Final thoughts on the Iron Bowl ... and a prediction
We made it.
I suppose saying “we made it” makes it seem like this year dragged on forever. I’d agree to disagree with that take. It feels like just yesterday I was surrounded by Miami and Florida fans in Week 0 in Orlando.
But here we are, entering Week 14, and the Iron Bowl takes have been bubblin’ to a boil.
I’ve got thoughts. Many thoughts.
Oh, and a prediction (stay until the end for that):
All signs point to Gus Malzahn’s future NOT being decided by this game, which I hope remains true
Imagine having 91 games and seven years’ worth of data on a coach and deciding that one game would determine if he stays or goes.
IF that’s how the Auburn administration is approaching this, my goodness is that shortsighted.
What would a win or a loss on Saturday really prove? Malzahn already has multiple wins against Alabama. It’s not like this win would send Auburn to the SEC Championship, either. And on the flip side, why is it worth it to pull the trigger on a $27 million buyout if a coach can’t beat a top-5 team?
The more you break it down, the more you realize how silly it would be for Auburn to turn this into a make-or-break game for Malzahn and his staff. If he’s not the guy, great — fire him on Sunday even if it’s after a win. If he is the guy, great — give him another vote of confidence in the postgame press conference even if it’s a loss.
I say “another” because we’ve seen a theme throughout the SEC. With the new Early Signing Period, the past two weeks have served as the “vote of confidence” period for athletic directors. They can’t afford three weeks of indecision about their coach’s future at this stage of the recruiting cycle. Programs like Ole Miss and Vanderbilt came out and stood by their current head coaches.
To the surprise of some, Allen Greene came out and said that Malzahn was the “coach of the future” in the first week of November. Everyone, however, always seems to speculate about what losses to Georgia AND Alabama would do for Malzahn’s future.
The good news for Malzahn is that as recently as before the Samford game, Greene gave the Auburn coach another vote of confidence by complimenting how competitive Auburn has been with a loaded schedule (losses to Florida, Georgia and LSU came by an average of 6 points). Here’s hoping that remains true even if Saturday turns into an Alabama rout, though I don’t think it will.
Okay, soap box over. Just wanted to address that.
I’m here for the Steve Sarkisian vs. Kevin Steele chess match
Go figure that I think that battle will be better than the one between the head coaches and their respective areas of expertise.
In much the way that Steele’s chess match against Joe Brady was extremely intriguing, so, too, should be this one. How does Steele, Auburn’s defensive coordinator, make quarterback Mac Jones win this game? Does he pack the middle of the field with extra defensive backs and hope that the likes of Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson can get in Jones’ face as two of perhaps just three or four pass-rushers? That would be my guess.
The key area for this Auburn defense is how it makes open-field tackles on these Alabama receivers. Whether that’s on a bubble screen or on that famed run-pass option slant that Sarkisian, the Tide’s offensive coordinator, loves calling — I don’t blame him for that — Auburn has to have its best tackling game of the season.
If you’re Sarkisian, perhaps you take a page out of LSU’s playbook and say the second half is all about the running game. Clyde Edwards-Helaire took advantage of an Auburn defense that was overcommitted to stopping the pass, and he ripped off chunks of yards all second half. Najee Harris is plenty capable of doing the same thing, if that’s what Auburn is willing to concede with Alabama’s explosive group of receivers.
Or maybe there will be over-the-top opportunities for Jones that catch Steele a bit off-guard with all the attention on the underneath routes.
Whatever the case, I’m here to watch two of the best assistants in the sport this year go to work.
Style points should matter because that’s soooooo much easier said than done against Auburn
It’s a popular topic of discussion, and understandably so. Alabama’s Playoff path feels like it needs as many style points as possible on Saturday, without that conference championship weekend to improve the resume. I’ll say this: While I think Alabama’s path to the Playoff still needs several things to happen, the common denominator in ANY of those discussions is walking into Jordan-Hare like it owns the place.
Alabama should be thankful that Auburn is so battle-tested. We’ve seen current top-4 teams like LSU and Georgia average just 22 points against this impressive Tigers defense (Florida and Oregon were both held to less than 25). If Alabama puts up 40 and we’re talking about a three-possession win, you better believe that’s gonna turn some heads.
There’s a reason the selection committee has Auburn as the highest-ranked three-loss team in the country. The Tigers have been a good, not great, team that seems to push the great teams. In that atmosphere, given the circumstances, Alabama can have a perception-altering win if it takes care of Auburn with ease.
That would have potential to be a louder statement than Utah, which faces an Oregon team that’s ranked right next to Auburn but does so on a neutral site. Will it come down to that? I don’t know.
But I do know that if I’m Alabama, I’m not easing off the gas and putting it on cruise control at any point in this game.
I just can’t picture Bo Nix beating Alabama. Is that bad? Yes, he beat Oregon. Yes, he had the fourth quarter against Georgia. But is he going to be the guy who kills Alabama’s Playoff chances? I can’t see it.
I’m sure there are Auburn fans screaming, “Why can’t Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson end Bama’s Playoff hopes?!” It’s a fair point. But even though those guys have been dominant this year, it didn’t prove to be the difference against the likes of Florida, Georgia or LSU. Instead, Nix’s poor play was.
I’ll trust the Sarkisian-Jones combination over the Malzahn-Nix combination and say that Alabama wins, though not in a fashion that makes us think it’s business as usual for the Crimson Tide.
Alabama prevails in a hard-fought, down-to-the-wire game and wins 31-24.