TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — To get you ready for another potentially classic Iron Bowl, SEC Country Auburn beat writer Justin Ferguson and Alabama beat writer Marq Burnett are here to break down some of the keys to Alabama football vs. Auburn football.
No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) plays at No. 6 Auburn (9-2, 6-1 SEC) on Saturday with kickoff scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT on CBS. The winner of the Iron Bowl will claim the SEC West Division, and earn the right to play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2.
The winner of the Iron Bowl has played in the national championship game in seven of the last eight years. Next up, we break down the matchup between the SEC’s best running back, Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson, and the nation’s best run defense.
IRON BOWL SHOWDOWN: Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham or Alabama’s Jalen Hurts?
Marq Burnett: First, let’s get this out of the way: I don’t think Kerryon Johnson will have a ton of success running the ball against Alabama on Saturday.
Johnson is a fantastic player, and arguably the best running back in the SEC. But Alabama’s defensive front is going to be locked in and looking to prove a point against the Johnson and the Tigers.
Let’s look at some numbers. Alabama is No. 1 in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (87.36) and yards per carry (2.67). Even though this defensive front may not be as good as Alabama was last year, they’re still better at stopping the run than anyone in the country.
Look for the Crimson Tide to take away Johnson, who is Auburn’s best weapon.
Justin Ferguson: Those numbers are quite impressive, as they always are when it comes to Alabama’s run defense. And I don’t think this will be a situation where Auburn will run wild on a vaunted Alabama defense like it did when it put up 296 rushing yards in 2013.
This is a new cast of characters, and Auburn doesn’t have that rushing threat at quarterback. Johnson will have to shoulder the heavy load, especially with Kamryn Pettway out.
However, I want to look at a couple of specific numbers: LSU’s 151 rushing yards and Mississippi State’s 172 rushing yards against Alabama. Auburn has had better success this season in SEC play than those two rushing attacks, and a lot of that comes down to Johnson. He has had at least 115 rushing yards in six of his last seven games, and he’s cracked more than 150 yards in three of them.
Johnson runs extremely hard but still brings impressive agility, much like Tre Mason — the last Auburn running back to have good success against Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
Also, Johnson had 167 rushing yards at home against Georgia, which had a run defense close to Alabama’s statistically before it was blown out by Auburn.
I don’t see Alabama shutting Johnson down, considering the hot streak he’s been riding and the Tide’s banged-up defensive front. By the way, how is that front looking this weekend in terms of injuries, Marq?
Burnett: From an injury standpoint, the status of linebackers Terrell Lewis (elbow), Christian Miller (biceps) and Mack Wilson (foot) is up in the air. Nick Saban said those three guys haven’t been medically cleared, but he couldn’t rule them out of the game. *insert chin scratching emoji here*
I purposely left out the LSU and Mississippi State numbers in my initial response because I knew you’d see them, and take the bait. Let’s take a closer look at those numbers.
We both know coaches care more about how many yards you get per carry than the final overall number. That said, LSU needed 42 attempts to get 151 rushing yards. That’s 3.6 yards per carry. What’s more, 54 of those yards came on one carry from LSU running back Darrell Williams. That play came on a missed assignment soon after Shaun Dion Hamilton went down with his injury. Not making excuses, just providing context.
As for Mississippi State, the overall number looks good, but the yards per carry don’t. The Bulldogs needed 49 carries to get 172 yards. That’s 3.5 yards per carry.
Point being, Alabama’s efficiency on run defense is better than people probably think. Both LSU and Mississippi State just ran the ball a lot of times for not a lot of yards per carry.
Ferguson: Well-played, my friend. And I’m with you on the per-play mark being more important than the total number, too. It’s just that those two numbers jumped out at me, and those yards-per-carry marks for both teams are still above the average for Alabama this season.
We’re also talking about Auburn here. The Tigers have ran the ball more than 40 times in all but one game this season, going over 50 carries four different times. For all of the improvement Auburn has made at throwing the ball down the field, this is still a run-first team.
And at this point, Johnson has the mindset of someone who is willing to carry it 30-plus times if necessary. With those injuries on the defensive front, I could see Auburn making it a mission to challenge Alabama’s depth with power running.
Johnson has been around 5 yards per carry in a lot of SEC games this season, so it’s not like he isn’t used to that grind-it-out type of game against a strong run defense. Granted, Alabama’s should be the best he’s faced this season.
But I think the threat of Jarrett Stidham — the SEC’s most accurate passer — throwing the ball quickly will prevent Alabama from totally keying on Johnson. This shouldn’t be a game for Johnson to rack up the stats, but he should still be a big factor.