Alabama and Auburn will meet in nine days for the 80th installment of the Iron Bowl.
It will be the first meeting since 2012 in which both teams are not ranked. That 2012 meeting ended in an embarrassing defeat for Auburn, as the No. 2 Crimson Tide won 49-0 in Tuscaloosa.
For the Tigers, the 2012 season has some similarities to the 2015 campaign. The team had high expectations entering that season only to finish with a disappointing 3-9 record. The current team will not finish winless in conference play as the 2012 team did, but it will similarly enter the Iron Bowl as a huge underdog.
Alabama will likely enter this season’s Iron Bowl, as it did in 2012, as the No. 2 team in the country. For the Crimson Tide, a trip to the SEC Championship game could be on the line and perhaps a future College Football Playoff appearance. Auburn will likely head to a lower-tier bowl game regardless of the outcome, but neither team needs extra motivation in this rivalry.
With that said, an Auburn win would be one of the biggest upsets in Iron Bowl history, especially when you factor in what is at stake for the Crimson Tide.
Here are three reasons why Auburn could spoil Alabama’s season:
Improved Auburn defense
For the Tigers to have a shot, they will have to make this game a low-scoring affair. Fortunately for Auburn, its defense seems to be clicking just in time for the regular-season finale.
Auburn’s defense has given up just 16.7 points per game (excluding Georgia’s punt return touchdown) in its last three games. The improved performance also came against some high-powered offenses like Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
The defensive resurgence has coincided with the return of sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson, who returned from a hip injury against Ole Miss three games ago. Lawson is Auburn’s best pass rusher and he frees his teammates up to make tackles by drawing multiple defenders.
Another reason for the improvement has been turnovers. Prior to Auburn’s loss to Georgia, it had forced a turnover in five consecutive games.
Alabama’s success this season has largely come behind the legs of Heisman candidate Derrick Henry. Stopping Henry will be priority No. 1, but there could be an opportunity to take advantage of mistakes from Alabama quarterback Jake Coker.
Coker has played well as of late, but he does have eight interceptions this season. Eleven of Auburn’s 15 takeaways are interceptions, so if the defense can pressure Coker into mistakes it may be able to keep Alabama’s offense in check.
If the game is close at the end, Auburn can rely on sophomore kicker Daniel Carlson. He has already broken the school record for consecutive field goals made (14) and 50-yard field goals (4) in a season.
Could Auburn wear down Alabama’s defense?
Alabama is allowing 77 rushing yards per game and 2.49 yards per carry this season.
That is certainly not ideal for an Auburn offense that runs the ball 64.1 percent of the time. However, the Tigers may be able to use tempo and speed to wear down the Alabama defense.
You would have a better chance of getting an Auburn fan to cheer for Alabama than trying to run the ball between the tackles against the Crimson Tide front seven. Teams that have tried to do so (see Alabama’s wins over Georgia and LSU) have not fared well, so the Tigers must find a way to get the ball to its skill players with room to make defenders miss.
Auburn will have to get creative with some of its formations and utilize the wildcat to get the ball in the hands of players like freshman running back Kerryon Johnson. Johnson has shown the ability to be explosive out of the backfield in spurts this season.
If Auburn can move the ball it can pick up the tempo, which could pay dividends later in the game in terms of stamina. The Tigers will also have to find a way to get explosive plays in the passing game in order to keep the Alabama defense off balance.
The pressure is on Alabama
There is always pressure on both programs to win this game, but Alabama faces the added expectations of being a heavy favorite.
Alabama has responded well to pressure this season.
After the Crimson Tide’s loss to Ole Miss, some were calling it the end of the Alabama dynasty.
The response? The Crimson Tide clobbered UGA 38-10 on the road in their next SEC game.
On Nov. 7, Alabama did it again, dominating a previously undefeated LSU team in a 30-16 victory. That included holding then-Heisman favorite Leonard Fournette to a season-low 31 yards rushing.
If Alabama beats Auburn, it will go to the SEC Championship game, but for Auburn, this is the championship game.
The Tigers are a long way from SEC Media Days, where the media picked them to win the SEC. Not many expected Auburn to be playing a spoiler role. A win won’t change what has transpired this season, but the Tigers do have a chance to redefine the perception of the team.
Could that give Auburn the edge needed to pull off the upset?
We’ll find out in nine days.