Iron Bowl week is here: Early thoughts on some atypical circumstances
It’s gonna get weird on The Plains.
That much we know. It’s already weird.
This game has had either Playoff/national championship implications basically every year since 2007. In fact, this could be the first time since Nick Saban’s first year at Alabama that the winner neither makes the SEC Championship or the national championship.
Seriously. Think about that. That’s why this rivalry is one of the best in all of sports.
It’s not just about poisoning trees and households divided. It’s really, really good football. And go figure that the year that the Iron Bowl winner’s SEC Championship/national championship streak could come to an end, this is still a matchup of ranked teams with New Year’s 6 Bowl aspirations.
And I realize that plenty of people believe Alabama still has a very real possibility of making the Playoff. In my opinion, it’s going to take more things than people realize (2-loss champs from both the Big 12 and Pac-12 is my guess).
But now that Iron Bowl week is here, let’s dig into some early thoughts I have:
Style points for Alabama are the bare minimum
Like I said, I don’t think that Alabama is going to make the Playoff unless total craziness ensues over the course of the next couple weeks. But if that somehow happens, my gut tells me we’ll look back on the Iron Bowl and point to how dominant Alabama was.
Against Auburn, “style points” aren’t really much of a thing. Georgia only beat the Tigers by a touchdown. Shoot, LSU barely held on at home against Auburn and that loaded defense. Florida’s 11-point win is the most lopsided defeat of the season for an Auburn team that had matchups against 4 teams (LSU, Georgia, Oregon and Florida) that are in the top 11 in the country.
Alabama, on the other hand, lost its only matchup against a current top-25 team. In case you haven’t heard.
Joe Burrow struggled to light up the Auburn defense at home. Now all Mac Jones has to do is waltz into Jordan-Hare, where Alabama won by 3 scores just once under Saban, and deliver a performance for the ages.
The Gus factor is a total wild card
I wish there was a stat of teams who before the game said “let’s win this one and save our coach.” I’d be fascinated to know what those numbers are. I tend to think that with 18-22 year-olds, it’s important. After all, these are the coaches who sat down in their living rooms, talked to their families and essentially became their dads away from home (I realize not everyone has that relationship with their coach).
Consider that my way of saying, I wonder what’ll be said in that Auburn locker room before Saturday’s Iron Bowl as it relates to Malzahn. How much will that be on the minds of everyone on that home sideline? I don’t know.
There’s the other side of the coin. Maybe Auburn is so used to hearing the Malzahn rumors that it’s just another rivalry game for them. Like, there’s no extra motivation needed for the Tigers to put the nail in the coffin for Alabama’s season. And unlike 2017, it would actually be the season-ender.
But maybe this year is different as it relates to Malzahn. He said coming into this year that was going to be more open and honest with players. All reports are that he’s more likable and relatable than ever. Does that mean we could see Auburn fly off the ball in a way that it hasn’t all year? I wouldn’t rule that out.
Steve Sarkisian’s biggest challenge yet awaits
I don’t think Sarkisian has gotten enough credit for the job he’s been doing with the Alabama offense. And sure, having Tua Tagovailoa with one of the most talented group of receivers we’ve seen in the 21st century has something to do with that. It looks so easy when Alabama runs an RPO quick slant that goes for 80 yards. But I’d argue the spacing that Sarkisian schemed to allow Tagovailoa to throw into big windows and get his receivers in space was underrated.
So without Tagovailoa, how does Sarkisian manage to do that?
I already referenced how Burrow struggled against Auburn’s defense. Kevin Steele’s formula was to get pressure with 3 and 4 pass rushers — something a team can do with ease when it has monsters like Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson — and pack the secondary into the middle of the field. I imagine Steele will have a similar game plan.
How Sarkisian counters that could determine this game. LSU had a lot of success getting Clyde Edwards-Helaire involved in multiple ways. I’d expect Najee Harris to have massive volume both as a runner and as a pass-catcher coming off an overlooked dominant showing against Mississippi State.
4 total TDs. 2 of them within a 14-second span.
Alabama’s Najee Harris had a GAME vs. Mississippi State. pic.twitter.com/eqKVDpeJIt
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 17, 2019
Anything Sarkisian can do to take pressure off Jones is a must. That’ll include the quick bubble screens that force Auburn to tackle Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith in space.
It’s one thing to make the right adjustments without Tagovailoa against Arkansas or an FCS team. It’s another to do it on the road against one of the great defensive lines we’ve seen in recent memory.
Can Bo Nix get some designed runs now? Please?
I’ve thought all year that Nix has been underutilized as a runner. I get that he’s a true freshman and Malzahn didn’t want to expose him, especially lately since Joey Gatewood became the second Auburn quarterback to transfer this year. Depth is limited.
But man, it’s the last game of the year, and one that could have massive implications for Malzahn’s future. I can’t imagine he’s worried about protecting Nix. Now is the time for him to call his own number.
Remember what Ole Miss did to Alabama a couple months ago with John Rhys Plumlee? The Rebels ran all over Alabama. I’d be stunned of Auburn doesn’t try to do the same. Alabama is extremely banged up in the front 7 and is nowhere near the level of dominant against the run that we’ve come to expect from Saban’s defenses.
Nix shouldn’t approach anywhere near the 50 pass attempts he had last week against Georgia. That number was high because Georgia has the best run defense of any Power 5 team and gameflow dictated heavy passing.
Nix hasn’t had 50 rushing yards or a run of at least 20 yards since he played his best game of the year against Mississippi State. Saturday would be an ideal time for that to change.
The wild college football butterfly effect as it relates to this game
Tagovailoa’s injury was a national story for the obvious reason. It was an extremely rare, season-ending and likely college career-ending injury to the biggest household name in college football. The micro impact is that it could prevent Alabama from even sniffing the Playoff conversation because it could be the difference in blowing out Auburn or losing.
That in itself is significant. We’re talking about Alabama potentially missing the Playoff for the first time. Add in the potential future quarterback battle that’s in play now and we’re talking about some major short- and long-term ramifications in Tuscaloosa.
But the butterfly effect of Tagovailoa’s injury could be even greater.
If Saturday is make-or-break for Malzahn — I’m not sure that it is — then that could obviously impact Auburn’s future, as well as Arkansas’ future. It could narrow the Hogs’ list and force them to poach a Group of 5 coach that impacts their immediate and distant future.
So we’re talking about 3 of the 7 SEC West teams dealing with the fallout of Tagovailoa’s injury, not to mention the likely scenario that involves LSU avoiding Alabama in the Playoff in its quest to win a national title (you can bet plenty of Tiger fans are still bracing for a 2011 repeat).
And then there’s the potential future impact of superstars on teams with slim or non-existent Playoff paths. Everyone freaked out about Nick Bosa sitting the remainder of the 2018 season and not rushing a comeback from his groin injury to play for a Playoff hopeful Ohio State team.
What about guys like Tagovailoa, who play for teams with narrow conference title/Playoff paths? Could this be a watershed moment that extends this “sit the bowl game” wave into the regular season? I wouldn’t rule that out. Tagovailoa suffered what can only be described as a freak injury, and even though he doesn’t regret playing, what’s to say every future first-round pick is going to be willing to play in a mid-November game like that?
You can debate the merits of that all you want, but the reality is, a high-profile injury like Tagovailoa’s happening when it did was significant. If someone who NFL teams were reportedly tanking to draft can have his stock impacted, nobody is safe from that.
My guess? The Tua injury butterfly effect will be talked about well beyond when the clock hits zero on Saturday.