Alabama vs. Auburn: Which team has the better offense?
Alabama and Auburn are two of the SEC’s traditional blue bloods — two programs dripping with history, tradition and prestige. They’re essentially the gatekeepers of the SEC West, as you have to go through them if you want to reach Atlanta.
Since the conference broke into two divisions in 1992, Alabama has represented the West the SEC Championship game 11 times and Auburn 6. An astonishing 17 out of 26 times the SEC Championship has been played, Alabama or Auburn has been on one of the sidelines.
Once again, the Tide and Tigers are the heavy favorites to win the West this fall, as both are extraordinarily talented teams, each with enough firepower to compete for a national title. Needless to say, we need to break these two rivals down to studs and see which team is better.
We’ll start on offense. Who’s better: Auburn or Alabama?
Running the ball
For Alabama: Both teams should be able to run the ball successfully, but it’s hard not to really be impressed by what Alabama has to offer here, as it has the deepest stable of backs in the SEC and what should be the best offensive line. They finished No. 13 nationally in rushing yards per game last year with 250.6 and return 6 of their top 7 rushers and 4 of 5 starters up front.
RB Damien Harris returns as the starter after leading the team in rushing yards each of the past two seasons with a combined 2,037 yards and 13 TDs. He’s a do-it-all back who shows excellent vision, balance and patience to go with a nice blend of speed and power. Amazingly, if he rushes for 1,000+ yards again this year – which he should barring injury – he’ll become just the first player in program history to compile 3-consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. (Just five SEC running backs have topped 1,000 yards three times in a career.) In my opinion, he’s a strong contender for not only the Heisman Trophy, but could be the first RB off the board in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Behind Harris is another Harris, Najee, another former 5-star prospect with NFL talent. He got stuck in a bit of a logjam for carries last year, finishing a distant fourth in carries (61) and yards (370), though with Bo Scarbrough electing to bypass his senior year, Harris will undoubtedly assume a bigger role. At 6-2, 230, he’s a brutally powerful back who can be a load between the tackles but has also shown the burst to pick up chunk yards when he finds the seam.
Don’t discount the QBs in the Alabama rushing attack as well, because both Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa can make plays with their feet, particularly the former, who has been Alabama’s second leading rusher the past two years with 1,809 yards and 21 TDs. Tagovailoa doesn’t have Hurts’ pure athleticism or speed, but he has enough juice in his legs to keep defenses on their toes.
Up front, Alabama is again set to have one of the best offensive lines in the country, a unit that has been a constant strength since Nick Saban took over in 2007. LT Jonah Williams is an All-American candidate and could be a top-10 pick next spring. LG Lester Cotton is one of the most powerful drive blockers in the SEC and can consistently generate a push up front. They’re losing Bradley Bozeman at center, but there’s high hopes for Ross Pierschbacher there, as he has a natural skill set for the pivot. He’s a smart and heady veteran who plays with good leverage and takes good angles.
The right side of the line is still a bit in flux, but it seems like Jedrick Wills is the front runner at RG; he saw a bit of time in reserve last year as a true freshman and displayed a lot of upside as a run blocker. RT will be a hotly contested battle between incumbent Matt Womack and Alex Leatherwood. Womack is a devastating run blocker but struggled at times in pass protection; Leatherwood looked like the second coming of Jonah Williams in the second half of the National Championship Game.
In a nutshell, Alabama has a loaded and experienced backfield and a deep and talented offensive line. Even though they may be throwing the ball more this year than they did last year, defenses are going to have a very tough time stifling this rushing attack.
For Auburn: Similarly to their rivals to the west, Auburn consistently employs an effective rushing attack year-in and year-out, and finished No. 26 nationally last year in rushing yards per game with 218.3. Unlike Alabama though, there’s far less confidence those numbers can be replicated this year as they’re replacing Kerryon Johnson, the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Year who led the league in rushing yards last year with 1,391 and was second in TDs with 18.
Kam Martin will get the first crack at replacing Johnson, and looked very good in the time he saw last year backing up Johnson, finishing with 453 yards on 74 attempts (6.1 yards per carry). He’s a bit different from some of the recent backs in Auburn’s offense, as he doesn’t have a whole lot of power between the tackles and is far quicker than he is powerful. With that said, he has game-breaking speed and has shown good vision to find the seam before it’s there.
Behind Martin is a conglomeration of Malik Miller, JaTarvious Whitlow and Asa Martin. Miller is a bigger back with some power and north-south ability who can provide some strength between the tackles. Whitlow is gifted athlete who took a redshirt last year as a freshman, and played well in spring. Martin was one of the more prized recruits Auburn signed this year and made a lot of progress in spring ball, impressing the staff.
While there isn’t the known and proven back on the roster yet, there’s still plenty of talent and depth. One (or more) backs will emerge, of this I’m very confident. However, the biggest question for the run game isn’t the backs, but the offensive line, which is practically being rebuilt after losing 4 of 5 starters in the form of Braden Smith, Austin Golson, Darius James and Casey Dunn.
LT Prince Tega-Wanogho (below) is expected to man the all-important blind side, and despite an up and down 2017 season as an off-again, on-again starter, there’s a lot of optimism he’s finally making strides toward developing into the All-SEC caliber player he’s capable of. He’s only been playing football for a few years, and while he has NFL ability, it takes time to develop. LG Marquel Harrell is the lone returning starter who is a good run blocker with good feet and lateral quickness.
