Alabama football: 3 advantages and 3 reasons the Crimson Tide should be concerned about Iron Bowl
Three more days.
Three more days until another Iron Bowl.
Three more days for 2 wonderful, fanatical fandoms to get emotionally ready for football war.
Three more days for 2 teams to gather themselves before putting a bow on weird regular seasons.
Alabama isn’t in the Top 5, isn’t undefeated (or with even 1 loss) and isn’t in contention for an SEC or national title.
Auburn is unranked, went through a midseason skid that got its head coach fired and needs a monster upset in Tuscaloosa just to become bowl-eligible.
Yes, the 2022 season has hardly gone the way the Crimson Tide and Tigers wanted when fall camp dawned in August. It’ has been a long haul for both programs, a long journey from Labor Day weekend to Thanksgiving weekend, and they both arrive at Bryant-Denny Stadium with their own agendas.
The 8th-ranked, 9-2 Tide want to show that they’re still a powerhouse, were just 2 plays from being undefeated and really 1 play from still being in the SEC/national championship picture.
The 5-6 Tigers want to show they’re on the move a bit late in the season with their fiery interim head coach, their modest 2-game win streak and their shot to still play postseason football.
Three days until it’s decided which program ends its uneven regular season the way it wants to.
And with 3 as the prevalent number in our countdown to Iron Bowl kickoff, we give you 3 clear advantages that Alabama has over Auburn, and also 3 reasons Alabama should be a little concerned as the Tigers come to Tuscaloosa for the 87th edition of arguably college football’s best rivalry.
Alabama’s 3 advantages
1. One-dimensional War Eagle?
Yes, the Tigers boast 1 of the top running back tandems in the SEC with Tank Bigsby (907 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Jarquez Hunter (541 yards, 7 TDs). But then there’s the negative flip side. Auburn is last in the conference in passing, averaging just 181.4 yards per game through the air.
Quarterback Robby Ashford has immense talent, of course, or else he wouldn’t be at Auburn. But he has mostly played like a freshman this season, compiling more interceptions (7) than touchdowns (6) and a measly 45.8 quarterback rating. His completion percentage is slightly less than 50 percent. Sure, Ashford is a threat to run, with 589 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground this year, but defenses can basically commit to stopping the Tigers’ running game because Ashford’s arm doesn’t scare them.
This should scare Auburn fans as Saturday approaches. The Crimson Tide defense hasn’t been good at forcing turnovers this season, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been good. Bama ranks 2nd in the SEC in sacks with 32, and while the Tide defense has had its lapses in those road losses against Tennessee and LSU, the unit has been pretty spotless at Bryant-Denny all fall.
Bama defensive coordinator Pete Golding is up for the Broyles Award, given to the top assistant in college football, for a reason. If his crew can make Auburn 1-dimensional on Saturday, don’t count on Bigsby and Hunter, as good as they are, bailing the Tigers out of trouble.
2. Bama has Bryce, Auburn doesn’t
It’s really that simple. While the Tigers feature a freshman quarterback in Ashford who’s still very rough around the edges, the Tide have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner who has settled in after suffering a sprained throwing shoulder in Week 5 at Arkansas. And while Bryce Young circa 2022 hasn’t quite been the Bryce Young of 2021, he has thrown for 2,664 yards with 24 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions. He has completed nearly 64 percent of his passes, too.
While his numbers don’t measure up to last year’s Heisman-winning ones, there has been a dropoff in the quality of his supporting cast, too, plus that shoulder injury in Fayetteville, the game he subsequently missed the following week against Texas A&M and the rehab that has been all-consuming. Combine all that, and you get this year’s Bryce: a very solid if not quite as spectacular version compared to last season’s.
But 2022 Bryce Young should still be plenty dangerous for a Tigers defense that has allowed 41, 42, 48, 41 and 39 points in 5 of its 6 losses this season. Then throw in Saturday very possibly being Young’s final game in Tuscaloosa, assuming he goes pro after his junior season. If this is the last home game of his legendary career at Alabama, can you honestly picture the great Bryce Young losing to a middling Auburn team?
Neither can I. This just seems like the spot where Young helps Bama put up about 40-45 points, and he jogs off the field in Tuscaloosa for the last time with his arm raised and tears ready to flow. Auburn has a huge challenge if it hopes to somehow ruin this expected swan song.
3. Bama has Saban, Auburn doesn’t
Look, we love what Cadillac Williams has done so far on The Plains. He has been terrific. He has been inspiring. And his return to this rivalry as a head coach after his years playing in the Iron Bowl in the early 2000s has spiced up a game with no national championship or SEC championship significance.
But let’s take off the orange-and-blue-colored glasses and look at this realistically. Bryan Harsin was fired on Halloween, so Williams has been the interim head coach at Auburn for less than 1 month. He has coached 3 fewer games than the number of national championships that Nick Saban has won at Alabama. Let that sink in for a while.
