The Iron Bowl isn't named for the iron-rich red clay that blankets the state of Alabama, but this year, it might as well be.
The annual rivalry between the Auburn Tigers and the Alabama Crimson Tide, previously played in Birmingham, was named because of the city's iron production. This season, the Iron Bowl features two robust rushing offenses—and whichever ground attack kicks up more red clay will likely win.
With both squads entering the game in the top three in the Southeastern Conference in rush offense, it'll be on the two defenses to dig in and drive the opposition back.
This is where the Crimson Tide, who did earn their name from the state's red clay, will win the Iron Bowl.
The Alabama defense will be tested all game long by the relentless Auburn ground attack. 'Bama head coach Nick Saban said as much this week, calling Gus Malzahn's offense one of the best in the country, per Ryan Black and Marq Burnett, Ledger-Enquirer:
They’re one of the leading offensive teams in the country. Gus has always done a fantastic job with the offense, with their ability to run the ball effectively, throw it when they need to (and) score the points that they’ve been able to score on a pretty consistent basis against just about everybody in this league.
Saban couldn't be more correct. Auburn ranks No. 1 in the SEC and No. 2 in college football in rush offense. At an average of 320.3 rushing yards per game, the Tigers have sliced up just about every defense they have faced—and they've done it inside and out.
Iron Bowl in SEC: Auburn No. 1 rush offense. Alabama No. 1 rush defense. Auburn No. 2 total offense. Alabama No. 1 total defense.— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) November 24, 2013
Auburn boasts four rushers over 500 yards on the season and has been paced by running back Tre Mason. The junior, who has 1,153 yards and 17 touchdowns on the year, represents what the AU offense is all about.
At 5'10", 205 pounds, Mason has the strength and power to run strong on the inside, but also has the speed to stretch to the perimeter and bust out enormous gains.
Despite the versatility presented by Mason, quarterback Nick Marshall and the Auburn attack, Alabama is built to stop any type of challenge that comes its way up front—much thanks to linebacker C.J. Mosley.
The senior is a leading candidate for the Chuck Bednarik Award (the defensive Heisman), and Saban identified his leadership and experience as the key to stopping the lethal Auburn offense, per Ledger-Enquirer:
I think that both of those things are going to be critical factors in this game. There’s a lot of adjustments that you have to make on defense, especially to be able to stay sound on the perimeter and to make sure that everybody’s in the right gaps when they run the inside runs. He’s the guy that’s going to try to adjust that defense all the time to try to get us in the right spot. It’s not only going to be his ability to make plays (but) also his ability to help us execute the game plan and get guys in the right spots. You’ve got to do it at a fast pace. I think that the experience that he has will help us do that.
Saban is often known for having one leader on defense who can essentially be his eyes and ears on the field, and Mosley is that for this year's 'Bama squad.
Mosley's leadership hasn't just placed him in the running for individual honors. The Mobile native has been the most crucial piece to Alabama's place as the No. 1 team in the BCS and its spot as the No. 4 rushing and No. 1 scoring defense in the country.
Alabama hasn't allowed a team to run for Auburn's average (320) since Nov. 1997 vs. Mississippi State.— Andrew Gribble (@Andrew_Gribble) November 25, 2013
Auburn is well aware of Alabama's accolades. Tigers center Reese Dismukes called the top-ranked Tide the best team they have seen this season, per Joel Erickson, AL.com.
"They're a very good team," Dismukes said. "They'll be the best we've played, and we're going to have to play our best game to have a shot."
While Mosley and the Alabama defense look to contend with Mason and the Auburn offense, the Tide will look to bully a Tigers defense that has no Mosley.
While Alabama hasn't been nearly as explosive offensively as Auburn, the Tide have a big offensive line and several dangerous running backs.
Led by running back T.J. Yeldon, Alabama has amassed 211.5 rushing yards per game, good for No. 3 in the SEC. The sophomore isn't far behind Mason, as he has tallied 1,022 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground. Behind him is fellow sophomore Kenyan Drake and freshman Derrick Henry, who have combined for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns.
That trio will like its chances at overpowering an Auburn run defense that has been suspect this season. The Tigers are just ninth in the conference, allowing 153.2 rushing yards per game.
How will the Iron Bowl end up?
LSU, the only team to beat the Tigers this season, leaned hard on their defensive front and carved out 228 yards on the ground. Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi State had similar success, all breaking 200 rushing yards against AU.
The Tide will look to combine their own offensive blueprint with that laid forth by LSU and Co. Their own blueprint has played out for more than 180 rushing yards per game in each of the last eight games, including four efforts over 250 yards in that span.
The only thing that might detract from the Alabama rushing attack is if Saban decides he wants to go to the air in support of AJ McCarron's recently revived Heisman Trophy campaign.
Even if the Tide take to the skies on offense, the difference will be made with their rush defense against Auburn's ground attack.
It will be an interesting matchup, as Auburn hasn't seen a run defense as strong as Alabama's, and Alabama hasn't seen a rushing assault like Auburn's.
Whichever side is more ready for the other will win—but there might not be a coach-player combo that is better at preparedness than Saban and Mosley.
In Saturday's Iron Bowl (3:30 p.m. EST, CBS), that will be how the Crimson Tide earn their name and their spot in the SEC championship game.