The Nick Saban revenge angle is gone, but Alabama's overwhelming Iron Bowl advantage isn't
I had all these great stats about Nick Saban in revenge games.
I was ready to run down all of these numbers about how well he’s done after losing to a team the previous or same season since his arrival at Alabama. Like, how in those scenarios, he’s 12-2. He hasn’t lost a revenge game since he fell to Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss in 2015.
I was ready to roll out these numbers about Saban in revenge games at Auburn specifically. Like, how he’s 4-0 in those games with a margin of victory of 26 points, with 3 of those 4 wins coming by at least 4 scores.
Then the most 2020 thing possible happened. Saban tested positive for COVID and in more ways than one, those revenge stats were pretty useless.
What’s more useful is the fact that the Iron Bowl spread didn’t move off that Alabama -24.5 line (according to our friends at FanDuel) after the Saban news landed on Wednesday.
That’s not an excuse for you to tell everyone that “Saban isn’t that important and it’s all just about the system.” Right. It’s totally a coincidence that the guy hasn’t lost at home to a non-top 15 team since 2007. I’m sure there’s no common denominator there at all.
I say that because this didn’t suddenly open the door for an Auburn upset. This matchup favors the Crimson Tide, with or without their head coach. Like, in a major way.
Auburn fans know that. At least they should. By now, they know that Alabama has won all of its 2020 games by at least 3 scores. Two of those were against top-10 teams. By now, they should know that Alabama hasn’t lost any game to a non-top 15 team since Stephen Garcia lit the world on fire in 2010. That year was also the last time that Auburn won in Tuscaloosa. A certain Cam Newton was Auburn’s quarterback.
Auburn fans also know that Bo Nix ain’t Newton. Nix might not even be Nick Marshall. He certainly hasn’t been in road games this year with his 106.2 passer rating and his 2 touchdown passes in 3 games. If Auburn is going to have a chance of even staying somewhat close to Alabama, it’ll be because Nix plays what’s easily the best game of his career. Without knowing about the status of emerging freshman tailback Tank Bigsby, I wouldn’t bank on Nix exploding, especially against an Alabama defense riding a streak of 137 minutes and 52 seconds without allowing a touchdown heading into Saturday.
I also wouldn’t bank on the Auburn defense, which has been vulnerable against the run without K.J. Britt, shutting down Najee Harris, either. It couldn’t do that last year, and that was with Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and, of course, Britt, who won’t be active on Saturday.
Saban’s presence doesn’t change the game plan of a certain acting coach Steve Sarkisian, who still managed to hang 45 points on Auburn last year with what was then a backup quarterback. Mac Jones is no longer a backup quarterback. He’s a Heisman Trophy finalist who has averaged 344 passing yards per game and 12 yards per attempt in the 8 games he played since he helped that 45-point effort in last year’s Iron Bowl.
By the way, it’s still a revenge game for him. There could be a little extra juice in the tank depending on how these comments were received in the Alabama locker room:
Auburn QB Bo Nix on Alabama QB Mac Jones: “He does a great job managing the game, getting the ball to the players around him. Obviously he’s got a great running back, great offensive line, great receivers. That helps a lot.”
— Josh Vitale (@JoshVitale) November 25, 2020
Missing Saban for 1 game won’t change the pregame plan of attack. Will it change what Alabama does at halftime to adjust? Perhaps. If Alabama jumps out to an early lead, that’s probably a moot point. If it’s tight and Sarkisian is left making decisions with the game on the line, obviously that changes things.
Or, you know, if Pete Golding is asked to dial up key defensive stops late, well, Alabama fans might all go gray by game’s end.
But then again, this is still a defense that’s been recruited and developed by Saban. It’s not dealing with a rash of injuries and as far as we know, there isn’t some massive position hit as a result of contact tracing.
We’re talking about 1 game. We’re not talking about Saban missing an entire season to develop and make sure his program is running smoothly.
Yes, it’s a big game. It’s the Iron Bowl. It’s big even when Alabama is a 24.5-point favorite and a reduced capacity crowd will watch this game, which won’t close out the regular season.
If anything, Saban’s positive COVID test confirms that it’ll be one of the weirdest Iron Bowls on record in terms of surrounding circumstances. It’s not quite Auburn getting caught flying to interview Tommy Tuberville’s potential replacement, nor is it a scandal about Newton getting money to play at Auburn.
It’ll be a different kind of weird. Saturday’s edition of the Iron Bowl will instead have 2020’s stench all over it. But as strange as this year has been, there’s been a constant that should continue again on Saturday.
The Tide will keep on rollin’.