From C to RT, though, questions remain and the starting positions are still very much up in the air. Kaleb Kim appears to have the upper hand at C, though there’s still a chance Mike Horton — who is also the favorite at RG – could play there, as well. Redshirt freshman Calvin Ashley figures to slide into the rotation there as well, and could be the swing linemen for multiple positions up front. RT appears to be down to Jack Driscoll, a junior, or Austin Troxell, a redshirt freshman. Basically, the line is still very much a work in progress.
Passing the ball
For Alabama: This is where things get interesting for Alabama. The QB battle between Hurts and Tagovailoa has been one of the more anticipated camp battles since the end of the National Championship Game, when Tagovailoa came off the bench to win the game for Alabama. While many have already anointed Tagovailoa the starter, I hope they give a legitimate opportunity to Hurts, because he deserves it after what he’s done for the program the past two years, going 26-2 as a starter.
With that said, Tagovailoa is the odds-on favorite to win the job, and not just because of the late game heroics that have placed him in Crimson Tide lore. He’s simply the better passer overall, and he can elevate the passing attack to levels not seen in Tuscaloosa since the AJ McCarron days. Hurts may be better under pressure, but Tagovailoa is a special deep ball passer, and the Tide are well stocked at WR with track stars who can take the top off a defense.
Alabama is replacing by far the biggest weapon of their passing attack in Calvin Ridley, who caught 4 times as many passes as the second leading WR last year, and finished the year with 63 receptions for 967 yards and 5 TDs. Replacing him is a deep and talented trio of sophomores in Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs.
Jeudy, who was considered the No. 21 overall prospect in the class of 2017, is the biggest name of the bunch and probably has the most talent, though he did battle inconsistency as a true freshman las year. He has terrific speed and lateral quickness and can turn a short gain into a long one. One of his two TD receptions last year came against Auburn.
Smith has a similar skill set in terms of elusiveness and change of direction skills, in addition to showing deep speed with the ability to track the ball well over his shoulder. Just ask Georgia. Ruggs is the most proven playmaker of the bunch and despite only catching 12 passes last year, half of them went for TDs. He’s a big-time playmaker to say the least. Hale Hentges and Irv Smith are solid, if unspectacular at TE.
In essence, we’re in wait and see mode for the Alabama passing attack. If Tagovailoa wins the job, you can expect Alabama to pass the ball, especially deep, far more frequently than they have in recent years. If Hurts wins the job, I’d expect the offense to resemble that of last year, which was a far more conservative passing attack. Either way, the receivers, despite being young and relatively unproven, offer a ton of promise and will make the job of whoever is throwing them the ball much easier.
For Auburn: While Auburn has some questions about its rushing attack, there is far less concern about the passing game.
Last year the Tigers finally found some balance to their offense thanks to Baylor transfer QB Jarrett Stidham, who took their passing attack from No. 112 nationally (169.5 passing yards per game) to 65th (233.4). After starting the year slowly, he really began to find his groove in Week 4 against Missouri. From that game through the rest of the regular season, Stidham completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,054 yards with a 14/2 TD to INT ratio – a stretch where the Tigers went 7-1 with wins over then-No. 1 Georgia and then-No. 1 Alabama.
Stidham is back again to lead the offense, and I expect him to be even better this year. He’s a very gifted QB with the potential to be the first overall pick in next year’s draft, should he declare early. He has good footwork, a strong arm with the ability to drive the ball to all three levels with a high degree of accuracy and is capable of making plays outside of the pocket.
Ryan Davis returns at the Z after setting a school record for receptions in a year with 84 for 815 yards and 5 TDs. He’s not the biggest or most physical WR at just 5-9, 185, but he’s very quick and elusive with consistently soft and reliable hands who runs sharp routes. Darius Slayton returns at split end and is the home run hitter. He finished last year with just 29 receptions, but averaged more than 22 yards per catch with 5 TDs. Nate Craig-Myers is the former big-name recruit who has yet to emerge after two mediocre years. At 6-2, 215 he’s a big and physical target with huge upside who could finally breakthrough as a junior this year.
The receiving unit won’t be as deep as it should be, however, as both Eli Stove and Will Hastings, who finished second and fourth on the team in receptions last year, tore their ACLs in the spring and will miss all of 2018. They’ll need younger guys like Shedrick Jackson, Devan Barrett and Griffin King to step up and provide quality depth.
As a whole, this should be a strong passing attack thanks to an All-American caliber QB and good starting stable of WRs. The depth at receiver isn’t what it could be considering the injuries, but that just provides more opportunities for younger guys to make an impact.
Better offense overall?
This is a brutally tough call because both teams should be strong on offense this year, but I’m going to give the nod to Alabama because of its running game and offensive line.
Auburn has the better QB in my opinion and the more proven receiving corps, but that won’t mean much if Stidham doesn’t have any time to throw the ball or the line struggles to generate a push in the run game.
Alabama has proven it can win championships with minimal help from the passing game, so anything extra it gets from the air is just a bonus. Plus, the combination of Tagovailoa, Jeudy, Ruggs and Smith offer the potential become a very dangerous passing attack to balance out an already strong run game.