Alabama vs. Auburn: Which offense is better in 2019?
Alabama had one of the most explosive offenses in SEC history in 2018, producing 522 yards (6th in FBS) and 45.6 points (3rd in FBS) per game, led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and a quartet of elite receivers, and a rushing attack helmed by Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. Harris and Jacobs are gone, but Tagovailoa and his special play-making abilities remain, therefore big numbers again are expected.
Auburn, on the other hand, has question marks at the skill positions — the biggest at quarterback. Gus Malzahn, now calling plays again and taking a more hands-on approach, will decide between Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix. Luckily for Malzahn, the Tigers return all 5 offensive linemen and have a steady stable of running backs who can carry the load while the quarterback learns on the job.
There’s little doubt as to which passing game will be better in 2019, but with Nick Saban insisting on a more balanced attack, it’s fair to wonder which offense will be better. Keep in mind, 2 years ago, when Auburn was breaking in a new QB and Alabama was returning a QB who led them to the national title game, the Tigers averaged just 3.6 points fewer than the Tide and won the Iron Bowl.
Do we expect a repeat? We break it down position by position to determine the result.
This is the easiest call. Tagovailoa returns for the Tide as a Heisman Trophy favorite. He was a finalist last year after throwing for 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions and rushing for 5 more scores as a sophomore. His passing yards and touchdowns almost set SEC records, despite rarely playing in the 4th quarter in the regular season.
Auburn? Who knows. Neither Gatewood nor Nix has meaningful game experience — Nix is a true freshman. But few knew exactly how special Tagovailoa was going to be until he got his opportunity, too. His recruiting credentials were similar to Gatewood (No. 1 athlete in his class) and Nix (No. 1 dual-threat QB in his class. Best-case, one of them leaves no doubt and wins the job outright. The worst-case scenario? Another 2016 season in which 3 quarterbacks — Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III, in that case — proved to be major busts.
This isn’t the first time Malzahn will start an unproven quarterback, the question is whether it will turn out like 2016 or 2013, when Nick Marshall took the SEC by storm.
Major edge: Alabama
Malzahn’s offense is at its best when the running game is in top form, and that wasn’t the case in 2018. For the first time in 9 seasons, the Tigers did not have a 1,000-yard rusher. Auburn should start another streak this year as JaTarvious Whitlow (787 yards, 6 TDs) and Kam Martin (458 yards, 1 TD) return and are primed for breakout seasons. Add in the small but mighty Shaun Shivers, and the running game’s engine should be revving up under new position coach Cadillac Williams.
Alabama must replace Harris and Jacobs, who combined for 1,516 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Per usual, talented guys are waiting in the wings in Najee Harris and Brian Robinson, but depth is a concern after Trey Sanders injured his foot and could miss the season. Saban said he is “out indefinitely.” Alabama’s running game took a decided backseat last season. Expect the Tide to return to their “run the ball” ways, but the running game still will be overshadowed by Tagovailoa’s aerial show.
When Saban is impressed, you know something must be special. The coach recently said about his core group of receivers — Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle — that he has never seen such talent at the position and that all will be playing in the NFL soon. (Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith are draft-eligible as juniors.) Jeudy (1,315 yards, 14 TDs) is the best of the bunch and his ability is almost unfair to defensive backs trying to stop him. This might be the most talented receiver group in the country.
Auburn is another case. Seth Williams returns from a productive freshman season (534 yards, 5 TDs) and is expected to make a major impact in his second year.
Health has been a major theme all camp. All of the top receivers have missed some practice. Eli Stove and Will Hastings are recovering from knee surgeries. Speedster Anthony Schwartz is recovering from a broken hand. If everybody’s healthy, this is a dangerous group. But they’re not healthy, and there are questions about how effective Marquis McClain and Matthew Hill can be.
Major edge: Alabama
A familiar sentiment in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturdays is, “Wait, we have a tight end?” Yes, the Tigers have a tight end, but that is rarely used, even when a standout talent like C.J. Uzomah is manning the position. Expect that position to continue to be ignored in Malzahn’s offense and serve as more of a blocker than pass-catcher. And if you are wondering, the probable starting tight end’s name is John Samuel Shenker, though transfer Jay Jay Wilson continues to impress coaches.
Alabama is in a bit of a flux. Can the Tide find another O.J. Howard or Irv Smith? Smith had 44 catches for 714 yards and 7 TDs) last season, but he left for the NFL. Alabama will look toward Miller Forristall to replicate that production, but he’s been banged up in camp and his chemistry with Tagovailoa, which Smith had instantly, will be the factor.
Only 2 starters — tackles Alex Leatherwood and Jedrick Wills — return from a unit that allowed just 16 sacks last season, but talent is rarely an issue in Tuscaloosa. In come guard Deonte Brown, center Chris Owens and guard Matt Womack, all expected to fill in the starting lineup to try and keep up the tradition of strong line play for the Tide. Landon Dickerson, a grad transfer from FSU, reportedly worked at center with the first-team during Saturday’s scrimmage. Another major contributor could be true freshman Evan Neal, who has been making good impressions during fall camp and, already at 6-7 and 360 pounds, is a mountain of a man.
A weak link for Auburn last season, the Tigers will have a lot of experience on the front line this season as all 5 starters return. Oh, and all 5 are seniors, so youth is not a problem, either. Led by left guard Marquel Harrell, this unit will likely be a strength this season.
Slight edge: Auburn
Both teams made 15 field goals last season. Auburn needed 26 attempts — 6 more than Alabama.
Auburn’s Anders Carlson was OK as a freshman, replacing his brother, Daniel, who is the SEC’s all-time scoring leader. The younger Carlson made 60% of his field-goal attempts with a long of 53 yards and all 44 extra-point attempts. Much more is expected from him as a sophomore and he should be a steady presence for when the Tigers need a field goal.
Even though it seemed that ‘Bama was woeful last season, the Tide made 75% of their tries, besting Auburn. It was when it came to extra points that Saban’s face turned blood red. Alabama missed 9 PATs. Alabama is counting on true freshman Will Reichard to hopefully improve that. Reichard was the No. 1 kicking recruit in the country.
Total edge: Alabama
Alabama set the SEC record with 684 points last season. The Tide scored quickly, too. The approach this season, with Steve Sarkisian replacing Mike Locksley, might be a bit more methodical. Longer drives and more rushing attempts might result in a lower scoring average, but don’t mistake that for a worse offense.
Alabama still has Tagovailoa and one of the best receiver units in the country, and Auburn doesn’t. While the Tigers should be improved in many areas of offense this season, the lack of experience at quarterback and receiver depth might ultimately haunt them.
Alabama averaged almost 15 more points per game than Auburn last year. Cutting that number in half should be the Tigers’ goal.