AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football is an underdog to No. 1 Alabama at home this Saturday in the Iron Bowl. It’s a common spot for the Tigers, as they haven’t been favored against their biggest rival since 2007.
But the spread is less than a touchdown, which is quite significant. Only one Iron Bowl since 2007 has been that close with the oddsmakers — 2010, when Cam Newton led the Tigers to a comeback victory against the Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. Auburn went on to win the national championship that season, while Alabama was already out of the race with losses to both South Carolina and LSU.
That’s what makes the 2017 Iron Bowl so intriguing. Sure, Auburn has taken two wins from Alabama in Nick Saban’s dynasty-building run in the last decade and pushed the Tide to the brink in two more.
But the Iron Bowl hasn’t seen an even matchup in quite some time. Saturday might be a return to that.
When Auburn beat Alabama in 2010 and ’13, it had a defense that ranked inside the bottom half nationally in yards per play (YPP) and points per game (PPG). Those Auburn teams were devastating on offense, but they couldn’t come close to what Alabama had on defense.
On Saturday, Auburn will bring an offense that ranks inside the top 20 nationally in yards per play and points per game. It will also have a defense that is inside the top 10 in both categories. That combination is far and away the best Auburn has had in this matchup in at least a decade.
|Auburn vs. Alabama (FBS Ranks)|
|STAT||OFF. YPP||OFF. PPG||DEF. YPP||DEF. PPG|
|2017||6.58 vs. 7.07||37.6 vs. 41.4||4.37 vs. 3.90||16.6 vs. 10.2|
|Rank||20th vs. 9th||17th vs. 7th||4th vs. 1st||8th vs. 1st|
|2016||6.13 vs. 6.47||31.2 vs. 38.8||5.07 vs. 3.99||17.1 vs. 13.0|
|Rank||37th vs. 22nd||49th vs. 15th||24th vs. 1st||7th vs. 1st|
|2015||5.39 vs. 5.89||27.5 vs. 35.1||5.37 vs. 4.30||26.0 vs. 15.1|
|Rank||86th vs. 49th||74th vs. 30th||47th vs. 2nd||54th vs. 2nd|
|2014||6.71 vs. 6.66||35.5 vs. 36.9||5.67 vs. 4.87||26.7 vs. 18.4|
|Rank||10th vs. 14th||27th vs. 16th||76th vs. 18th||63rd vs. 6th|
|2013||6.92 vs. 7.15||39.5 vs. 38.2||5.96 vs. 4.83||24.7 vs. 13.9|
|Rank||8th vs. 5th||12th vs. 17th||95th vs. 18th||47th vs. 4th|
|2012||5.27 vs. 6.95||18.7 vs. 38.7||5.99 vs. 4.18||28.3 vs. 10.9|
|Rank||90th vs. 5th||114th vs. 12th||89th vs. 2nd||65th vs. 1st|
|2011||5.30 vs. 6.46||25.7 vs. 34.8||5.73 vs. 3.32||28.9 vs. 8.2|
|Rank||75th vs. 12th||70th vs. 20th||80th vs. 1st||78th vs. 1st|
|2010||7.37 vs. 6.96||41.2 vs. 35.7||5.36 vs. 4.64||24.1 vs. 13.5|
|Rank||3rd vs. 5th||7th vs. 18th||56th vs. 10th||53rd vs. 3rd|
|2009||6.14 vs. 5.96||33.7 vs. 32.1||5.15 vs. 4.08||27.5 vs. 11.5|
|Rank||25th vs. 32nd||17th vs. 21st||43rd vs. 4th||76th vs. 2nd|
|2008||4.48 vs. 5.52||17.3 vs. 30.1||4.91 vs. 4.30||18.0 vs. 14.3|
|Rank||111th vs. 51st||111th vs. 35th||33rd vs. 5th||14th vs. 7th|
The best way to counter a powerhouse such as Alabama — which is strong on both sides of the ball yet again this season — is to provide a similar level of balance. Since Saban’s arrival, Auburn has either been carried by its offense, too injured on offense, or just inadequate all the way around.
In a surprising twist, Auburn’s offense actually ranks lower than Auburn’s defense heading into the Iron Bowl. That, of course, is due to the poor outputs in a loss to Clemson and in the second half of a loss to LSU.
If you take the numbers just from games against conference opponents, Auburn and Alabama both rank inside the top 12 in all four of these major categories. (Alabama is the top-10 outlier with a No. 12 spot in offensive yards per play in league games.)
That’s a testament to two things — Auburn’s ability to improve as an offense with a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator, and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s outstanding success.
Auburn’s defense let the Tigers down in 2014. Its offense, particularly the quarterback position, let the team down in 2015 and ’16.
Malzahn addressed the defensive issue shortly after the Iron Bowl loss in 2014, when he hired Will Muschamp as his defensive coordinator. Muschamp laid the foundation for Auburn’s defense, which reached an elite level after Malzahn hired Steele in 2015.
Then, after two years of inconsistency at quarterback, Malzahn’s staff secured the commitment of Jarrett Stidham a few weeks after the 2016 Iron Bowl loss. While he’ll experience his first Iron Bowl on Saturday, his presence will be huge for the Tigers.
“Jarrett’s in a good spot,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “He knows what it’s about. He knows how big a game [this one is] and what’s on the line and all that. I will say this, I’m glad that we have our starting quarterback healthy for this game. We hadn’t been able to do that the last two years. That’s a good feeling.”
Those two changes have all led up to the 2017 Iron Bowl, where Auburn will get another chance to ruin Alabama’s undefeated season and go to the SEC Championship Game.
While the stage is set like the 2013 classic, Auburn and Alabama’s elite units on both sides of the ball should ensure the actual game will be nothing like four years ago.