No. 1 Alabama rolls into Jordan–Hare Stadium on Saturday to face No. 4 Auburn in an Iron Bowl to decide the SEC West. The Crimson Tide come in favored by more than 10 points, but it won't be a cakewalk against the Tigers' potent offense (per Oddsshark.com).
Alabama's sights are set on a third consecutive national title, but in each of those years it was a one-loss team. As the Tide pursue perfection this time around, upstart Auburn will be eager to upend them. Marquee SEC games are often more compelling than the national championship contest itself, and if Auburn can stay within striking distance this contest could be one for the ages.
Here are the keys to victory for both sides, with Auburn facing a very tall mountain to climb against Bama's tidal wave.
Running Through the Tide
The Tigers nipped Texas A&M in a mid-October slugfest and have mostly looked strong since. Auburn barely survived Georgia last week, and it would have lost if a couple of Bulldogs cornerbacks knew that you knock the ball down on 4th-and-18 instead of trying to catch it. Instead, a remarkable 73-yard touchdown delivered a victory and set up a thrilling Iron Bowl clash.
Auburn will look to pull off a huge upset against a team that sometimes seems closer to the NFL than the NCAA. To do that, it will have to rely on its superior offense to pile up points and outduel Bama quarterback AJ McCarron.
The Tigers' scoring has buoyed them all season long, and they enter Saturday racking up just shy of 500 yards of offense per game, ranking 12th in the nation. While Auburn has the offense to keep the game close, Bama's defense has been scarily good yet again this year, so this will be a matchup of strength against strength.
While Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall has thrown only nine touchdowns, he has also run for nine scores and 823 yards. Think of him as a much quieter version of Johnny Manziel. And Marshall's rushing numbers pale in comparison to those posted by running back Tre Mason, who has amassed 17 touchdowns with 1,153 yards on the ground.
Also keep an eye on the versatile Ricardo Louis. He came out of nowhere last week to pile up 197 yards, with 66 of those coming on five rushing attempts. He also hauled in that improbable game-winning 73-yard TD, a catch that by itself was more than his receiving yardage total in any game this season.
Because Auburn's strength on offense lies in its running game, it has a fighting chance to control the pace and hang around with Bama. It will be imperative for the Tigers to win time of possession and take care of the ball against that third-ranked D.
You Call That Defense?
Alabama's defense ranks third in the nation behind only Michigan State and Louisville in yardage allowed. That's bad news for Auburn of course, but the Tigers' own defense delivers even worse news: they rank 69th in the FBS, nestled snugly between the titans of South Alabama and Fresno State.
Auburn has yielded at least 20 points to seven of its 11 opponents this season, and it is prone to periods of inconsistency. Last week, the Tigers led Georgia 37-17 early in the fourth quarter. After allowing Bulldogs QB Aaron Murray to throw for a pair of TDs and run in another one over an eight-minute span, Auburn found itself staring at a 38-37 defeat before its miraculous Hail Mary.
Auburn's subpar defense will have a hard time keeping the Crimson Tide in check. McCarron is putting together another fine year with 2,399 passing yards and 23 touchdowns to just five picks. He's completing over 68 percent of his passes and he's not afraid to share the love: eight Bama receivers have at least 10 catches on the year.
Auburn should watch a tape of Bama's 20-7 win at Mississippi State on Nov. 16. The Bulldogs forced McCarron into two interceptions on the day and remained within striking distance until the final whistle. With 18 interceptions and 24 sacks on the year, Auburn must be opportunistic and disrupt Bama's passing game to keep McCarron out of sync.
Alabama's running backs help them run the clock and frustrate opposing offenses even more. Kenyan Drake has found the end zone eight times this season and Derrick Henry is averaging more than 10 yards per carry. Worse still, T.J. Yeldon is set to return from an ankle injury that kept him out of last week's game, and he will bring 1,000-plus yards and 12 touchdowns with him to Auburn (via Andrew Gribble of Alabama.com). Yeldon had been an early commit in 2011 to Auburn before becoming a turncoat for Bama, so he will remain a marked man for the Tigers, especially with his gimpy ankle.
Bucking the Trend
Worst of all, history is not on Auburn's side. Alabama has beaten the Tigers seven out of the last 11 times they've faced each other. The last meeting was a lopsided affair with the Crimson Tide winning 49-0, though that was in Tuscaloosa. This year's contest will take place on Auburn's turf, which will give the Tigers a boost, but points are always hard to come by against Alabama.
Bama is coming off another laugher with a 49-0 victory last week, but that one was against Chattanooga. Alabama saw a little bit of a letdown after its victory over LSU in early November, as it struggled with Mississippi State. Perhaps the Tide will come out flat after beating the Mocs by seven touchdowns and Auburn can capitalize early.
Auburn's new coach Gus Malzahn has turned that program right around and will have his charges playing with hunger. There are hints of 2010 in the air around Auburn, but Cam Newton is not under center this time around.
Auburn boasts the superior offense, but Alabama's defense is head-and-shoulders above anyone else in the SEC. The best chance Auburn has to steal an Iron Bowl victory and seize the SEC West title will be to win the turnovers battle and dominate the ground game, but that is a very tall order against the efficiency of McCarron and the Tide's fearsome defense.