Let the anticipation continue to build for the biggest second-half game of the season and the decider for the SEC’s Wild West division. This marks the first time that both teams have entered in the top five during the BCS era.
Will this game live up to the hype as the most anticipated Iron Bowl ever?
Alabama leads the series 42-34-1, and Alabama has won two straight. But of the last 30 games, Auburn has won 16 of them.
Here’s what to watch for Saturday:
Wrecking title plans: Assuming FSU and Ohio State keep winning, Auburn could play spoiler for the SEC and the national championship. Still, a one-loss SEC Champion Auburn or Mizzou stands a strong chance to jump Ohio State, but I just don’t think voters will allow that to happen knowing they want anyone other than the SEC to win another championship.
Related: SEC Bowl Projections
How Auburn can pull the upset: It certainly can happen. In order to beat Nick Saban – and Auburn has the offense to do it – there are two critical factors that weigh heavy in my mind. First, the Tigers have to win the turnover battle. In Alabama’s seven losses over the last five years, the Tide haven’t won the turnover margin in any of those. So, it’s imperative for Auburn to take care of the football on offense, and they must force turnovers on defense and special teams. Second, Nick Marshall must make plays down the field in the passing game. Auburn’s running game has been dominant, but it’s going to take more than a running game to beat Alabama. The Tide’s corners are the biggest liability on defense, and Auburn has to exploit them. Staying balanced on offense while making some big throws and winning the turnover battle is a must if Auburn wants to pull the upset and throw the BCS in disarray.
Heisman moment: If AJ McCarron will win the Heisman, he has to have a Heisman moment Saturday. McCarron is sitting at No. 3 behind Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel, but his stock is on the rise, especially with how Manziel faltered and with Winston’s serious allegations off the field. McCarron is sitting at 2,399 yards, 23 TDs and five INTs. The numbers aren’t eye gouging, but in a year where there are so many questions with Heisman contenders, McCarron’s career could be the safe pick.
Marshall factor: Nick Marshall will have to play his best game of the year against Alabama. We know his legs will play a major impact, but, as mentioned earlier, he’ll have to make big plays down the field against the Tide’s secondary. Marshall completed 15 of 26 passes against Georgia for 229 yards and one TD, obviously 73 yards and the only TD coming on one of the craziest plays we’ll see all year. Johnny Manziel threw for 253 yards and two TDs last year. Knowing Alabama’s cornerbacks are the biggest questions on defense, Marshall will have to expose the Tide’s secondary in order to score with the Tide’s offense. Marshall will be the most defining and weighty player on field Saturday.
Bend but don’t break vs. dominant: Alabama and Auburn’s defenses rank 1st and 5th, but total defensive yards tell a different story. The Tide have been dominant, only allowing opponents to score 9.3 points per game and only yielding opponents 264 total yards per game. Auburn’s defense is playing great in the red zone and is only allowing offenses to score 22 points per game, while giving up over 400 yards of total offense. The biggest matchup to watch will be Auburn’s rushing attack (averaging over 320 yards per game) against Alabama’s run defense (only giving up 91.27 yards per game). Which defense brings their A-game Saturday?
Great staffs: We know Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Doug Nussmeier, along with the rest of the assistants, are a great staff, but Auburn’s big three of Gus Malzahn, Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson have done a fantastic job this season, too. Each team will be well prepared, and each staff will have something special for the other one. I can’t wait to watch the chess match between Malzahn and his offense against Saban and his defense.
Getting special: All the talk surrounds the running game and the quarterbacks, along with the defenses, but both special teams units have been spectacular all season. Auburn’s Chris Davis and Alabama’s Christion Jones rank first and second in punt returns, with Davis averaging 22.45 yards per return and Jones 14.2. Jones has the upper hand having returned two punts for touchdowns, compared to Davis’ one. Jones also leads the SEC, averaging 30.25 yards per kickoff return with one touchdown. Special teams is often overlooked, but field position will be critical come Saturday.
Photo Credit: John David Mercer-US PRESSWIRE