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GAME PREVIEW: Auburn vs Alabama — THE IRON BOWL

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Here we go.

This time of year is always about juxtaposition.

Actually, the entire year in this state pits opposites against each other every single day. It’s just magnified today when good and evil take center stage for the yearly bloodletting.

Everything about Auburn and Alabama stands on opposing sides of the divide that splits this state, and despite Auburn being a better school and its graduates making more money on average than anyone that comes from the vast wasteland of West Alabama, they have their little football successes to make them feel better about it.

Lately, Alabama has known exactly where it stands with its football destiny. There’s no question that Nick Saban has built the best program in the land, even if he’s been looking a little tired these days. Auburn, meanwhile, has some figuring out to do and still stands at the post-Gus crossroads. We’re not totally sure where we are after the hiring of Bryan Harsin, and we don’t whether or not the ensuing offseason will endure more turmoil and changes.

The fact of the matter remains, what’s going to happen today inside Jordan-Hare Stadium is bigger than the man that stands on the western sideline. It’s bigger than a backup quarterback under center. It’s the same tenet that’s been true since the first time Alabama ever stepped foot on what would become a true house of horrors for them.

It don’t make any difference who’s carryin’ the ball, who’s catchin’ it, who’s rushin’ the passer, who’s makin’ the tackle... long as he’s got a blue jersey on.

As far as the same principle translating to the coaching staff, I don’t know if it’s possible for someone to come in and lead this program and not understand the importance of this game. Gus Malzahn got it right away, and put up a better fight against Nick Saban than anyone in the country, especially when you count his time as an offensive coordinator as well. Tommy Tuberville beat the Tide into such a submission over his tenure that they Stockholm Syndromed him into the U.S. Senate. Terry Bowden came in without an iota of knowledge on the rivalry, and had to battle a tough as nails Gene Stallings program, yet went 3-0 at home during his time on the Plains in this game.

And then there’s Pat Dye. The man himself coached under Bear Bryant, broke bread with Bryant, hunted with him... they weren’t just acquaintances, but close friends. It was a different time for sure, but Dye knew the impact he could make in this state.

“Coach Bryant, before you start hugging me, you ought to know that my boys are fixing to get after y’all’s ass,”

Dye wasn’t afraid to get after Alabama at all, with the coldest answer to an interview question ever (“60 minutes”), and his pure passion for the team that would dethrone the Alabama dynasty of the 1970s and turn Auburn into the preeminent program in the state.

Dye understood the importance of a strong start, and he pushed the Tide to the brink in 1981 before winning six of the next eight games in the series. It was something that continued with every new Auburn head coach after Dye. Bowden won his first meeting, Tuberville led the Tide into the second half, Chizik did the same, and Gus won the infamous Kick Six game in his debut. It’s time for Bryan Harsin to make good on the same idea.

It’s the Iron Bowl, and no matter what side you pull for, it’s going to be a day of reckoning one way or the other.

WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL: Welp, we certainly just don’t want to give Bryce Young the Heisman Trophy today, although I think that Georgia will have something to say about that next week. Either way, the offense is going to run through the sophomore quarterback and the Tide passing game under Bill O’Brien.

Young has completed almost 72% of his passes for 3,584 yards, 38 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. He’s very good, and. the scheme has finally figured out that he’s the conduit through which everything needs to flow. They’ll throw short, intermediate, long, there’s really no part of the field he won’t try to touch, while Alabama doesn’t have the depth in the receiving corps that they’ve had over the past few seasons, the top two guys are still pretty elite.

Jameson Williams transferred into Tuscaloosa and made an immediate impact, catching a 90-yard touchdown in the opener before amassing 59 catches for 1,218 yards (20.6 ypc) and 13 touchdowns. John Metchie is also still in the fold, more of the volume catcher with 77 grabs for 895 yards and 7 scores. Other than those two guys, Young will hit the backs and tight ends with regularity. Brian Robinson has 27 catches to go along with 191 carries, and Slade Bolden will grab passes out of the slot with 26 catches on the year as well. Cameron Latu and Jahleel Billingsley combined for 31 receptions at the tight end slot, but this game will break on the receptions of Williams and Metchie more than anything else in the offense.

