Alabama rode the wave of last year's national championship victory six weeks into the 2010 season. The South Carolina Gamecocks knocked them cleanly off the perch with a near-flawless performance from both the offensive and defensive units.
Alabama victories at home against Ole Miss and on the road at Knoxville following the loss to USC gave the Tide a renewed confidence and kept hope alive for a potential shot at repeating as SEC champion, with the chance to punch a ticket to the BCS National Championship Game in Glendale, Ariz.
But as Nick Saban led his team into the shadows of the Valley of Death, they faced their fears and were left wanting. Their hopes and dreams of greatness faded as the blood drained through the open wound inflicted by the Bengal Tiger as the sun set in Baton Rouge.
Critical wound, but not mortal, as the resilient Alabama offense showed new life in a feisty demonstration of explosiveness against the MSU Bulldogs: three plays and three touchdowns. Meanwhile, the defense has continued to show tremendous growth and development game after game since the beginning of the season.
Safety Robert Lester leads the league in interceptions. The defensive line logged five sacks against Mississippi State—more than they had for the entire season prior to last Saturday night. This team does not have quit as an option in the final games of the 2010 season.
Here is a look at how Alabama must perform in order to shut down the Cam-wagon. It has a chance to collectively send the Auburn football team and fanbase away from Tuscaloosa to the SEC Championship Game with wounded pride. The stage is set for an epic final scene in the 2010 season.
RB, Mark Ingram. Reigning Heisman Trophy Winner
The running game must start with the offensive line making and maintaining its blocks so Mark Ingram and Co. can get to the second level. That means getting past defensive lineman Nick Fairley.
That should take all of two seconds, but unless you've actually tried to block the beast, you just don't realize how long two seconds can take to pass.
Prior to the LSU game, thoughts were that All-American William Vlachos would be able to get the job done. But at LSU, things changed.
Nose tackle Drake Nevis gave Vlachos all he could handle, and more. The 6'2", 295-lb. Nevis disrupted the Alabama running and passing game at every level.
Nevis is no Fairley.
Vlachos will have to elevate his game back to All-American level for the Alabama line to succeed against the Auburn Tigers.
With support from the guard position and the full strength of the line holding their blocks at the point of attack, the running backs for Alabama need to average four to five yards per carry. If they can sustain drives and accrue first downs while eating up time of possession, they will defeat Auburn.
The key is to limit the time Cam Newton has to attack the Alabama defense and to put points on the board in the process.
To be successful, the offense should score on three of five or six offensive possessions in the first half. Two of those opening-half scores must be touchdowns.
Exactly what does that mean? It means linemen and linebackers must not over-pursue the quarterback.
While it is imperative that the defensive backs provide lock-down coverage, that coverage needs to hold for only three or four seconds before Cam Newton decides to pull the ball down and make a play.
The incredibly gifted quarterback for the Tigers has shown the ability to drop back three or four steps and survey the field, move with the pocket and throw on the run or improvise.
He is a legitimate threat in every aspect of the game. He truly has no weakness. Where defenses seem to fail, continually it seems, is in over-pursuit.
When the defense is patient and time elapses, gains are short or Newton attempts to force something downfield. He has made mistakes—six interceptions in five games. Two of the six were against Clemson, one each came in games against MSU, ULM, Kentucky and Georgia.
Against LSU, despite not throwing any interceptions, he threw for only 86 yards. Having said that, he rushed for 217 yards against the Bengal Tigers.
In his weakest offensive output of the year, against the Ole Miss Rebel Black Bears, he had 45 yards rushing, yet he was 18-of-24 passing with 208 yards and two TDs.
Michael Dyer had his back that day, rushing for 180 yards and one TD. They defeated the Rebels 51-31.
At Ole Miss, not one receiver had over 100 yards receiving, yet five AU players had over 20 receiving yards and at least two catches, save one. That receiver, the one with one catch for 20 yards, was none other than Cameron Newton. The reception scored a touchdown. It was an acrobatic catch in the end zone with the defender all over him.
The Tide have their work cut out for them if they are to harness Newton's power and shut down the point production of the Auburn offense.
While it's not mission impossible, it is mission unaccomplished by every other opponent.
