I would not be surprised at all if Auburn wins the Iron Bowl this weekend. I think Alabama is the better team and would win about seven or eight out of ten games, but they're only playing once this year.
If Auburn is to hit the sweet spot and pull out the win, there is one thing it cannot do and win: fall behind by much at all.
To be clear, I am not questioning whether any Gus Malzahn offense can overcome a deficit; the last time AU won the Iron Bowl is proof that such questioning is superfluous. Rather, I am questioning whether this Gus Malzahn offense can overcome much of a deficit.
Auburn in 2013 is a team that passes more because it has to, rather than because it wants to. Nick Marshall can do some great things and will be something of a complete quarterback next year. I am not ready to put him there this year. He's solidly in the bottom half of the conference in passing efficiency, and he doesn't throw much if he doesn't have to. To wit, consider a comparison with the opponent. Last weekend in just over one half's work against a woefully overmatched Chattanooga team, AJ McCarron attempted 16 passes. In comfortable wins against Arkansas and Tennessee, Marshall attempted 15 passes total.
To its credit, Auburn hasn't had to face too many deficits:
|Opponent||Largest Deficit||Time Left|
|Washington State||7-0||10:43, 1Q|
|Texas A&M||34-24||14:17, 4Q|
In more than half of their games, the Tigers haven't trailed at all. In two more, the worst they faced was a first half hole of merely one touchdown. They came back from two scores down against A&M, but the Aggies have a sieve of a defense. They could not, however, come back from three scores down late against LSU. And Alabama's defense, it should go without saying, is significantly better than LSU's is.
If Auburn falls behind by a touchdown, it's fine. These Tigers can get a touchdown if needed. If they fall behind by 10 points, or maybe even 14, all hope is not lost. If they fall behind by more than 14 at any point, I'm calling it right there. Cam Newton isn't walking through that tunnel. That's game.
The good news on this front is that Malzahn doesn't always fall behind Nick Saban teams by a lot like what happened under very different circumstances in 2010 and 2011. In 2009, Auburn jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead. The Tigers very nearly rode that early surprise along with one more big play, a 72-yard touchdown pass, to the victory as a huge underdog. This year's Auburn team is a lot better than that one was. If it can get out early like that, it has a much better chance of making it stick.
While it's true that Texas A&M mounted an impressive comeback against this year's Alabama team, Johnny Manziel is a much better passer than Marshall is. AU also doesn't have Mike Evans either, for that matter. If the team goes down by three scores, it's over. Even two is pushing it if it's late in the game. Auburn's best—only, in all likelihood—chance is to get an early lead and milk it for all it's worth. That strategy didn't really work against Georgia for various reasons, but that's the best I've got for the Tigers.
The inverse is not true for Bama. It can overcome a three-score deficit. And while this Auburn team is a lot better than the '09 squad that nearly pulled off the upset, this Crimson Tide team is better than that year's edition too. It hopefully will be a good game this weekend, but it won't be if Auburn is forced to rely on Marshall's arm to pull it out.