They’re more than a football team — to the wider gridiron world outside of the Auburn-Opelika metroplex, they’re a monkey wrench wearing an interlocked A and U on their helmets.
Because that’s what the sixth-ranked Auburn Tigers are threatening to toss into the College Football Playoff mechanism if they upset No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Crimson Tide, the No. 1 seed in the tournament? The SEC, with fading but still realistic hopes of getting two teams in the bracket? Auburn pulls the upset as a 4½-point underdog, and suddenly springs and sprockets are flying everywhere.
The Iron Bowl is always a big deal, both in Alabama where it pits neighbor against neighbor, and in the wider college football universe given the traditional national prominence of both programs. But this one just feels huge, like a massive Talladega Superspeedway Big One of a rivalry game, due to the standing of both teams and the linchpin role the contest plays in determining the entrants for the playoff. No single game will have more influence on how things shake out in the end.
Alabama wins, and the Tide set up an SEC Championship Game next weekend against No. 7 Georgia that could conceivably get both teams in, should the Bulldogs spring the upset and a few other things break the SEC’s way. Auburn wins, all bets are off, and the playoff committee will be forced to make a decision on which single SEC team to take. Would it choose one-loss Alabama, over potentially one of two two-loss teams that met in the title game? The drama in Birmingham that day would rival the playoff coin flip in Friday Night Lights.
And you know what? It could really happen. Auburn has been on a tear, Alabama has been riddled with injuries, and Jordan-Hare on Saturday afternoon will be its wonderful, cacophonous self. The Tigers haven’t defeated the Tide since 2013. This season, let chaos reign. Here’s why:
1. Alabama’s defense is beat up
Alabama coach Nick Saban continues to hint that injured linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis could return for the Iron Bowl, which would be a boost to a Crimson Tide defense that’s gradually been worn down by injuries. There’s also the status of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who was held out of the Mercer game last weekend with a hamstring injury suffered against LSU. The Crimson Tide still dominate the SEC’s defensive statistical categories, and despite the injuries haven’t allowed an opponent all season to score more than 24 points. Of course, that was two weeks ago at Mississippi State, the Tide’s closest call to date, and now they have to slow an Auburn team averaging 37.6 points per game.
2. Mississippi State exposed some vulnerabilities
Auburn’s biggest takeaway from Alabama’s close call in Starkville may be how the Mississippi State defense harassed Jalen Hurts all night. Bulldogs blitzing resulted in 5 sacks of the Crimson Tide quarterback, and Mississippi State’s front seven was most impressive on a late hold that forced Alabama into a missed field-goal attempt. Of course, Hurts is a savvy customer, and he read the blitz perfectly on the late third-down crossing pass to Calvin Ridley that set up the winning TD. Auburn ranks third in the SEC in sacks, and a victory may hinge on whether the Tigers can keep the pressure on until the very end. It certainly has the personnel to do it, even though SEC sacks leader Jeff Holland missed some of the Tigers’ game against Louisiana-Monroe last week with a leg injury.
3. Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s best defense
Since being held to 48 yards on Sept. 23 against Missouri, his first game back after missing two weeks with a hamstring injury, Kerryon Johnson has been on a tear that’s thrust him into the Heisman conversation. The Auburn tailback has gone over 100 yards in six of seven contests since, including 167 in the Tigers’ win over Georgia two weeks ago. Although Auburn thrives on the big play behind quarterback Jarrett Stidham — the Tigers will stick to what’s working — Johnson affords them the luxury of a player who can control tempo and keep Hurts and that Alabama offense off the field. The more Hurts and Ridley watch from the sideline, and the longer Alabama’s banged-up defense is forced into action, the better Auburn’s chances become.
4. Chaos is good for the soul
It’s college football, where the gods have a wrinkle up their sleeve on occasion. This is a sport that thrives on chaos, which makes it fun and unpredictable, and keeps fans coming back for more. Every now and then, things go just a little haywire, and the possibility for such a thing looms large in Auburn on Saturday afternoon. The rankings, the setting, the rivalry, the Alabama winning streak, the critical importance of the game to the College Football Playoff — there are just too many variables for this to thing turn out according to plan. A little bit of chaos may be bad for the SEC’s multiple-team playoff hopes, but it’s good for the soul of the college football fan, and we’re in store for a heaping helping of it on the Plains.
Prediction: Auburn 31, Alabama 28
And hey, we’ll go one more: Auburn has the decided edge in the kicking department, with All-SEC performer Daniel Carlson all but money if this one comes down to a late field-goal attempt. With the convincing victory over Georgia, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn finally shed the reputation that he couldn’t win a big game. This one is the biggest, not just in the state of Alabama but also in the context of the College Football Playoff. The Tigers are in position to grab the biggest wrench they can find from the Dept. of Vehicular Engineering, take aim at all those whirring parts and pieces, and let fly.