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Iron Bowl 2009: Why The Tide Will Pull Off the Big Road Win

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Iron Bowl 2009: Why The Tide Will Pull Off the Big Road Win
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Welcome, everyone, to my favorite week of the year.

Alabama and Auburn are scheduled to square off Friday afternoon for the 73rd installment of, not the "Deep South's Oldest Rivalry," not the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party," certainly not the "Third Saturday in October," and definitely not for anything called the "Egg Bowl," or even the "Saban Bowl."

No, the Tide and the Tigers meet again in their annual blood-feud better know as the Iron Bowl. I could regurgitate here all of the reasons why this is the greatest rivalry on Earth.

The fact remains, though, if you have lived it, then you believe it. If you, unfortunately, have not, then you don't.

You can have your USC/Notre Dames, your Ohio State/Michigans, your Texas/Oklahomas, and even your Army/Navys. I will see all of those and raise you the most intense, bile-inducing, hatred-filled rivalry in all of sports...our game...The Iron Bowl.

People who have lived the rivalry not only know, but feel the following phrases:

"Punt, Bama, punt"

"Wrong-way Bo"

"The kick"

"The Reverse"

"Go crazy, Cadillac, go crazy"

"Honk if you sacked Brodie"

"Honk if you scored in the 2008 Iron Bowl"

The joy/excruciating pain that those simple words can induce in the members of this state and many outside of it serves to paint a picture of what this game really means... everything.

We live in a state that is consistently the butt of national jokes—at least the ones that don't involve Mississippi ("Thank God for Mississippi," I've heard it said). For a long period of time, football was one of the few nationally respectable ventures in Alabama.

For a state in the Union to carry the reputation of being so far behind—in everything—so dilapidated, so depressing, to give birth to not one, but two national football powers was nothing short of miraculous.

For many years, the folks of Alabama have been rewarded with a day in November—usually—when their two beloved football teams strap it up to play in a winner—take—state game.

Generally, records entering into an Iron Bowl are nothing more than window dressing, but for my purposes, the inaugural "Rory Turner Waxed the Dude" Iron Bowl preview will start right here.

This is going to be a long one, so feel free to select an intermission point.

I'll start with a look at each offense, and how it stacks up against the defense.

AUBURN QUARTERBACK CHRIS TODD

In the Gus Malzhan-themed spread-attack offense, Chris Todd has been given ample opportunity to heave the rock. To be exact, he has been given it 272 times.

Todd's numbers as a whole show him as a very able quarterback. On throwing downs, Auburn averages over eight yards per attempt. His TD-to-INT ratio is strong, standing at 19-5. His completion percentage is near 60 percent, and the ever-confusing efficiency rating lists his at 147.1.

In short, the guy can move the football quickly. Heavy on big plays and light on mistakes, Todd came within one throw of setting Auburn's record for most consecutive completions earlier this year.

The knocks on Todd are his lack of mobility and his sometimes hasty check downs to the safety receivers.

Important stat: Five picks in 11 games doesn’t lend one to believe he's going to chuck up three of them in this game.  Limiting mistakes will be key, as Auburn likely won't be able to afford any points off of turnovers.

ALABAMA QUARTERBACK GREG MCELROY

McElroy holds a slight advantage in completion percentage, but is nearly a yard behind Todd in average yards gained when a pass-play is called. The TD—to—INT numbers are similar, with McElroy hooking up for 14 TDs and four INTs. His efficiency rating is well below Todd's at 137.6.

McElroy's "plus" grades exist in game management, and his ability to throw a catchable deep ball when coverage is broken. He also seems to have a knack for changing called plays when he senses trouble.

A negative about McElroy is his tendency to get a little rushed in the pocket, and his tendency to get down on himself.  The ability to shake off mistakes will be key in his development as a quarterback.

Important Stat: McElroy is a winner. He started one season in high school, went 16-0, and won a state title in Texas—where I hear they do actually play some high school ball. You know his record at Alabama.

ADVANTAGE (Stat-based)—Chris Todd

ADVANTAGE (Intangibles)—Greg McElroy

The homer in me wants to lean in Alabama's favor, but I can't, impartially, do it. McElroy needs a road—rivalry game to test the thickness of his skin (Mississippi State doesn't count, at least not like this).

BACKS

Much has been made in the past couple of weeks about the Ben Tate/Mark Ingram debate. Both are very skilled, hard-nosed backs that thrive after contact. Both are phenomenal at getting four tough yards when you need them.

What sets Ingram apart is his ability to wreak havoc in the second level when he gets there.

While  he is not likely to bust one for 80 yards, Ingram turns a five-yard gain into a 15—yard gain as well as any back I have ever seen. Most of those yards are earned on his own. His ability to find holes, hit them, and do major damage afterwards is what sets him apart from Tate.

