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College Football: Iron Bowl Comes Down To Four Important Factors

Justin HokansonSenior Writer INovember 24, 2009

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 19:  Ben Tate #44 of the Auburn Tigers against the West Virginia Mountaineers at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 19, 2009 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No matter the rivalry, the phrase, "throw out the record books," always seems to come up. People assume that because it's a rivalry of immense proportions, like the annual game between Alabama and Auburn, is that records and stats don't matter.

Well, they are wrong.

Yes, this game is a fierce battle, and the underdog always comes to play, but that doesn't mean they will win. They rarely do.

Of the 32 meetings between these two teams where they are separated by three games or more in the win column, like they are this year with 11-0 Alabama and 7-4 Auburn, the team with the better record has won 29 of those meetings.

Many times an underdog has covered a spread against the favorite, but very few times as an underdog, especially one that's a double digit underdog like Auburn is Friday, gone into a game and won it outright.

With all the emotion that goes into the game from the fans perspective, the players still have to execute the gameplan and the game has to be won on the field. Bottom line.

So what are the key factors in this game, or any game for that matter?

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Here are four crucially important factors to victory for Auburn and Alabama come Friday, and judging from the last seven years, these stats are very telling of who will win the ball game.

In this rivalry, it all starts with the run game. The team with the most rushing yards almost always wins the game. In the last seven years, the team with the most rushing yards is 7-0, and the team with the most rushing attempts is 6-1.

Alabama comes in with a leading Heisman candidate in sophomore running back Mark Ingram, who leads the SEC in rushing and leads an Alabama team ranked 10th nationally in rushing. But don't count out Auburn.

Auburn has the third leading rusher in the SEC in senior Ben Tate, and sits at 11th nationally in rushing themselves. Just one place behind second ranked Alabama

Advantage: Alabama.

The Tide's defense will make it very tough for Auburn to run the ball, and Auburn's front seven are just too thin to slow down the Alabama run game the way they'd like to.

The next key aspect to winning Friday will be average yards per pass attempt. It might sound like an obscure statistic, but it certainly is not.

The team that's had the higher average in this category is also 7-0 in the last seven meetings.

Auburn actually comes into the game holding the better average. Senior Chris Todd has averaged over eight yards per pass attempt this year, while his counterpart junior Greg McElroy has averaged seven and a half yards per pass.

The reason this is important is because first, the better the average the more you are backing off the defense. Constantly throwing underneath for short yardage means nobody is getting open downfield and you certainly aren't threatening the defense with big play ability.

Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn loves to attack the defense downfield, and he will do it on any down regardless of down and distance. The question may be how much faith does Malzahn have in his quarterback against a talented Alabama secondary.

For Alabama, McElroy and offensive coordinator Jim McElwain love to go play action and really take some shots down the field. With Auburn's recent struggles to keep receivers in front of them, I'd expect to see McElroy taking shots early and often against the Auburn secondary.

Advantage: Auburn.

The reason I think Auburn may win that battle is because unlike in the Tennessee game where Malzahn didn't really test the good Vol secondary deep, this game is different. There is nothing to lose for Auburn, I expect them to have trouble running the ball against Alabama, and I expect Alabama to feed Mark Ingram the ball a lot. So Auburn might be the more desperate team and the one more in need of the big play.

The last major point of emphasis in any game, but especially the Iron Bowl, is third down conversions. With the importance placed on running the football in this series, third downs are crucial to convert and keep drives alive and keep your defense off the field.

In the last seven meetings, the team with the better conversion rate is 6-1. Auburn comes into the game leading that category as well converting 41 percent of their third down's, while Alabama comes in converting 36 percent of its third downs. The numbers are even more in Auburn's favor when you take into account Auburn is playing at home, where the Tigers convert 46 percent on third down and Alabama drops down to 33 percent on conversions.

The key though, will likely be the Alabama defense. While Auburn's defense is letting their opponent convert 33 percent on third down, the Alabama defense  is only giving up 28 percent on third down, and an even better 17 percent on the road.

Advantage: Alabama.

You know what to expect from Auburn's defense against the Alabama offense. The key is if Alabama's defense stays close to their norm, they should win this very important battle, and whoever can keep the other defense on the field more will win the game.

So while this game to the fans is about tradition, passion, hatred, bragging rights, and everything else that comes with what I think is the best rivalry in college football, ultimately this game comes down to the Xs and Os, regardless of where it's played.

I'm not telling Auburn fans to not think they can win Friday afternoon in Jordan-Hare Stadium, they certainly can.

Just don't make the mistake of thinking because emotions are running high that it erases what the previous eleven games of the season. As shown by previous encounters, most of the time, the better team wins. 

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