Deep Threat, WR Darvin Adams
Look at the names and accomplishments of the players starting in the Alabama defensive backfield.
Mark Barron: led the league in interceptions last year, leads the team in tackles in 2010.
Robert Lester: leading the league in interceptions this season, 4-star recruit with two years' experience.
Dre Kirkpatrick: 5-star recruit, high school All-American, true sophomore, lock-down corner, two years' experience and first-year starter.
DeMarcus Milliner: 5-star recruit, high school All-American, lock-down corner at times, but has had a few costly mistakes playing as a true freshman.
DeQuan Menzie: JUCO transfer. Rated No. 14 by Rivals amongst all JUCO players in 2009, No. 2 as a defensive back. Named to the junior college second team All-America. Has played in every game except Tennessee and LSU (out due to injury). He has 21 solo tackles and six assists as the nickel back. He came back to play against Ole Miss, logging four solo tackles and two assists.
All of these fellows are extremely hard workers. They have matured as a unit this season.
Every year, the season culminates in the Alabama state championship finale: the Iron Bowl. All the marbles are on the line in this game.
Every year, players play over their heads and achieve the unexpected—so much so that it has become expected for the defenses to rise to the occasion.
Alabama's defensive unit will indeed have to play its best game. Auburn is loaded in the receiving department.
Darvin Adams leads the way for this talented corps with 39 receptions, 663 yards and five TDs. Terrell Zackary has 34 receptions, 476 yards and three TDs on the season. Emory Blake has 21 receptions, 398 yards and five TDs. Mario Fannin has 15 receptions, 151 yards and two TDs. Philip Lutzenkirchen has 11 receptions, 112 yards and four TDs.
Further down the list is the most dangerous "unknown" player in the league—Quindarius Carr, with three receptions, 103 yards and two TDs. Carr has a whopping 34 yards per reception and two touchdowns on three catches. Frack!
Although Kodi Burns has not been productive offensively, he cannot be ignored, posting eight receptions and averaging 13.8 yards per catch. In addition, he is a dual threat as a passer. His downfield blocking has improved and is an asset for the Tigers.
The winner of this particular battle, the passing game, has the edge in the Iron Bowl. If Alabama's corners can lock down the receivers and take away the deep threat, Newton will have to improvise.
While improvisation by the talented quarterback has been parlayed into an advantage against over-pursuing defenses, Alabama must remained disciplined defensively. Playing under control will substantially increase the chance to slow down this productive Auburn offense.
Play must start with blanket coverage on talented receivers. The Auburn Tigers have not faced a defensive unit with as much talent as host Alabama will field next Friday night. This is the battle to win if you expect to win the war.
Alabama Punt and Kickoff return specialist, Marquis Maze
For Alabama, kickoff return average sits at 25.4 yards, besting the opposition by more than four yards per kick return.
On punt returns, Alabama is averaging 12.7 yards per punt; the longest return was against MSU, when Marquis Maze spun and galloped 81 yards—all for naught. The play was called back for holding.
The longest punt returns on the season have been logged by Maze (37 yards) and Julio Jones (41 yards).
Alabama has not returned a punt for a touchdown in 2010. One kickoff has been returned for a touchdown; that runback was recorded as a 91-yard return by Trent Richardson. The longest return against the Alabama special teams was for 37 yards.
On the defensive side, Cody Mandell is averaging 40.1 yards per punt, with a net average of 37.3 yards. Punt coverage has been excellent.
Kick return coverage has been excellent as well, yielding only 20.9 yards per kick. The opposition may as well down the ball in the end zone. Alabama special teams have not allowed a touchdown on a kick or punt return for the season—an improvement over seasons past. (Breaking news—that changed against GSU, hard to accept as a 'Bama Fan.)
Auburn matches up pretty well with Alabama on special teams. All in all, neither is exceptionally special.
Auburn has averaged 25.6 yards per kick return, 6.7 yards per punt. The Tigers have not logged a touchdown by punt return and have scored one touchdown on kickoff returns. That was a 95-yard jaunt by Demond Washington.
Auburn has established a slightly better record in protection against the opposition on kickoff, yielding only 19.9 yards per kick, a negligible one-yard difference from the Alabama squad.
