Iron Bowl: 5 biggest concerns Alabama has with Auburn
Cow college. That school down the road. Auburn War Eagles. Booger eaters.
No matter your pejorative of choice, chances are if you’re reading this you have a go-to epithet when referring to the Auburn University football program.
And while we will sprinkle them in liberally all week when crafting Crimson Tide-themed Iron Bowl previews, the real point of this particular piece is to highlight the top 5 things that should really concern any Alabama fan heading into Saturday’s must-win game against N0. 15 Auburn.
And no, we aren’t talking about tree-on-tree crime should the Tigers win and the Toomer’s Corner oaks get a TP shower.
Auburn presents real problems for the 5th-ranked Crimson Tide. and we are here to highlight them for you …
5. Auburn’s dangerous pass defense
In Death Valley last month, Auburn limited LSU’s high-flying passing attack and Heisman Trophy front-runner Joe Burrow to a season-low 23 points, including its worst passing efficiency game of the year (143.49).
“I think it means a lot going into next week, you know, because I think they’re going to give us a lot of unnecessary formations, a lot of just trick, crazy things to get us out of gaps, get us out of our zone fits, picks routes and everything like that,” Auburn defensive back Christian Tutt said Saturday after the Tigers routed Samford 52-0. “We just got to be technique-sound, eyes on them and go out there and execute.”
Auburn’s defense is allowing 196.91 yards per game, which is 28th nationally, and has only allowed 2 teams more than 300 passing yards. LSU got there, and so too did Texas A&M — though the majority of those yards came in the 4th quarter with the game out of reach. Auburn also boasts a top-20 passing efficiency defense, holding opposing teams to a 112.54 passer rating, which is 18th nationally.
4. Mac Jones can’t realize his destiny
The entirety of Michael McCorkle Jones’ life has led up to the moment at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday when he leads the Alabama Crimson Tide offense onto the field against Auburn.
Everything else has simply been prologue. The lopsided win against an Arkansas team last month that was an SEC victory in title only? Prologue. The second half against Mississippi State? Prologue. A glorified dress rehearsal/scrimmage game against Western Carolina?
It becomes real Saturday for Mac Jones. Nothing he could have seen at The Bolles School in Jacksonville could prepare him for his first Iron Bowl start. Nothing on the Alabama practice squad, a 3rd-teamer behind Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, could prepare him for his first Iron Bowl start.
Now that Tua Tagovailoa is Alabama’s greatest utility cart rider, it is finally time for Mac Jones to step up and take what it his.
3. Gus Malzahn empties the playbook
Sugar huddles. Double reverses. Fake punts. Fake field goals. Emory & Henry formations. Statue of Liberty plays.
You name it, and you better believe it is somewhere in Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s playbook on The Plains. Alabama could prepare for this game for a solid month, and it’s even money that Malzahn would trot out something bizarre by the end of the 1st quarter.
For Alabama to win, they have to play the ball and not the sleight of hand that the Tigers will surely bring. Because it’s coming.
2. Bo Nix matures into a senior overnight
Auburn’s freshman quarterback has been far from sub-standard in his rookie season at Auburn, throwing for 2,193 yards and 14 touchdowns against 6 interceptions. But he, too, didn’t look great in the Auburn-LSU matchup — going just 15-of-35 for 157 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. In fact, Nix has only eclipsed the 200-yard mark once this season against a ranked team (245 yards and a TD against No. 4 Georgia).
Alabama can win if it keeps Nix in front of them all afternoon, not letting the QB flex his young arm and taste some momentum on the big stage. Auburn can win if Nix hits early and often, as he has shown flashes of doing all season.
1. Letting Auburn define the moment
Nick Saban talked after the Tide’s lone loss to LSU, and in subsequent weeks following victories against Mississippi State and Western Carolina, about Alabama defining its own standard.
Defining that standard is ambiguous, but you know it when you see it. And Saban wants to see it for 60 minutes on Saturday.
It will not be easy. Jordan-Hare Stadium rocks in games like this unlike for any other opponent. Auburn gets up for this game annually unlike any other. So, too, does Alabama.
What the Tide need to be aware of, innately, is getting beyond the moment. Try as Saban might, he cannot de-program his players to avoid thinking about what could happen should Alabama defeat Auburn. He can’t make them ignore College Football Playoff implications. He can’t pass off what bragging rights mean to arguably the most entitled fan base in the sport’s rich, 150-year history.
But that’s a double-edged sword. To win Saturday means to define the moment before Auburn can, and to keep stepping on the neck once you get a firm toehold. To impose your will on the Tigers, 1-on-1, across the field and on both sides of the ball.
Should Alabama put it all together, and keep it together when all the world seems to be crashing down around them, a victory will come. Should the moment define the Tide, though, and Auburn be offered even a glimmer of hope?
It will be too late.