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AUBURN | Auburn plays host to Alabama in the 78th Iron Bowl this week. Alabama comes into the game with a consensus No. 1 ranking while Auburn is ranked No. 4 in the Bowl Championship Series. Auburn will be the highest-ranked team any No. 1 ranked Alabama ever has faced in a regular-season game.
The Tide entered this season as the top-ranked team in college football and it's held that position throughout the 2013 season. Auburn began the season as an unranked afterthought, picked by many experts to finish at or near the bottom of the mighty Western Division and not receiving even a single vote in the pre-season Top 25 polls.
And now, the two bitter rivals will play for the right to advance to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta; possibly much more.
Head Coach Nick Saban has guided the Alabama program since 2007, compiling a record of 79-13 (.851). His team has won three of the last four BCS championships, with Auburn winning it in 2010. Alabama returned 13 starters from their 2012 championship team; six on offense and seven on defense.
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is in his second year at Alabama, having joined the Tide staff after three years at Washington. Nussmeier played five seasons as a reserve quarterback in the NFL and spent two years as an assistant coach for the St. Louis Rams.
Alabama is a truly multiple offense, using a wide variety of formations and lots of pre-snap motion. Although they have a very strong passing game, the Tide's roots are in a power running game. Much like Arkansas in 2013, they like to use multiple tight ends or a tight end flanked by an H-back to create what amounts to an unbalanced line.
The Tide offense has improved dramatically since early in the season, and the biggest reason for that is up front. Offensive line coach Mario Crisobal has done an outstanding job of taking his group from a major liability early this season to a major strength at this point.
Right guard Anthony Steen (6-3, 309, Sr.) was abused by Auburn's Nick Fairley in the 2010 Iron Bowl, but he has evolved into the Tide's most effective run blocker. The Kouandjio brothers, Cyrus (6-6, 310, Jr.) and Arie (6-5, 315, Jr.) are the left tackle and left guard respectively. Junior Austin Shepard (6-5, 315) is the right tackle while center Ryan Kelly (6-5, 290, Soph.) is the youngster of the group.
Junior tight end Brian Vogler (6-7, 290) is an excellent blocker and a huge target in the passing game. Freshman O.J. Howard (6-6, 237) is the backup tight end, but has recently been used frequently as an H-back. Howard is not much of a blocker at this point in his young career, but is an outstanding receiver with good hands and surprising speed. Howard has 12 receptions and averages 20.5 yards per catch.
Alabama has a number of excellent wide receivers -- most with speed and experience. Junior Christion Jones (5-11, 185) leads the team with 35 receptions. Senior Kevin Norwood (6-2, 195) has 33 catches and has been the go-to receiver in the red zone. Norwood has six touchdown catches.
The Tide offense is led by senior quarterback A.J. McCarron (6-4, 214, Sr.). A three-year starter, McCarron has completed 190 of 277 pass attempts for 2,399 yards. He has thrown for 23 touchdowns while being intercepted five times. McCarron has run the ball 20 times for a net gain of 5 yards.
Alabama is usually in a one-back alignment and the primary running backs are T.J. Yeldon (6-2, 218, Soph.) and Kenyan Drake (6-1, 201, Soph.). Yeldon has 164 carries for 1,022 yards and 12 touchdowns and is averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He also averages 9.5 yards per catch. Drake has more of a burst than Yeldon and has averaged 7.5 yards on 88 carries.
Yeldon typically is in the game for passing downs; he is much more adept at pass blocking than Drake.
The Alabama defense is one of the more consistent units in college football. Defensive Coordinator Kirby Smart has been with Saban since the 2006 season with the Miami Dolphins and the two obviously are on the same page when it comes to managing defense.
Alabama describes itself as a 3-4 team, but it also shifts into a 4-3 look when needed. The most striking feature of the defense is the sheer size: They are big up front and at linebacker. The defensive ends are Ed Stinson (6-4, 292, Sr.) and Jeoffrey Pagan (6-4, 290, Jr.), and the nose tackle is Brandon Ivory (6-4, 310, Jr.). The leader of the defense is senior inside linebacker C.J. Mosley (6-2, 238). Junior Trey DePriest (6-2, 245) also works inside while and junior Adrian Hubbard (6-6, 252) and sophomore Denzell Devall (6-2, 250) work outside.
Mosley is the leading tackler on the team with 88 stops and freshman defensive end A'Shawn Robinson (6-4, 320) is the sack leader with five.
The strength of the secondary is the safeties. Both strong safety Landon Collins (6-0, 215, Soph.) and free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208, Jr.) are very solid against the run, but are also athletic enough to drop down and play man coverage on a slot receiver. Clinton-Dix has two interceptions this season, as does cornerback Cyrus Jones (5-10, 196, Soph.). Senior Deion Belue (5-11, 183) is the other corner.