On punt returns, Auburn gives up 7.3 yards per return. The Tigers have not given up a score to the opposition by punt but did have a single kickoff returned for 98 yards and a score.
A special teams touchdown by either team will mark a significant event in the 2010 Iron Bowl and will produce a tangible advantage for the team that pulls it off.
Alabama Punter, Cody Mandel
The Auburn Tigers average 471 yards of offense per game while yielding only 274 yards. The team averages 42.8 points per game while holding the opposition to under 25 points.
They have compiled these gaudy numbers by simply rolling over much weaker opposition, posting 52 points against Arkansas State and ULM, 62 against UT-Chattanooga and 65 against the porous defense of the Arkansas Razorbacks.
To their credit, the offense posted 49 points against a stout Georgia defense, 37 against UK and 35 against the vaunted defense of South Carolina. Cam and Co. have had their share of success getting into the end zone.
Four games were won by seven points or less, three of those by three points (MSU, UK and Clemson). They have survived hard hits in the fourth quarter and found the energy and will, offensively, to move downfield for a game-winning score. Often, these game-winning drives are made more effective by draining the game clock. This team knows how to win.
Alabama has had success offensively, averaging 32.5 points per game while yielding only 13.3 points on average. The most points scored against the Alabama defense this year were posted by South Carolina, which hung 35 on the Tide defense.
The second-most productive opponent, LSU, scored 25 points. Both teams handed Alabama a defeat on the road.
Auburn has fumbled the ball 15 times and lost seven to the opposition. Alabama has 17 fumbles, losing seven to the opposition, on the year. Conversely, Auburn has recovered eight fumbles in 18 chances, while Alabama has only three fumble recoveries out of 14 opportunities.
Auburn has eight picks on the season and 84 return yards on interceptions. Alabama has intercepted 19 passes on the season while logging 171 return yards. This is clearly where Alabama has the advantage and they must maintain it in the Iron Bowl. They must force Cam Newton to pass the ball and depend on good play from the defensive backs.
The Auburn defense has 25 sacks on the year. Alabama has recorded 17, and until the MSU game, they have not come in bunches for the Tide.
An advantage, and possible equalizer, for Auburn is if the Tigers can maintain the same aggression against the Alabama offensive line. This is a definite possibility, as Alabama has given up 27 sacks on the year, Auburn giving up only 17. This is a tribute to the great mobility of the Auburn quarterback.
All in all, there is no clear advantage for either team. Statistically, Auburn has an advantage, but the majority of its offensive numbers have been piled on against weak defensive units. The 49-point output against Georgia, a recent occurrence, is a tribute to the maturity of the offense.
Alabama clearly padded its offensive statistics against Duke, SJSU and GSU, posting 62, 48 and 63 points in each game, respectively.
The 30 points against Mississippi State were the best display of explosive potential by the Alabama offense all year. All other games against good defensive opposition. Alabama has averaged 25.2 points per game. But the scores were a result of a grind-it-out style, rather than quick, explosive plays.
Auburn has been penalized 68 times for 624 yards, averaging 56.7 penalty yards per game. Auburn defensive lineman Nick Fairley will be scrutinized closely in the Iron Bowl. Flags may fly that have been previously pocketed due to recent events.
Alabama has been flagged 53 times on the year for 406 yards, averaging 40.6 yards per game. Many of the Alabama penalties have been on the offensive side of the ball—uncharacteristic for a Joe Pendry unit.
And be forewarned, Cameron Newton: Expect an excessive celebration penalty if you continue your post-touchdown antics in the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny. This is an away game; the officials have been friendly at Jordan-Hare but things will be handled differently on the road. Heed the advice.
Auburn is average defensively. Alabama should best the 25-plus average in the Iron Bowl if they play to their potential. But Auburn's defense should play better than expected, keeping all expectations equal. If the Alabama offense scores more than 35 points in this game, it should be a win for the Crimson Tide. If they fail to post more than 20 points, the Tigers will be victorious.
If the score for Alabama falls somewhere in between, the story will be unfolding as the fourth quarter ticks away. Intangibles, takeaways and penalties should play a major role in a close game.
Let's get ready to rrrrruuuummmmble! Roll Tide and War Eagle. This should be one for the ages.