Somehow every single year I question how in the world we got to this point.
Auburn and Alabama. The Iron Bowl. As inevitable as time itself, it always shows up.
Poll most of the people in the state and you’d probably find a large majority that don’t enjoy this game. The threat of defeat is too great to properly enjoy this game. The joy of winning is great, and in modern times it means that you’re going on to do something great. For Auburn, beating Alabama usually means that you’re playing the next weekend as well. This weekend, it’s about something different.
I’m one of the thousands and thousands of Auburn fans who didn’t get to see Bo Jackson play live, but grew up with Cadillac Williams. From watching him dazzle for the first few plays of the 2001 Iron Bowl before breaking his collarbone, and then not getting to see him the next season as the Tigers dispatched a team at Bryant-Denny that didn’t pay them any mind. “The school down the road”? Yeah, go to hell.
That’s why it was so unbelievably cathartic to watch Cadillac Williams do what he did in 2003. Between two teams playing for nothing but pride, he turned Jordan-Hare upside down in one of the wildest and most emotional moments in series history. His November night in 2003 was one of the greatest rushing performances in Auburn history. He followed that up with another win in Tuscaloosa the following year to cap an 11-0 (11-0, ELEVEN AND OH) season to send the Tigers to the BCS.
Cadillac Williams experienced the bitterness of not being able to do anything against Alabama in 2001 and 2002. He made up for it the next two years. However, he was there in 2002. He knows what the preparation to beat a team that doesn’t care looks like. Alabama has nothing to play for except the assumed win over a hapless instate rival. They’re not going to Atlanta, they’re not heading to the Playoff. That team was the result of a hilarious bit of cheating that landed them in hot water, and they just had a trip to Hawaii the next week to look forward to. Instead of focusing on little ole Auburn, they let a fourth-string tailback with no fullback run wild.
I imagine Nick Saban keeps his guys a little more focused than Dennis Franchione did, but the cracks have been evident in many ways this year. Hey, it’s the Iron Bowl. Anything can happen.
WHEN ALABAMA HAS THE BALL: Alabama has the greatest collection of offensive talent that Auburn will see this season, and yet somehow they haven’t maximized their potential. This is both terrifying and satisfying. Obviously, they haven’t figured out how best to use their guys, even though they have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in Bryce Young, an All-SEC talent at tailback in Jahmyr Gibbs, and 4/5-star talent all over the place at the rest of the skill positions.
Still, most of what they do seems to revolve around Gibbs breaking a run or Bryce Young creating until somebody happens to come open. There’s very little cohesion between the playcalling of Bill O’Brien and the talent at his disposal.
If our defense could hold this group to 10 points in regulation (with only 3 points allowed for 59 minutes), then there’s something afoot in Tuscaloosa. We’ve seen that they have offensive line issues, giving up 20 sacks even with a mobile quarterback, and they don’t have the consistency in the run game that we’ve seen from Alabama in years past. Not to mention that the offense is considerably dependent on just a couple of players. Gibbs is the leading rusher and receiver, with 40 receptions out of the backfield on the year. If he were to go out against a real opponent, they’d have to make up a ton of production. Same thing with Bryce Young. His absence against Texas A&M nearly gave the tepid Aggies a victory.
The talent is all there, but whoever’s in charge of putting it all together in the highest-functioning manner is asleep at the wheel. It’s no wonder that most Bama fans want to get rid of Bill O’Brien.
WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL: We have a good picture of what the Tigers are going to predicate their offense upon, and that’s a power run game that gets stronger as the quarters wear on. Cadillac Williams has instilled the straight-up I-formation, the toss sweep, counter plays, lead blockers, and honestly it gives me some real nostalgia.
With Tank Bigsby leading the way over the last three ballgames, he’s averaging more than 6.1 yards per carry, and Jarquez Hunter has gotten into the act even more as well, averaging 8.2 yards per carry over the last two games.
What we don’t have enough of is a passing game to relieve any sort of pressure on these two. Robby Ashford is who we’re rolling with at quarterback, but he’s hardly even adding into the rushing attack at this point. He’s fast for sure, but he has little wiggle and can’t read the holes as well as we’d like. The Tiger offense is almost totally Tank and Cowboy.
With Alabama’s dangerous group on defense, including potential top-overall pick Will Anderson, Brian Branch, Dallas Turner, and traitor Henry To’oto’o, Auburn can’t afford to make any mistakes, but that’s likely what Robby Ashford will do at some point.
For this game to end in Auburn’s favor, it absolutely must turn into a game where the Auburn offensive line controls the line of scrimmage, and the Tigers can grind out a couple of long touchdown drives in addition to a couple of long drives that either end in field goals or flip field position and eat clock. Alabama can score quickly, but the fewer chances they have to do so, the better the Tigers’ odds become.
SERIES HISTORY: Alabama leads the all-time series 48-37-1, and have won two straight games in the series. Auburn is 5-10 against Nick Saban during his time in Tuscaloosa.
LAST MEETING: Auburn fell at home last year 24-22 in a quadruple-overtime affair. The Tigers led 10-3 until the final minute of the game, where Bryce Young led a 98-yard touchdown drive to tie the game and send it into overtime.
LAST WEEK: Auburn beat Western Kentucky 41-17, outscoring the Hilltoppers 24-0 in the second half to improve to 5-6. Alabama shut out Austin Peay 34-0 to improve to 9-2 on the season.
TUCKER GREGG AWARD CANDIDATE: With Jahmyr Gibbs sitting out last week with an injury, and Bryce Young being the obvious candidate to annoy the hell out of us, it’s going to be some turd backup running back like Jase McClellan or Roydell Williams. I could also see Cameron Latu catching a couple of big passes and we figure out we don’t really have an answer for him.
RANDOM PREDICTION WITH NO BASIS IN REALITY: CBS will show no fewer than 5 images of Lane Kiffin.
KEYS FOR AUBURN:
- Control the line of scrimmage. EASIER SAID THAN DONE, but we’re getting better at it. The Tigers totally and completely shut out Texas A&M, and they can do similar stuff to the Bama offensive line after what we saw last year. Offensively, you just have to figure out how to scheme away from Will Anderson, who had 3 TFLS and a sack in last year’s game, and all of the other monsters in the front seven for Bama. Auburn has to mix up the rushing attack with all of the good plays from years’ past, and just force Pete Golding to prepare for basically everything that the Tigers have run over the past two decades.
- Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. We have to be at least +2 in turnover margin to keep in it, because while I think we will have a couple of solid drives, Alabama’s going to have a couple of quick scores that deal body blows. I do believe that Auburn can get rolling late in the run game once we’ve leaned on them and hit them throughout the game, but having a long drive followed by a turnover may make this Alabama defense that doesn’t have any of its larger season goals left wilt a little.
- Inspiration. Like I mentioned above, Auburn needs to drum up the memories of the past. Cadillac Williams installed his halfback pass from the 2004 Georgia game last week, and I would bet we see that there are some more wrinkles from his time as a player that we see in this game. Starting out with an 80-yard touchdown run wouldn’t hurt either.