When Williams was facing Alabama as an Auburn star running back from 2001-04, Saban had already gotten to the SEC as the head coach at LSU. He won his 1st national title in Baton Rouge during Williams’ junior season at Auburn, so Saban has been doing this for a while. He hasn’t always beaten Auburn, only most of the time. It’s just asking a lot for an interim head coach in his 4th career game to walk his team into Tuscaloosa and topple a Crimson Tide team that isn’t the usual Alabama but is still pretty darn good.
The Iron Bowl has made for some unlikely, unbelievable heroes over the decades, but it’s just hard to picture Saban losing to Williams in this spot.
Alabama’s 3 reasons for concern
1. The nothing-to-lose factor
How many times have you seen it, especially in a rivalry game? A big underdog sweeps into town, forces the issue all day or night because, hey, it’s expected to lose, and puts the favorite on its heels because it’s playing tight and not to lose. By halftime, the impossible seems possible; by the end of the 3rd quarter, the pressure mounts; and by the end, there’s a stunning upset that goes down in that rivalry’s lore.
The answer is, you’ve seen it happen plenty of times, because the most dangerous opponent — and a really dangerous opponent in a rivalry like the Iron Bowl — is the opponent who takes the field with nothing to lose. A lot of times, it helps even the playing field. Yes, of course Auburn has something to play for and something to lose. It knows that a loss at Bama means it isn’t bowl-eligible. But it was only a few weeks ago that the Tigers were 3-6 and fighting just to stop a 5-game losing streak.
So really, the whole bowl-eligible thing even being a possibility is a victory for Auburn. Even the thought of having a bowl game to fly to next month as Iron Bowl Week beckons gives the Tigers some juice as they face an uphill battle as a big underdog on Saturday. Sure, a loss to Alabama would wipe away those bowl dreams. But when you’re 3-6 and you couldn’t even wait until the offseason to fire your head coach, going bowling a few months later isn’t what’s on the immediate radar.
What is probably on Auburn’s radar this week is going into Tuscaloosa and throwing caution to the wind, and that’s a dangerous thing for Bama.
2. The Cadillac factor
Remember above when we talked about Auburn’s interim head coach being a big reason why someone like Saban and the entire Bama coaching staff had a big advantage over the Tigers? When we expounded on Williams’ dearth of experience and Saban’s years of rich experience, and also put that tale of the tape mismatch into perspective?
All that was talked about above is good and true. But when it comes to Williams, he is a bright, young head coach, the kind of rah-rah, inspiring guy who can relate well to his players because it feels like he just played at Auburn a few days ago. It has been almost 20 years, actually, since Williams finished his fine Tigers playing career, and now he has been reentered into the rivalry as the guy with the headset on the sideline.
Was he ready for it all? You better believe it. Auburn was 3-5 when Harsin was fired, and Williams has swooped into The Plains, back to where he starred in the Auburn backfield, and lifted his alma mater off the canvas with a joyous intensity that has some wondering if he should get the job permanently. The Tigers have won 2 in a row going into the Iron Bowl, and they lost in overtime at Mississippi State the week before in Williams’ debut, so he easily could be 3-0.
Even if Williams doesn’t get the Auburn job, which is the likely outcome, his players apparently like playing for him. And wouldn’t they just love to give their interim coach a stunning Iron Bowl victory just a few short weeks after his return to The Plains? The answer is yes, and so Alabama best beware of that emotional factor for the Tigers going into Saturday.
3. The Tank and Jarquez factor
We mentioned above that although Auburn features Bigsby and Hunter in a dynamic backfield, they could likely be negated because the Tigers’ passing game is so anemic. And that’s still true here. But what if Auburn’s offensive line has its best day of the season, and Alabama’s talented front 7 struggles to adjust, and the Tide can’t get off the field because the Tigers are constantly in 3rd and short?
That scenario would seem to be a bit extreme, we admit, but something like that could happen. It is a rivalry game, after all. It is the Iron Bowl, after all. Emotions bubble to the surface, and when the game kicks off, weird stuff sometimes does happen, even if Alabama is at home, where it has dominated all season.
Auburn’s only real path to victory is to possess the ball for 38 or so minutes, with Bigsby and Hunter frustrating the heck out of the Tide’s defense, Ashford not doing anything to mess up their flow, and the Tigers’ defense not being exploited again by a big-time foe because it hasn’t been on the field that much.
Will this all happen? Highly doubtful.
Could it all happen? Yes, absolutely.
In the Iron Bowl, as last year’s 4-overtime fiasco at Auburn showed, anything is possible.
And in just 3 more days, we’ll find out what the latest chapter of this grand rivalry has in store for us.