As far as Brian Robinson goes, he’s pretty much the answer for Alabama in the rushing game, with more carries than all other backs on the team combined (not counting Young’s mix of sacks/scrambles). He’s had four 100-yard games, but at certain times has disappeared (13 carries for 18 yards against LSU). Like we said, this game hinges on Auburn’s ability to get after Bryce Young and create negative plays with sacks. This isn’t the Alabama offensive line that we’ve seen over the years, and there will be opportunities to get to Young. Auburn just has to capitalize and make tackles before he starts to scramble.

WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL: Honestly, we’ll have to find ways to make hay in the passing game today. With T.J. Finley at quarterback, Alabama is absolutely going to load up on the run and prevent Tank Bigsby from taking this game over. Last week, Shedrick Jackson went over 100 yards receiving, and we’ve seen the same type of performance from different Auburn pass catchers week to week. However, this is the game that they need to put it together from the start, and all at the same time.

Auburn hasn’t really given up many sacks this year, whether that’s a combination of Bo Nix’s scrambleability and better protection can be debated, but Finley can’t afford to get taken down to put the Tigers behind the chains. There has to be someone available to mark Will Anderson at all times and make sure they know where he is, because I can bet that Nick Saban and Pete Golding will send him time after time to blitz.

Quite honestly, for Auburn, they just have to figure out how to hang close. Looking at what Alabama has done this year, and there aren’t many straight up blowouts in SEC play. After taking care of Mississippi State and Ole Miss, everything else was a fight. LSU was throwing for the end zone and the win on the last play, Tennessee was in a one-score game early in the fourth quarter, Arkansas was a one-score game, Florida was a one-score game. They’ve played down to the competition despite the numbers from Young and the passing game.

Is this the venue to make it happen today? Perhaps. There’s no better place for something funky to occur that’ll give Auburn the window it needs to turn this one upside down. Let’s just see what it is this year.

SERIES HISTORY: Alabama leads the all-time series 47-37-1, with the two teams splitting the last four meetings and Auburn winning both matchups at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

LAST MEETING: Alabama won last year’s game in Tuscaloosa 42-13.

LAST WEEK; Auburn fell to South Carolina 21-17 in Columbia, while Alabama took care of Arkansas 42-35 in Tuscaloosa.

KEYS FOR AUBURN:

  1. Make Bryce Young a sore little boy tomorrow morning. And I don’t mean by hitting him after 10-12 yard scrambles. I mean getting after his ass and bringing blitzes to make him make decisions before he’s quite ready. We’ve seen what happens when Derek Mason sits back and waits in zone coverage, and it’s not good. Auburn has to bring pressure relentlessly, even if it means getting burned a time or two. You should feel good enough about Roger McCreary winning his share of battles against Williams or Metchie to isolate him, and figure out how to make it work on the other side. Auburn needs 5 sacks in this game to have a chance.
  2. Absolutely no turnovers. The one thing that you can’t do against Alabama is make mistakes. They’ll likely give you an opening, and you have to execute. Everyone just seems to get those wide eyes like dudes playing with Tiger on Sunday in 2002. When you give up those chances with turnovers it’s a death sentence, and this offense isn’t potent enough to overcome giving the ball away. If we had Bo at quarterback, I’d say we were good enough to play an even game in the turnover margin, but with Finley, we need to be +2 in that category.
  3. Play a four quarter game and give Jordan-Hare a chance to be weird in the second half. This stadium has singlehandedly made the stock price for Just For Men to skyrocket based on how much Nick Saban has to buy after playing here. There’s really never been an easy win for him on the Plains (even 2011 was butt-puckeringly similar to 2010 for about 35 minutes, and 2015 was a one-score game late). If Auburn can keep this thing a one-score game in the second half, a key turnover could turn the stadium upside down and give Auburn the push late to put this thing in anyone’s hands.

War Eagle, y’all. It’s here.