No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 22 Auburn: Final thoughts and a prediction for the 2020 Iron Bowl
No matter what, the 2020 Iron Bowl chapter will be a unique one. It might not feature an opening play as memorable as Cadillac Williams’ 80-yard touchdown run, and the day probably won’t close with a walk-off touchdown as iconic as Chris Davis’ kick-6.
We do know that it’ll feel different. A reduced capacity crowd will watch one of the greatest rivalries in sports. They’ll do so knowing that there are still possibly 2 more regular-season games to be played, and that Saturday’s contest won’t be the last hurrah before the postseason. We’ll see Steve Sarkisian and Gus Malzahn wearing masks on the sidelines, along with refs, who will still probably find some way to put 1 more second on the clock at the end of a half.
Oh, and I suppose I skimmed over that. Nick Saban testing positive for COVID is the ultimate sign of weirdness.
The good news is that as strange as it’ll be in certain ways, flipping on CBS on the last Saturday afternoon of November will feel, in many ways, normal.
What else should we expect to see? Here are some final thoughts and a prediction for this strange chapter of the Iron Bowl:
1. Nick Saban’s revenge record … is now basically useless
Yeah, I know Saban tested positive for COVID and he won’t be coaching in this game. I’ve still got a billion revenge game stats to throw at you that took me 20 minutes to research before Saban tested positive SO READ THEM (this is still a revenge game for that Alabama locker room so perhaps there’s still a hint of relevance?).
Against Auburn in revenge games — coming off a loss to the Tigers — Saban is 4-0. Against everyone in revenge games at Alabama? Saban is 12-2. For what it’s worth, that means Saban is 12-2 against teams who beat him either the previous year or that same year. Go figure that 1 of his 2 revenge game losses was the classic 2011 regular-season loss to LSU, which was avenged that same year in the national championship (that was the first of 8 consecutive wins against the Tigers).
The last time that Saban lost a revenge game was to Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss in 2015 … which was then followed by 26 consecutive wins, including 2 national championship berths and 1 title.
Ok, I got that out of my system.
In all seriousness, I think it’s telling that the line didn’t move immediately after Saban tested positive. It stayed at Alabama -24.5. The oddsmakers know that this matchup still favors the Crimson Tide in a major way. This is still a program who hasn’t lost to a non-top 15 team at home since 2007, and it’s a program who has won all of its games by at least 3 scores this year. Compare that to Auburn, who is 1-2 in road games and is also without a win in Tuscaloosa since the Cam-back in 2010.
Saban being out stinks, and hopefully he’s able to make a full return soon. Will it suddenly open the door for an Auburn upset? Well, read these things and you’ll get a better feel for my answer to that.
2. Return of the Mac
Mac Jones isn’t “returning” to Auburn. I get it. I also get that when one gets a chance to reference “Return of the Mack,” one doesn’t whiff on that opportunity.
I wouldn’t bank on Jones to whiff on the opportunity to avenge last year’s loss on the Plains. A pair of pick-6s — 1 was his fault and 1 wasn’t — spoiled what was really a banner day from Tua Tagovailoa’s replacement. That was against an Auburn defense who had Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and K.J. Britt. Those first 2 guys are playing on Sundays, and Britt is still out with a thumb injury (more on that later).
Jones is firmly in the Heisman Trophy race because of how good he’s been since last year’s Iron Bowl. If you include the Citrus Bowl, look at the numbers Jones put up against 8 Power 5 opponents post-2019 Iron Bowl:
- 76% passing
- 344 passing yards/game
- 12.2 yards/attempt
- 21-3 TD-INT
- 6 games w/ 74% passing
Yeah, that’s darn good. There’s a reason Alabama, which has the No. 1 Power 5 offense in America, has won every game by at least 3 scores. Jones is reading coverages, he’s stepping into throws downfield and he’s not making costly mistakes like the ones he made in last year’s Iron Bowl.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has his work cut out for him. Speaking of Steele’s defense …
3. No return of the Mike
OK. I reached a little on that one.
Britt, the Auburn captain and “Mike” linebacker, was ruled out for Saturday’s game. That, in my opinion, is huge. Auburn could’ve desperately welcomed him back with open arms, which it once appeared was possible. But now, one of the nation’s top run defenders won’t be available for the Tigers.
It’s been a bit of an up-and-down year without Britt leading Steele’s defense, even within this current 3-game winning streak. We saw it rise to the occasion like it did against LSU, and we also saw the run defense struggle immensely against Ole Miss and Tennessee. Against Najee Harris, who is playing the best ball of his prolific career, Auburn could use a healthy Britt. Badly.
Britt had hoped to be able to return against Tennessee following the long layoff. The Tigers were able to win that game with Britt on the sidelines in part because of some awful quarterback play on the Tennessee side. Following that “bend don’t break” blueprint against Jones doesn’t seem like a likely scenario.
4. Roger McCreary vs. DeVonta Smith is a fantastic matchup
Nationally, people know who Smith is, and not just because he caught “2nd-and-26.” He now owns the SEC record for career touchdown catches (33 and counting), and he’s having an All-American season.
Nationally, people need to know who McCreary is. He looks like the next stud cornerback on the Plains.
