ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE VS. AUBURN TIGERS
RECORDS: Alabama (11-0, 7-0) | Auburn (9-2, 6-1)
RANKINGS: Alabama (#1 CFB Playoff, #2 S&P+) | Auburn (#6 CFB Playoff, #7 S&P+)
TIME: 2:30 p.m. CT
TV: CBS (Check local listings)
SPREAD: Alabama opened as 7-point faves. The line ticked down to 5/4.5.
TOTAL: The O/U was set at 50, but has gone down to 48/47.5.
RECORDS ATS: Alabama (5-6) | Auburn (4-4-3)
3 Keys to a Crimson Tide Victory
Let Hurts Be Hurts
“...Cooler than a polar bear’s toenails” -Big Boi, “ATLiens”
Name one moment in Jalen Hurts’ first 25 games as a starter where you’ve seen him flustered.
Zero times. Exactly.
Since trotting out first against Western Kentucky in Alabama’s second game of the 2016 season, Hurts has been a paragon of composure. A Texas cowboy with a coach’s brain.
When he was waylaid by Marquis Haynes in last year’s game at Ole Miss with a hit so vicious it jarred the ball loose allowing for a Rebels scoop-and-score that put them up by 21, Hurts came back on the very next drive and led the Tide down the field for a touchdown.
When Clemson went up for the first time with under 5 minutes to go in last year’s national championship game, who scampered 30 yards for the go-ahead TD two-and-a-half minutes later?
When Florida State and Mississippi State (3 times) had leads on the Tide this season, who calmly responded with meticulously fast drives immediately afterwards?
The correct answer to all of the above is, of course, Jalen Hurts.
Jalen Hurts may not always lead successful drives, but he is absolutely at his best when the deck is stacked and you can bet it will be this Saturday on the Plains. He will need to run, he will need to pass, he will need to do it all against a defense that has played its best football down the stretch.
Hurts accounts for 22 touchdowns against one turnover in 2017 and one can only assume that in the worst circumstances, he’s going to have an answer.
Given this, Nick Saban and Tide OC Brian Daboll need to do one thing and one thing only:
Let Hurts be Hurts.
A Healthy Minkah Fitzpatrick
It’s been a bit of a year for an Alabama Crimson Tide defense that is normally fit as a fiddle.
You can look at last season when Eddie Jackson went out for the season against A&M. Or Vinnie Sunseri in 2013. Or Dont’a Hightower in 2009. Every few years, Alabama loses a leader on its defense. In 2017?
Let’s just say the ‘Bama linebacking corps has taken a hit at one point or another. In the Florida State game alone, FOUR linebackers were dealt injuries that either put them out for the season or on the sideline for a couple of games.
Then, against LSU, Tide signal caller Shaun Dion Hamilton broke his kneecap leaving a true freshman and a seldom-called-upon junior to carry the load against an angry Mississippi State offense.
Also injured in the LSU game was the star of the entire Alabama team, Thorpe and Nagurski Award finalist Minkah Fitzpatrick. He pulled his hamstring in the first half of that match-up and has been playing well under 100% since.
Saban and Bama DC Jeremy Pruitt wisely kept Fitzpatrick out against Mercer last week and all signs point to him being ready to go on Saturday. With Hamilton out, they will need him.
Dylan Moses did a fine job in his first start last week, but Mercer’s offense is not Auburn’s and having as much experience on the back end of the defense is going to be paramount.
This will need to be a career game for Fitzpatrick. He’s going to be asked to play defensive end, middle linebacker, cornerback and safety.
The incredible thing about it, though: he can and will.
Field Position and Penalty-Free Football
The last FBS team Alabama played was Mississippi State and 14 of the 24 points acquired by the Bulldogs came off Alabama penalties on either a third or fourth and long that allowed a fresh set of downs and eventually touchdowns.
Also, Mississippi State was playing with fantastic field position the entire night due to either kicking mistakes from the normally-reliable JK Scott or the aforementioned penalties.
Even a defense as perennially dominant as the Tide’s can be exposed by these pivotal aspects of the game. If they can play soundly on third and long situations and make the Tigers work from inside their own 25 most of the game, Alabama should be able to take the game away from them.
This is a very big “if”, though.
1 Concern for the Crimson Tide
‘Bama’s Front Seven Against the Auburn Rush
There are some rush defense statistics that jump off the page as it pertains to Alabama’s schedule.
Through the first 8 games, Alabama’s opponents only managed 531 yards across 230 carries and 2 touchdowns. That’s an average of 2.3 yards per carry over 28 carries per game.
Through the last 3 games (LSU, Mississippi State and Mercer), the Tide’s opponents have rushed for a total of 416 yards across 130 carries and 4 touchdowns. This is an average of 3.2 yards per carry over 43 carries per game.
These aren’t horrible statistics by any stretch. It’s good enough for 2nd in the FBS with a frosty 87 yards per game, but it does give one pause. Those last 3 games against 2 of their toughest opponents so far this season. Currently, LSU is 30th in the FBS in rushing offense, while Mississippi State is 17th.
Only one of the previous 8 teams currently ranks in the top 30 in rushing offense (Colorado State--who put up over 130 rushing yards on the Tide) and 4 of those are ranked 93rd or below.
With Auburn, they’re getting a team that rushes for 244 yards per game, good enough for 18th in the FBS.
