The biggest game of the college football season takes place on Saturday on the plains of Alabama. The Iron Bowl is always an emotional affair that has divided the state since their first meeting back in 1893. This year’s game has the added meaning of the SEC West title on the line, as well as a possible spot in the BCS title game. So when the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide lock horns with the fourth ranked Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium, the state of Alabama will stand still with the rest of the country watching with great interest.
When Alabama Has The Ball:
Coach Nick Saban believes in balance but will favour the run over the pass. That said, A.J. McCarron is the key to the offense. The senior quarterback is an effective game manager that makes few mistakes. What has impressed Saban and the rowdy Crimson Tide fan base is that McCarron will hit the big play when necessary. McCarron’s numbers are excellent, completing 68.6% of his pass attempts for 2,399 yards, 23 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. McCarron is a leading candidate for the Heisman award and a big game against their bitter rivals may cinch him the trophy.
What helps McCarron is a strong running game that averages 211.5 yards on the ground per game. Sophomore tailback T.J. Yeldon has rushed for 1,022 yards and scored 12 touchdowns on the ground this season. Yeldon and the offensive line can wear down opponents with their punishing ground game until they submit. It will be key for Alabama to do the same to Auburn on Saturday. The Tigers to give up an average of 153.2 yards on the ground, which could be fatal for Auburn.
A main reason why Alabama can run the ball is that their passing game is efficient, with a knack for hitting the big play. While there is no dominant receiver, Amari Cooper is the big play threat down the field. But McCarron isn’t afraid to use the likes of Kevin Norwood and Deandrew White in the passing game as well. Alabama will spread the ball around, while keeping Auburn honest with the running game. It isn’t flashy, but it works and Alabama rarely loses.
When Auburn Has The Ball:
The game plan for Auburn on offense is simple: RUN THE BALL! The Tigers have the second ranked rushing offense in the country, averaging a whopping 320.5 yards on the ground. Head coach Gus Malzahn believes in the run so much, he will abandon the passing game if the running game breeds success. Junior quarterback Nick Marshall doesn’t have huge passing numbers, (58.4 completion percentage, 1,530 yards, 9 touchdowns, 5 interceptions) but he is a threat running the ball. Marshall’s athleticism fits in perfectly in Malzhahn’s offense, much like Cam Newton back in 2010. Marshall has rushed for 823 yards and 9 touchdowns this season, so Alabama will have to be aware when Marshall keeps the football.
With Auburn so focused on the run, the backs get more of the spotlight and with good reason. Junior Tre Mason leads the Tigers with 1,153 yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. Junior Cameron Artis-Payne has compiled 568 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground. Junior Corey Grant has 557 yards and 5 touchdowns running the ball. All three are somewhat small, but possess great speed and vision. Ricardo Louis is the receiving threat out of the backfield with 23 receptions for 291 yards and 2 touchdowns to his name. Louis was the receiver who caught the miracle winning touchdown against Georgia, two weeks ago. Many options from the backfield make Auburn a dangerous foe. But Alabama is mighty stingy against the run, surrendering a mere 91.3 yards on the ground. If Alabama can force Auburn to throw the ball, it will be a long day for the Tigers.
As mentioned, the passing game isn’t the featured attraction on the Plains, but there are receivers to keep an eye on for Auburn. Sophomore Sammie Coates is having a terrific season, despite not being a focal point of the offense. His 30 receptions for 687 yards and 5 touchdowns, leads the Tigers and he will need to make key catches, due to the fact that Alabama will force Auburn to throw the ball at some point. Freshman Marcus Davis has recorded 22 receptions for 191 yards and 1 touchdown but can be outmuscled by bigger defenders, as his 5-9, 176 pound frame is prone to physical punishment. Junior Quan Bray is also on the small side, but does possess speed. However, with the running game Auburn possesses, Bray doesn’t see the ball that often, thus is only used in specific situations such as third and long.
In what many are calling the biggest Iron Bowl in history, Alabama will have the edge in terms of big game experience. No school in the last 5 years have played more “big games” than the Crimson Tide, whether it be their showdowns with LSU over the years, or BCS title games versus the likes of Texas and Notre Dame, Nick Saban knows how to handle the pressure of the moment. Gus Malzahn has been here before, he was the offensive coordinator for Auburn when they won the National Championship in 2010. But this will be his first time in the Iron Bowl as a head coach. Can Malzahn handle the pressure and deal with the mind games that only the Iron Bowl brings? Only time will tell.
Auburn will have one big advantage. Jordan-Hare stadium will be rocking as the Auburn fans will bring the noise all day long. But Alabama knows how to handle hostile environments, as they were the last visiting team to win at LSU’s famed Death Valley. Plus there are too many question marks on Auburn’s defense. They were very fortunate to defeat Georgia, thanks to a miracle, but many forget that Auburn blew a 20 point fourth quarter lead, before the miracle. It won’t be a blowout, but Alabama’s experience and poise will make the difference. Alabama wins 31-21, and will make the trip to Atlanta for the SEC title game.
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