You know how Elijah Moore just set the SEC record for receiving yards through 7 games? Well, Moore has double-digit catches for at least 92 yards in all but 1 game this year. That 1 game was when he had McCreary draped all over him. You know how Terrace Marshall was on that ridiculous run of 4 consecutive multi-touchdown games to start 2020? Well, Marshall had 4 catches for 28 yards and no touchdowns with McCreary draped all over him. You know how Malzahn lost his mind when that pick-6 that was called back because of an illegal block against Kentucky? Well, that was McCreary jumping the route.
He’s been one of the SEC’s best defenders in coverage all year. Smith is perhaps the trickiest matchup yet with how dominant he’s been not only at getting separation but making difficult catches in traffic.
In other words, get your popcorn ready.
5. And Patrick Surtain vs. Seth Williams is also a fantastic matchup
On the flip side, there’s another elite wide receiver-cornerback matchup to watch for.
Surtain is having an All-American season for an emerging Alabama secondary. All of that preseason buzz about him being the first cornerback off the board in the 2021 NFL Draft looks more legitimate than ever.
Highest-graded P5 defenders heading into Wk 12
1. Patrick Surtain II, Alabama – 89.2
2. Kwity Paye, Michigan – 88.6
3. Rashad Weaver, Pittsburgh – 88.4
4. Alim McNeill, NC St – 87.0
5. Nik Bonitto, OU – 86.9 pic.twitter.com/dRygHoVpYK
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 21, 2020
Man, that’s saying something.
That’s not good news for Williams, who has shown the ability to take over games (Kentucky and Ole Miss) but has also proven to struggle at times against elite corners like Eric Stokes (Georgia) and Jaycee Horn (South Carolina). If you recall, South Carolina was the game that Bo Nix and Williams got into that heated argument on the sidelines. It didn’t matter that Nix was force-feeding Williams targets.
Williams hasn’t had a touchdown since he slipped past the porous Ole Miss secondary down the sideline for that game-winning touchdown in Oxford. His track record suggests Surtain will have the advantage, but either way, there will be no shortage of talent on display on the outside. We’re due for multiple 1-on-1 matchups on deep balls down the sideline.
6. Bo Nix’s road numbers are a mood … and not a good one
If there’s something holding Nix back from being unanimously considered a good college quarterback, it’s the road struggles. The splits were brutal last year. Against bowl teams on the road in 2019, Nix completed 46% of his passes for 4.9 yards per attempt.
This year, his total road numbers leave something to be desired:
Nix is 1-2 in those games, by the way. And we all know about the controversial ending to that lone road win at Ole Miss.
If you’re an Auburn fan, that’s a troubling thought ahead of Saturday’s road showdown. It’s equally troubling that the last quality defense Nix faced away from home was at Georgia, where he completed 52.5% of his passes for 4.4 yards per attempt en route to 0 touchdown drives. That’s not a favorable trend, especially not against an Alabama defense who enters Saturday having not allowed a touchdown in the last 137 minutes and 52 seconds.
If Nix can’t shake his road woes, this has the makings of a long day for the sophomore signal-caller.
7. For the sake of my personal entertainment, let Tank Bigsby be healthy
Because if he’s not healthy, those aforementioned stats about Nix seem that much more relevant.
The true freshman tailback has been the best source of offense for the Tigers all year. He has the best chance of keeping the Alabama defense on the field and preventing this one from turning into a 1-sided shootout. With all due respect to D.J. Williams and Shaun Shivers, who will forever be remembered for destroying Xavier McKinney’s helmet in last year’s Iron Bowl, they aren’t on Bigsby’s level.
Bigsby’s status is unknown following his lower-body injury against Tennessee. He was taken down in somewhat atypical fashion, and after trying to come out for another carry, it ultimately was enough to sideline him for the remainder of that game.
Even if Bigsby does play, who knows if he’ll be at 100%. Malzahn said that he’s “hopeful” to have Bigsby back.
Yeah, you and me both.
8. Either Pete Golding or Chad Morris will be a fun Twitter search on Saturday afternoon
One bad afternoon will wash away the fact that both have actually been much better the last few games, but don’t tell anyone on Twitter I said that.
Prediction: Alabama 56, Auburn 21
Points, points and more points. This wouldn’t set the total Iron Bowl points record (the 2014 game had 99 points), but it would break an individual team point total record in the matchup.
Why do I think Alabama has a field day offensively? I don’t know how you stop the Crimson Tide offense when it has balance like what we’ve seen. It’s reminiscent to what we’ve seen the past couple of years with Clemson’s duo of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne. Meaning, you’ve got a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback who can make every throw, and you’ve got a tailback playing at an All-American level who also catches passes like a receiver out of the backfield.
Auburn hasn’t seen anything like the Alabama offense. I’d be worried about the Tigers’ chances of keeping it close even if I knew the best player on each side of the ball was healthy (we know that Britt won’t be). That spells trouble for the Tigers. I see Nix making too many mistakes against an Alabama secondary who has been playing at a Saban-like level since the Ole Miss game.
This game will showcase how well Jones has developed to be able to get guys like John Metchie and Slade Bolden involved. He’ll redeem himself after the pick-sixes last year in a major way. If Georgia was a career day for Jones, this will one-up that. Like Vegas, I’m sticking with the same prediction I had before the Saban news.
Alabama continues its path of destruction to the Playoff.