The only difference between the Tigers and Mississippi State is Auburn will be playing with classic Malzahn-ian tempo and they’ll be doing it with Kerryon Johnson. Factor in QB Jarrett Stidham, who has the arm to keep the ‘Bama secondary honest, and you have a recipe for many converted 2nd and 3rd downs.
And when Malzahn knows something is working, he will do it over and over again.
This could make for a very long afternoon for the Tide.
So, Who Wins?
Alabama hasn’t lost a true away game since Ole Miss in 2014.
The last time they lost to Auburn was at Jordan-Hare in 2013, where prior to that they hadn’t lost an away game since 2010.
Point being, Saban does a great job of getting his team ready to play in all circumstances where the location of the stadium doesn’t matter in the least.
And with the news yesterday out of Tuscaloosa that injured ‘Bama LBs Christian Miller, Terrell Lewis and Mack Wilson were practicing, it’s easy to believe that Alabama could be as dominant in the front seven as they were expected to be before the Florida State game.
Still, you have to be concerned about the intangibles factor in this game.
Auburn hasn’t won an Iron Bowl since the memorable Kick Six in 2013. That was the last year Auburn was competing for a conference championship. And the last time they played for a national title.
These are the things that matter in a rivalry game and Saban’s teams seem to fold under the pressure when the Tigers are neck-and-neck.
I know I predicted an Alabama win in my season preview, but that was three months ago. Auburn wins a very close one on the Plains.
Auburn 31 Alabama 27
3 Keys to an Auburn Tigers Victory
Mr. Steele Your Offense
The defense that Kevin Steele has put together may be the best Auburn fans have seen in a decade or more. They’re tied for 13th in the nation in sacks, with 32 on the year. (Is there any tackle in football more satisfying than a sack?) They’re allowing just 303 yards per game -- 184.4 through the air and 118.2 on the ground. You want to talk total tackles for loss? Auburn has 72; that’s 6.5 per game.
Alabama is not used to a lot of resistance when they’ve got the ball. The Crimson Tide leads the SEC in scoring with 41.4 points per game. Those points come from their 280 rushing yards and 209 passing yards per contest. That’s filthy.
Damien Harris, Jalen Hurts, Henry Ruggs III, Bo Scarbrough, Calvin Ridley. If Auburn can slow down THAT quintet, I like the Tigers’ chances.
Keep Calm and Kerryon
The man has 1,172 and 166 yards rushing and receiving, respectively. He’s tied for 5th in the United States of America with 18 touchdowns this season. Johnson reminds me of a mix between Le’Veon Bell and, dare I say, Mark Ingram. Everyone and their mom knows that Auburn will want to run the ball and KJ will be the guy. To think that Jeremy Pruitt won’t have a plan in place, and probably a good one (considering that Alabama gives up fewer than 90 rushing yards per game), is silly.
Auburn’s offensive line, however, has navigated the rocky waters of injuries pretty well. To think that they won’t hold up against a somewhat-depleted Alabama defense is also silly.
If Kerryon Johnson can match his average-per-game 130 rushing yards, I have no doubt that -- to steal a line from Rob Bramlett -- “Auburn’s gonna win the football game.”
There’s No Place Like Home
In Auburn against Alabama, the Tigers are 8-5. On a tangential note, in Tuscaloosa against Alabama, the Tigers are 7-4. That’s wild.
For Auburn fans, the concern at home should be real. Three of those five losses at Jordan-Hare have come against Nick Saban. When he was hired at Alabama, he made it clear that he wanted to dominate his in-state rival. Throughout his SEC coaching career (at LSU and Alabama), he’s never beaten a nine-win Auburn team. However, since he’s been at Alabama, he is 7-3 against the Tigers. I’d say that counts as “dominating his in-state rival.”
Nevertheless, Jordan-Hare is one of the loudest stadiums in the galaxy. The home crowd made a difference against the No. 1 team in the country two weeks ago, and you can bet they’ll be even more hyped against the new No. 1 team in the country on Saturday. If Auburn fans can rattle Alabama’s offense enough to force them into a slow start, they’ll smell blood and things will escalate quickly.
1 Concern for the Auburn Tigers
Jarrett Stidham has looked really good against average or bad defenses, but against good defenses (i.e., Clemson and LSU) he’s struggled. In Auburn’s two losses, he completed 22 of 50 passes and was sacked 14 times.
Alabama’s defense, I think, is going to try to shut down Kerryon Johnson and force Jarrett Stidham to move Auburn’s offense down the field. If they can do that, it’ll be on Stidham to make things happen. He has the arm and he generally makes good decisions, so if he can stay poised under pressure, Auburn will be fine.
If Alabama’s defense can get to him -- both literally and figuratively -- it could be a long day for the Auburn offense.
So, Who Wins?
I think we will look back at what went down two weeks ago, when Alabama skirted by Mississippi State and Auburn embarrassed Georgia, and see a ripple effect on the game between the in-state foes.
If you’ve watched the Crimson Tide at all under Nick Saban, you know they play their best ball after losses and close wins. He will have them ready to play. The close call in Starkville almost guarantees that Alabama will play its best game of the year in Auburn. On the flipside, I suspect that the Tigers’ beatdown of Georgia may have inflated their swagger a little too much. We’ll know for sure once the game is played.
Against Clemson and LSU I predicted Auburn wins, and I got Auburn losses. Against Georgia I predicted an Auburn loss and I got an Auburn win. (Other than that, I’m perfect on the year.)
The Tide will cover; take the over.
Alabama 30, Auburn 24