Remember, Tate is an outstanding back in his own right, and his numbers speak for themselves. The most important number to me, however, is yards per carry, where Ingram holds a 6.8 to 5.4 advantage.

Both teams have the luxury of depth at this position, in pass-catching specialists Mario Fannin and Roy Upchurch. Both have solid No. 2 running options in Trent Richardson and Ontario McCalebb.

Although all are skilled in their own ways, Richardson has elevated from the group, as well as McCalebb. Both have similar numbers, but vastly contrasting styles.

The difference for me comes in the form of Mark Ingram, and his ability to eat up first downs on clock—munching drives. Add to that his success from the Wildcat formation, and I think you have to lean toward the Tide here.

Advantage—Alabama

RECEIVERS

There is a very interesting comparison here, because, judging only by the numbers, Auburn seems to have quite an advantage at wide receiver.

Auburn's two leading receivers, Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachary, have combined for nearly 1,200 yards and 14 touchdowns. The leading two for the Tide, Julio Jones and Marquis Maze have combined for less than 900 yards and only 6 touchdowns.

While few would argue that the most skilled receiver on the field—at least physically—would be Julio Jones, Alabama simply has not found enough ways to get the ball into his hands.

If Auburn's defense finds a way to neutralize Jones, it is advantage Auburn. With a banged-up secondary and a multitude of guys in the box to stop the run, one—on—one coverage from a second string corner may not turn out well for them. I see a couple of plays from Jones making a difference...

Advantage (slight)—Alabama

DEFENSE

I truly believe that statistics only tell the outline of the story in football. They exist as a kind of guidebook when handicapping a game. In this case, though, I think they deserve a closer look.

Stat #1: Points given up/game

Alabama: 9.9, Auburn 27.0

This may be the most damning of all statistics, because, in the end, points are what matter. Against very similar schedules, Auburn's defense allows, on average, an additional field goal and two touchdowns when compared to Alabama's.

Stat #2: Yards allowed/game

Alabama: 226.5, Auburn: 359.2

Stat #3: Turnovers caused

Alabama: 25, Auburn: 19

I believe when a team holds a decided advantage in these three key areas, only one conclusion can be made.

Advantage—Alabama

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both teams have struggled in kick coverage at times. Both teams house incredibly accurate kickers. Both have returned kickoffs well.

The punt return game is a little bit different. As a unit, Auburn averages right at five yards per punt return. Meanwhile, Alabama possesses Javiar Arenas, a cornerback—don't dare call him a return specialist—who is in reach of setting the NCAA record for career punt return yards, and is one touchdown away from tying that mark as well. One big blow by Arenas can change the makeup of any game.

Advantage—Alabama

COACHING

I don't want to spend too many words on this, but Nick Saban has proven his stock. Gene Chizik still could, but hasn't yet.

Advantage—Alabama

INTANGIBLES

The very first and most significant intangible is Auburn's home-field advantage. Auburn is not an easy place to play for anyone, let alone in this game when emotions run at their highest.

The place will be packed, and as we know, the underdogs tend to yell louder. A major piece of the puzzle to this game is how well McElroy and the Alabama offense manage the atmosphere early in the game.

A couple of crowd-induced mistakes, and this game could turn. On the other hand, if Alabama can successfully quiet the crowd early, this could have a detrimental effect on Auburn—the reverse home-field advantage has been seen and used many times in this series.  In a 90,000 seat stadium, the silence can sometimes be even more deafening.

Another key that won't show up in the stat book is Alabama's mounting pressure to finish off a perfect regular season—again. Saban has showed incredible focus in not letting his players see beyond the moment at hand, but a road game at Auburn will put that to the test like no other scenario.

Perhaps less significant is Alabama's first real Heisman shot, tailback Mark Ingram. Ingram certainly hasn't played the role of a stat—hawking glory monger. However, I do believe they will do whatever they can, within the confines of a sensible game plan, to see that he generates the numbers necessary to keep him in the forefront of the discussion.

I've never thought more carries for Ingram meant anything but good for Alabama, but a point of diminishing return does exist in there somewhere. Alabama must by wary of that.

Whew.

After looking at all of the numbers, as an Alabama fan I should feel even more confident. In some ways I do. But the old cliche about games not being played on paper is a true one, and rivalry games showcase that statement to the nth degree.

In the end, I just can't see Auburn's thin defense hanging tough long enough to keep Alabama within striking distance.

I believe if Nick Saban had his way, McElroy would throw the ball 20 times maximum, and the Tide would do the majority of the dirty work on the ground, wearing on the already depleted Auburn defense.

Big plays and turnovers change games, though, and they could certainly come from either side.

When the clock runs out, I see the score Alabama 30, Auburn 13.

I say hopefully, one of the minority voices singing Rammer Jammer at the end will be mine, and all will be well with the world once again.

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