THE SPECIAL TEAMS:
Jones, a junior wide receiver, is third nationally and leads the SEC in kickoff returns with an average of 30.3 yards. Jones is 13th nationally in punt returns with an average return of 14.2 yards.
Senior punter Cody Mandell is averaging 47.3 yards per punt, good for second in the SEC. Alabama has a net punt average of 42.0. Mandell has punted 33 times this season and 10 of those have been returned.
Senior kicker Cade Foster is 11-of-12 on field goal attempts with a long kick of 52 yards. Foster also kicks off, and has recorded 15 touchbacks on 63 kicks this season. Alabama opponents have averaged 20.5 yards per kickoff return.
Wide receiver Keon Hatcher (6-2, 210, Soph.) is the deep man on kickoff returns. He averages 22 yards per return. Fellow wideout Javontee Herndon (6-1, 197, Jr.) handles punt returns. He has only returned six punts and averages 5.8 yards.
The most obvious question here is whether Auburn's high-octane running game can function effectively against Alabama's excellent defense. As is always the case againsy a strong opponent, the Tigers will need a passing game to keep the defense honest. I believe Auburn has more than enough pass offense to make Saban and Smart respect the threat.
For whatever reason, Alabama seems more comfortable this year in a 4-3 alignment than the 3-4 they call their base defense. I expect the 4-3 will be the standard this week for the Tide, especially after Auburn's ground game chewed up Georgia's 3-4 two weeks ago.
As much of the national television media keeps reminding us, Auburn's offense is pretty simple. I am sure the Alabama coaching staff knows understands every play in the AU offense. Still, knowing how the play is executed is not the same as stopping it. I've been impressed with the discipline of Alabama's defense this year. Virtually every player does exactly what he is supposed to do.
And therein lies an opportunity for Auburn and Gus Malzahn. There are "rules" in football. Not the written rules of the game, but "protocol" if you will, that "must" be followed. For example, if the offense lines up with five men on one side of the ball, then the defense must put five on that side. And if the offense puts a man with no arms out wide, the defense will put a man out there to cover him. It's just "the way it's done".
Much of Gus Malzahn's offense is predicated on the defense doing what they are supposed to do. And the best thing about going against an excellent coach like Nick Saban is that is he'll make absolutely sure his defense is properly aligned and every individual executes his assignment perfectly. The point of all this is -- if you know what the defense will do, you can take advantage. I expect Auburn to do just that.
As impressive as Alabama is defensively, I am more concerned about their offense. The Bama offensive line is hardly dominating, but they use excellent technique and play with great effort. The holes they open in the running game are not always large, but they are holes nonetheless. I think Auburn's front can match up with Alabama's front, which is a must. Alabama has some excellent wide receivers and their play-action passing game is one of the best I've seen. McCarron isn't particularly athletic, and he is off-target now and then, but remains extremely dangerous with the play-action pass. McCarron has plenty of arm strength and throws a really nice deep ball.
He is too experienced to give up a sack often, but he does get out of rhythm when pressured, and isn't nearly the passer that he is when he can set his feet.
I expect Alabama to use a lot of man coverage, taking advantage of the versatility of their safeties. With that man coverage comes the risk of big plays for the Auburn running game. I also expect a lot of blitzing by Alabama -- for the purpose of disrupting Auburn's running game.
Defensively, Auburn has little choice but to stay close to their base look. The Tide's passing game is too good for AU to take a lot of chances defending the run. Offensively, Auburn will run the same offense that has garnered them 10 wins this season. There will be some base plays that are blocked differently and some plays where a different defender is optioned.
One of the interesting things to watch this week is the impact of the "off-field" coaches hired by AU for this season. To his credit, Saban has had that kind of off-field support staff for years, and because of that, he has been able to know virtually every detail about opponents. This is Auburn's first Iron Bowl with an equivalent staff to help prepare and I'm curious to see what, if any, difference it makes. I think it will be very noticeable.
I don't know who will win the game. Both teams are outstanding (It's great to be able to say that again!). Every coach on both sides has put everything he has into getting his players ready. Every player on both sides will give all he has on every play. I hate these games because they mean so much, but I love them because this is what college football is really all about.
I never make predictions because of a superstition I have. I think AU will be more prepared for this Iron Bowl than any in a long while and I expect the Jordan-Hare crowd to be the equivalent of the 1989 Iron Bowl.
I have some recordings of Mizzou and South Carolina games I want to take an early peek at, so I'll end this here. War Eagle, brothers and sisters!
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