nix led an Auburn offense to plenty points and the plays the Tigers needed at the right time, and Auburn won 48-45. Special teams still rankled Alabama’s chances, with the Tide missing the chip shot field goal to tie, and then getting bamboozled by Gus on the fake-but-not-really-Bo-Nix-is-gonna-punt-but-wait-no-we-would’ve-shifted-into-formation-with-our-real-punter play. Saban whined and whined and whined, and none of it worked until after the game when he got some rules changed and then took his ball and went home. He won’t even be here to influence the refs today.

Still, the Tide have the SEC’s all-time leading receiver in touchdown catches with Devonta Smith, and they’ve got a second-year guy in John Metchie who’s also turned into a fantastic deep threat. Thankfully for the Tigers they won’t have to deal with FOUR of those monsters like last year with Smith, Jeudy, Ruggs, and Waddle. That task is a little easier. Defending the run won’t be, as Auburn has been pretty abysmal at stopping teams from handing it off and sending a guy up the middle as of late.

On the other hand, we may see another shootout. Gus always plans for Alabama, and he’s rarely been caught unprepared unless his starting quarterback has been injured. With a healthy and more effective Bo Nix, we may see a more cohesive game plan for the offense than we’ve seen in some time. The only questions still linger regarding the overall health of the team. K.J. Britt likely won’t play, but we’ll have to see how Tank Bigsby, Alec Jackson, and Brodarious Hamm all manage their injuries from last week.

In the end, it’s the Iron Bowl. Tomorrow, the sun will rise for the losers, just the same as it will for the winners. Some of those rays may not quite reach into the black depths of your disappointment, though, and that’ll make all of the difference.

SERIES HISTORY: Alabama leads the overall series 46-37-1, as this matchup has been played since 1893, with a stoppage from 1908-1947. Auburn has won two out of the last three meetings.

LAST MEETING:

LAST WEEK: Both Auburn and Alabama won last week. The Tigers beat Tennessee 30-17 to improve to 5-2 on the season, while Alabama took down Kentucky 63-3 to move to 7-0 on the year.

KEYS FOR AUBURN:

  1. Win the turnover battle. Auburn has five wins this year. Want to guess their record when the win the turnover battle? 5-0. Anyone want to guess the record when they lose the turnover battle? 0-2. Last season, Auburn ended up with two gigantic turnovers — the pick sixes by Smoke Monday and Zakoby McClain — directly leading to touchdowns, and needed both to win. In Alabama’s last four losses (including two to Auburn), dating back to the start of the 2017 season, they didn’t win the turnover battle. That’s the one constant. It speaks to the talent and coaching of the Tide team, that you likely need something a little weird to have a chance to beat them. A key interception, a clutch fumble recovery, something. If Auburn can get three turnovers, they’ll have a chance.
  2. Clean up third down defense. Alabama doesn’t have the foursome of receivers they did last year, but they’ve got tight ends, running backs, and plenty of wideouts to make things difficult for the Tiger defense. Kevin Steele almost needs an LSU performance from last season, when he introduced the 3-1-7 defense and stymied Joe Burrow and company. Auburn doesn’t have the defensive line, and linebackers will be in short supply, but the defensive backs are pretty good and should be able to hold their own for the most part. If they’re left out to dry time and again, however, it’s not going to be pretty and Alabama will hit their share of shots. That’s why Auburn has to limit the chances that Alabama does get. When you get them in third and long, close the deal.
  3. Run this offense. Go all out. What do you have to lose?

STRESS-O-METER:

It’s all gravy, baby.