I had hope.

I had hope that going into this game, Auburn would be 9-2, and it would be essentially an SEC West title game. That hope faded faster than you could say “rat poison.”

Three consecutive Auburn losses turned a potential 2017 repeat into a 4th consecutive season without a New Year’s 6 Bowl. Instead of talking about the division title game, an Auburn team without Bo Nix is now reeling, having lost consecutive double-digit leads to the likes of Mississippi State and South Carolina.

The get-right game will be … Alabama? Probably not, but it was for Texas A&M. And hey, it’s 2021, so let’s not rule anything out. The Tide went into 2017 and 2019 as road favorites at Jordan-Hare, and it didn’t matter.

So will Nick Saban win his 1st game at Auburn since 2015? Let’s dig into that:

1. Will Anderson Jr. vs. T.J. Finley … yikes

What’s the worst thing about not having Nix out there for the Iron Bowl? Auburn doesn’t have a quarterback who can escape Anderson, who has been unblockable all year. Even the mobile Nix was hurried twice and sacked once by Anderson in this game last year.

I joked that Anderson, who is 4.5 tackles for loss away from setting the FBS single-season record, could own that title by day’s end. If Mike Bobo doesn’t put Finley in some favorable spots, shoot, Anderson could get that mark by halftime.

Finley showed some nice mobility against Georgia State, but against South Carolina, we were reminded that he really operates best when he’s throwing from a clean pocket. He was sacked only once, but his throws were impacted by pressure up front. Last year, Finley’s last start at LSU was against Alabama. He took a career high 4 sacks, 2 of which were by Anderson.

This is a bad matchup for the young quarterback, especially considering that in the last 5 games alone, Anderson has 40 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. The guy is a game-changer in every way:

It could be a long day for the 6-7 signal-caller.

2. Is Bobo coaching for his job?

A month ago, I thought Bobo was more likely to win the Broyles Award than he was to be out of a job a season’s end. Now, though, it’s fair to wonder if Bryan Harsin will pull the plug. We already saw Harsin fire his receivers coach after the Georgia State mess, so we know he’s not loyal to his coaching staff in a Dan Mullen-like way.

The argument to keep Bobo is that before Nix got hurt, he looked like the best version of himself in that offense. Nix still has 2 years of eligibility left, and ideally, Harsin wouldn’t have him working with his 4th offensive coordinator in as many years. Harsin poached Bobo from South Carolina and got him a 3-year deal for $1.3 million annually. Ideally, Harsin wouldn’t have to start over and find a new play-caller.

But the argument against Bobo is what we’ve seen in this current 3-game losing streak. Auburn blew double-digit leads in consecutive games, yes, but perhaps more noteworthy was the offensive collapse in the 2nd half in the last 4 games:

  • 12 total points
  • Scored on 3 of 22 drives
  • Had 4 turnovers
  • Missed a FG
  • Turned the ball over on downs twice

Yikes. That goes back to the Ole Miss win, by the way. It didn’t help that Tank Bigsby was shown on the sideline looking visibly frustrated during the South Carolina game after he wasn’t on the field for 4th and 1 in Auburn territory. I’m guessing Bigsby/Auburn fans were again frustrated to see the star tailback not receive a touch on a drive with 5 minutes left down 4.

Bobo might need to avoid a total clunker against Alabama in order to come back in 2022. Or perhaps Harsin already has that decision made either way.

3. Derek Mason has to attack the right side of Alabama’s offensive line

It’s no secret that Alabama’s right tackle has been a bit of a work in progress this year. It turns out that Evan Neal was pretty good there last season and not so easy to replace. Shocking, right?

Filling his spot has been a bit of a mixed bag, and it has certainly been an issue in games like LSU and Texas A&M. Damieon George started the last 2 games there and appears to have solidified that spot, though he had multiple holding penalties against Arkansas. Given how many capable blitzers Auburn has, one would think Mason would try to exploit that.

Mason was criticized for being too conservative against Mississippi State, and it was one of the reasons why the Tigers blew a 28-3 lead. Against Alabama, forcing Bryce Young into some hurried throws will be easier said than done because of how well he escapes pressure and sets his feet.

Still, though. Mason needs to be willing to take some chances on the right side and force that group to make some quick decisions with extra pressure.

4. Alabama’s defense got the bulletin board material it needed from 2 places

Ya gotta love it when that happens.

Playoff selection committee chairman Gary Barta said that Alabama dropping from No. 2 to No. 3 was a byproduct of Saban’s team not imposing its will defensively. As Cole Cubelic noted, that’s a weird argument when the numbers show the Tide has had the better defense than Ohio State the last 3 games:

Barta should’ve simply said that Ohio State had a louder statement win, and it now has an average margin of victory against Power 5 competition more than 10 points better than Alabama’s. Instead, he called out the Tide’s defense.

Oh, and in case that wasn’t enough, Alabama also heard about all the calls it gets from Nix, who won’t even be playing on Saturday:

It’s worth noting that last week’s officiating in the Arkansas-Alabama game was bad on both sides. The delayed touchdown ruling on Dominique Johnson’s score when he was standing in the end zone was bizarre, as was the KJ Jefferson touchdown pass to Treylon Burks that counted even though the play clock showed “0.”

This feels like the type of game in which Alabama could pin its collective defensive ears back and make sure that a call here or there isn’t impacting the result.

Brace yourself for the Michael Jordan “and I took that personally” tweets.

5. The ‘something’s gotta give’ that nobody could’ve predicted a month ago

I already outlined Auburn’s 2nd-half struggles of late. That’s a baffling trend considering Bigsby is healthy and that defense is loaded with experience.

What’s equally baffling is how mediocre Alabama has been in the 2nd halves of SEC games. Alabama is outscoring its SEC opponents by an average of only 6.5 points in the 2nd half. In the 3rd quarter against SEC competition, Alabama is +13 in 7 games.

Both Alabama and Auburn have lacked that killer instinct far too often for their fan bases’ liking. It’d be different if you could point to 1 specific thing, but you really can’t. It’s not like Bigsby and Brian Robinson Jr. are inferior backs behind their respective offensive lines, and it’s not like the secondaries lack the ability to break up a pass and get off the field.

Neither of these teams has been able to put together a full SEC game since the calendar turned to November. My not-so-bold guess? The winner of this game will finally change that.

And a prediction … Alabama 38, Auburn 10

Once upon a time, I envisioned a scenario in which Auburn could make this a true 60-minute game. We’d see offensive balance, and in another hostile atmosphere, Alabama would struggle to impose its will.

But there are too many mismatches for me to envision the Tide searching for answers late in this one.

I don’t know how Anderson doesn’t get to Finley and disrupt multiple drives. I’m not sure how an Auburn pass defense that struggled to get to South Carolina’s Jason Brown is now going to figure it out against Young, who has taken his connection with Jameson Williams to a different level. I don’t see how Auburn’s 2nd-half woes correct themself against Alabama, given all that’s on the table for the Tide.

Auburn was willing to pay $23 million to make the guy with 3 victories against Saban go away. I’m not saying that was the wrong decision, but the grass isn’t always greener. Harsin’s first experience against the G.O.A.T. should be telling. Can he rally his team for a rivalry game after an embarrassing few weeks? Or will it look checked out in the 2nd half?

A new era of the Iron Bowl is set to begin. But unfortunately for Auburn, a November to forget might have 1 last knockout blow.