Auburn's only shot at staying on the field with Alabama was with both stars being healthy, which they won't be
The moment that Tank Bigsby limped off the field Saturday against Tennessee, Auburn fans should’ve come to a daunting realization.
There’s a chance that the Tigers’ 2 best players will miss the Iron Bowl.
That’s Bigsby, who burst onto the scene as Auburn’s starting back but is now questionable after a lower-body injury that knocked him out of the Tennessee game, and Auburn’s best defensive player, K.J. Britt. Thumb surgery sidelined Britt for the last month and a half.
We don’t know about Bigsby, who remains day-to-day ahead of Saturday. What we do know is that Britt won’t play Saturday. In essence, Auburn is halfway to that dreaded scenario.
What we also know is that no team — at full strength or not — has been able to stay on the same field as Alabama for 60 minutes. Georgia ran out of gas in the second half, as did top-10 Texas A&M. Certainly Tennessee didn’t have a prayer of lasting 4 quarters with Alabama. That same Tennessee squad wasn’t much of a threat for Auburn in the second half without Bigsby and Britt, though comparing the Vols to the Crimson Tide would be like comparing Ragu to marinara sauce in Rome.
Auburn fans are smart enough to know that. If they’ve done their homework, they’re also smart enough to know that the Alabama offense is some kind of force. Not only is it the best Power 5 offense in America having scored at least 35 points in every game since the start of 2019, but it also has 3 offensive skill players who are among the best in the sport right now.
Despite the fact that he’s on pace to set the FBS record for yards per attempt (12.1 currently), Auburn fans might not fear Mac Jones because of last year’s momentum-shifting pick-6s in the Iron Bowl. And Jaylen Waddle, who torched the Tigers last year, is out, so there might not be a belief that DeVonta Smith can take over against a solid Auburn secondary, but he absolutely can.
What should Auburn fans be concerned about? Facing Najee Harris without Britt.
If you haven’t seen Harris play this year, I’ll give you a summary. He runs like he’s angry at the ground, arm tackles are about as dangerous as a fly on his back and his burst at the second level is somehow better than it was down the stretch of last year.
Runs like these are why Harris ranks first in FBS in rushing touchdowns (16) and among Power 5 players with at least 100 carries, he ranks No. 8 in yards per carry (5.8):
The ONLY player in @AlabamaFTBL history with 16 rush TDs through seven games:
Najee Harris 🔥 pic.twitter.com/mYLjJC3quU
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 21, 2020
For my money, there’s not a better back in college football right now.
Harris, who is already over 1,000 scrimmage yards, should be a familiar sight for Auburn fans who watched him scamper for a total of 172 scrimmage yards in last year’s Iron Bowl. That was against an Auburn defense that had Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Britt.
Britt was the guy who entered 2020 second among SEC returners in run stops (via PFF). He would’ve been a sight for sore eyes in that Auburn huddle. Kevin Steele’s defense dominated an ineffective LSU ground game a few weeks ago, but sandwiched between that game was a 283-yard rushing day from Ole Miss and a 222-yard rushing performance from Tennessee.
Auburn needs help stopping the run wherever it can get it, and Britt would’ve been far more valuable on the field than he would’ve been making calls in sweats from the sidelines.
The same could be said for Bigsby, who has proven to be immensely important to getting the Auburn offense rolling amidst its passing game struggles (Auburn ranks No. 69 in FBS in passing efficiency). Yes, D.J. Williams and Shaun Shivers did their part when Bigsby went down against Tennessee. And yes, Shivers is the same dude who knocked the noggin off Xavier McKinney in last year’s Iron Bowl:
Shaun Shivers, not a fan of helmets. pic.twitter.com/mpyjBbu5wu
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) December 1, 2019
Shivers and Williams can be effective. But there’s a reason Auburn fans clamored for Bigsby to start getting 20 touches after the first 2 games. It’s because he’s everything you’d want in a feature back. Before the Tennessee game, he’d proven to be durable and just a nightmare to tackle. Perhaps that’s why it took a body slam for the Vols to get him to the ground.
Shivers packs a punch, yes, but he’s had 1 career run of 15 yards against a Power 5 defense (it was 2 years ago against Georgia). Williams, with a better offensive line last year, had 8 carries for 16 yards in the 2019 Iron Bowl. Plus, he’s only had 32 total carries as Bigsby’s understudy. In other words, that’s not necessarily a reliable 1-2 punch to beat an Alabama defense riding a streak of 137 minutes and 52 seconds without allowing a touchdown.
What else does that mean if Bigsby can’t give it a go? There’s going to be more pressure on Bo Nix to sustain scoring drives.
Yes, Nix beat Alabama last year. Nix also completed 50% of his passes for 5.8 yards per attempt and had the benefit of a pair of pick-6.
History might not repeat itself, but has what we’ve seen from Nix in Chad Morris’ offense really suggest he’s ready to go blow-for-blow with the 2020 version of the Alabama offense? Among SEC quarterbacks, Nix ranks No. 9 in quarterback rating, No. 10 in yards per attempt (7.3) and No. 13 in completion percentage (61.3%).
The rushing numbers are up 16 more yards per game than last year, but how many games this year has Nix truly taken over with his legs or his arm? Maybe the second half against Kentucky and LSU? Some key turnovers forced by the Auburn defense helped matters there, too. I wouldn’t argue the coverage bust on that 91-yard touchdown to Anthony Schwartz against Tennessee was Nix “taking over.”
And if you’re into that sort of thing ahead of Auburn making the trip to Tuscaloosa, Nix’s 2020 home-road splits are still, um, not great:
That was after a 2019 season in which Nix’s 3 true road games against bowl teams, he completed 46% of his passes for 4.9 yards per attempt. Road woes have always been an issue for Nix. That’s why in a perfect world, Auburn wears down the Alabama defense with Bigsby and prevents Nix from having to throw the ball 40 times.
That formula might not be available come Saturday. There’s another formula that Tiger fans are desperately hoping to avoid.
That is, 1 road trip to Tuscaloosa to face No. 1 Alabama plus 1 revenge game for Nick Saban … minus Bigsby and Britt.
That would equal 1 long afternoon for the Tigers.