Will Alabama’s unproven talent be able to measure up to Auburn’s returning experience in 2014?
Coming off the highest-stakes Iron Bowl in series history, the question—which already hovers 365 days a year in Alabama—takes on greater national meaning.
The two teams met on Nov. 30 with the SEC West in the balance. As it turned out, Auburn’s win propelled the Tigers—with help from Michigan State—into the BCS National Championship Game and ultimately mere seconds away from its second BCS title.
Picturing a similar scenario wherein the Iron Bowl determines the 2014 SEC West doesn’t require an abundance of imagination.
Auburn should be the better team from start to finish next year, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to another win over its nemesis.
With 2013 Home Depot Coach of the Year Gus Malzahn at the helm, Auburn fans have reason to believe their program is just beginning a spectacular run of its own.
Much of Auburn’s talent should return in 2014 as well, led by quarterback Nick Marshall and potentially the entire starting offensive line. (UPDATED: Since posting, Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson declared for the NFL Draft.) Heisman Trophy finalist running back Tre Mason could also choose to return, but seems more likely to declare for the NFL.
Those quick to point out Auburn’s passing deficiencies in 2013 should remember that Marshall has yet to go through a spring practice with Malzahn. Rather than allowing Marshall to progress as a passer during the season—and incurring losses along the way—Malzahn chose to accentuate the Tigers’ strengths, focusing primarily on the run.
Look for Malzahn to install a more sophisticated passing game not so dependent on vertical passes next season.
Auburn’s returning talent seemingly matches up perfectly from a timing perspective with cross-state rival Alabama.
The Crimson Tide graduates quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley.
It could also lose several additional key starters who seem likely to forego their senior seasons in favor of the NFL Draft. The list could include offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and defensive lineman Jeoffrey Pagan.
Don’t shed too many tears for Alabama coach Nick Saban, though.
Thanks to his superb recruiting since setting foot in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide never lacks for talent. Saban currently has Alabama in line to win the 247 recruiting crown again this year.
Coaches all over the country would love the problem of having to replace someone of Mosley’s ability with a five-star stud like Reuben Foster.
The quarterback situation isn’t as clear, though rumors of Florida State backup Jacob Coker leaving the Seminoles to play right away at Alabama persist.
Even Saban, though, seems likely to take a step back while breaking in key starters and a new quarterback.
Malzahn’s team across the state knows the feeling.
The Tigers had to navigate a reasonable early season schedule while figuring out exactly how the coaches could manage to the team’s strengths.
Auburn, of course, won the Iron Bowl, but wasn’t really the “best team in Alabama” for the entire season.
Rather, it was a team that improved and hit its peak at the right time to the point that it could trade punches with—and ultimately defeat—the top-ranked Crimson Tide inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
A similar situation could easily unfold next year.
However, once Saban and his staff get a grip on how to best coach their new collection of players, the Crimson Tide should be hitting on all cylinders by Nov. 29 when Auburn comes to town.
Giving a new quarterback the luxury of being able to hand the ball off to superstar running back T.J. Yeldon and beastly freshman Derrick Henry certainly helps.
Team a dominant run game with Kirby Smart’s ability to simply reload on defense, and forecasting a quick coming-of-age team becomes simpler.
Inexperience could cost Alabama. Road contests at Ole Miss and LSU, especially, loom as potentially difficult tests.
If Alabama can limit its number of missteps, it will find itself in the heart of the College Football Playoff conversation.
Auburn followed a similar blueprint by putting itself in contention for the BCS Championship Game.
The 2014 Iron Bowl might well determine which elite Alabama team reaches the Playoff.
Auburn will be the better, more consistent team in 2014.
None of that matters on Nov. 29, when it battles Alabama inside Bryant-Denny Stadium.