One of the most anticipated rivalry matchups in college football has finally arrived. Auburn is set to host Alabama in the 80th edition of the Iron Bowl.
A Crimson Tide win would ensure Alabama a spot in the SEC Championship game and pave the way for a return to the second College Football Playoff.
The Tigers, who became bowl eligible last week with a win over Idaho, are hoping to spoil their in-state rival’s title dreams and end the regular season on a high note.
The last time these teams met in Jordan-Hare Stadium, the game was defined by the “Kick Six,” which sealed an earth-shattering upset victory for Auburn. Will Saturday’s game be another thriller, or will the heavily-favored Crimson Tide roll to an easy victory?
No. 2 Alabama (10-1, 6-1 SEC) vs. Auburn Tigers (6-5, 2-5 SEC)
Kickoff: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Weather: Sunny, high of 72 degrees/low of 50 (weather.com)
Line: Auburn +14 (VegasInsider.com)
By the numbers
Alabama’s SEC-leading rush defense will be put to the test against Auburn’s up-tempo offense
Auburn has run the ball on 64.9 percent of its plays this season for an average of 200.9 rushing yards per contest. Alabama comes into the game giving up an average of 77.8 rushing yards per game.
Not many teams have been able to match the skill of Alabama’s front seven, so the Auburn offensive line will have its hands full. If the Tigers are able to run the ball successfully early on, it could wear down the Alabama defense as the game progresses.
Turnovers will likely play a huge role in this matchup, and Auburn has been adept at forcing takeaways in the latter part of the season. The Tigers have a +10 in turnover margin in their last seven games.
The Crimson Tide enter the game with an impressive +6 turnover differential on the season, as well, but Alabama quarterback Jacob Coker does have eight interceptions. 13 of Auburn’s 18 forced turnovers have come via an interception.
On paper, Alabama looks like the superior team, but turnovers can be a magic elixir when a team is searching for an upset. In Alabama’s only loss this season, Ole Miss forced five turnovers in a 43-37 win.
Auburn’s turnover prowess likely needs to continue for it to pull off a victory.
Auburn sophomore kicker Daniel Carlson has made an Auburn-record 14 consecutive fields goals. Carlson is the only kicker in the nation to make four field goals of 51 or more yards this season.
If Auburn can keep the game close, Carlson will be a tremendous asset.
Storylines to watch
Jeremy Johnson, Sean White or both?
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has been stealthy when it comes to naming a starting quarterback for the Alabama game. The public likely won’t know who the starter is until shortly before kickoff, but it seems like both Johnson and White could play this weekend.
Malzahn indicated that White was practicing after missing the Idaho game with his lingering left knee injury, but Malzahn only revealed that White’s practice performance was “solid.”
Johnson has started the past three games, completing 69 percent of his passes for three touchdowns and one interception. The coaching staff has been pleased with Johnson’s play after he was benched for White earlier in the season, and he has likely done enough to earn the start against Alabama this weekend.
If White plays, there could be a risk. Auburn put White in on four possessions beginning in the third quarter of Auburn’s 20-13 loss to UGA. White was not 100 percent healthy, and he never found a rhythm, which resulted in a fumble and four scoreless drives. Johnson then re-entered the game, but the whole process seemed to disjoint the offense.
It will be interesting to see how Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee decide to use both quarterbacks this time around. Auburn cannot afford to waste possessions against the Crimson Tide.
Will the pressure on Alabama benefit Auburn?
If you are a neutral observer who believes Auburn will win this game, you are in the minority.
Alabama is a two-touchdown favorite for a reason, but that could actually help Auburn in this rivalry game.
Alabama could be playing for an SEC Championship, pending the result of the Ole Miss and Mississippi State game, and a loss to Auburn would essentially eliminate the Crimson Tide from the College Football Playoff race.
Malzahn was tight-lipped this week any time he was asked a question about potential trick plays or what strategy his offense would throw at Alabama. It was understandable when you consider that Malzahn may need to call some unorthodox plays to combat the talent disparity between his team and the Crimson Tide.
It would be disingenuous to say all the pressure is on Alabama, but the Crimson Tide do stand to lose a lot more in a defeat. Don’t be surprised to see Auburn take more chances than usual.
Can Auburn force Alabama to go away from its powerful running game?
It is no secret that the strength of Alabama is its stout rushing attack led by Heisman Trophy candidate Derrick Henry.
If Alabama gets its running game going, it will be a long day for Auburn. The Tigers will likely fare better if they can keep the Crimson Tide out of short-yardage situations.
If Auburn can force Alabama into long third downs, the Auburn pass rush can put pressure on Coker and possibly force turnovers.
The Tigers must limit Henry and hope that their secondary can matchup with Alabama’s receivers. Auburn is anticipating the return of sophomore safety Tray Matthews, who brings experience back to a youthful secondary that has improved under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp in the second half of the season.
Prediction: Alabama 34, Auburn 20
Previous performances sometimes mean less in rivalry games where both teams are familiar with each other. However, Alabama comes into this game with a lot of confidence from the past few weeks.
Auburn’s defensive improvement should keep the game close, but the offense’s inability to produce enough explosive plays will allow the Crimson Tide to pull away and win decisively.