109 Days: Reminiscing the Past While Looking to the Future
photo: John David Mercer USA TODAY Sports
Thousands were inundated Wednesday with memes or GIF’s on various social media platforms by the iconic Kick Six post announcing that the upcoming season begins in 109 days. However, it means something totally different to Alabama’s two flagship programs.
The University of Alabama has won four national championships in eight years, including the second College Football Playoff, and is the only team to appear in all three playoffs. It came one second short of winning the 2016 CFP. The Tide has also won three consecutive Iron Bowls and seven of the last nine. So, the Kick Six to them is a distant and unpleasant memory.
To Tide fans, the Iron Bowl is most likely an inconsequential game of little national importance. In 109 days, Alabama will take on Florida State in a probable No. 1 vs No. 2 season-defining match that many believe is a precursor to a CFP rematch in January.
Meanwhile, the Kick Six is the last good memory about the rivalry Auburn fans have to cling to. Their last football memory was a dumpster fire of a Sugar Bowl appearance. There has to be marked improvement in 2017 or Auburn may be seeking yet another head coach at the end of the season. In 109 days, Auburn begins a journey against Georgia Southern. While every Auburn fan hopes for a date in Atlanta and beyond, the Iron Bowl is the real destination.
What can Auburn fans expect from the 2017 season in general and specifically the Iron Bowl?
In Tuscaloosa, one thing is certain: Saban’s team will be loaded with NFL talent, especially on defense. Last year the Tiger defense slowed down Jalen Hurts, the Tide quarterback, who was white hot entering the Iron Bowl. Discounting blowout wins, his 76.8 adjusted QBR was among the season’s lowest.
During Gus Malzahn’s tenure on the Plains, Auburn has an astounding 42–12 record with JUCO quarterbacks who were day-one starters versus 23–16 with players he recruited and developed. These numbers shift slightly when considering individual contests such as 2013 Western Carolina, 2014 Arkansas, and 2016 Vandy.
With that in mind, Auburn is almost guaranteed to have a ten-win season with presumed starter Jarrett Stidham at the helm. Unlike Alabama, ten-win seasons are not an annual event for Auburn, although since 2004 Auburn has never been more than three years between ten-win seasons, the last being in 2013.
Auburn’s scoring in the Iron Bowl has been progressively less with Malzahn-developed quarterbacks: 14 points in 2011, 13 in 2015, and 12 in 2016. In contrast, with JUCO QBs the team scored progressively more each year: 21 points in 2009, 28 in 2010, 34 in 2013, and 44 in 2014.
Obviously, there is a lot more to offense than just the quarterback. Will the line play be satisfactory? Will the run game churn out yards? How will Chip Lindsey integrate with Gus Malzahn’s ideals? While these are important questions, one of the most nagging is receiver development.
This has been an issue as long as Malzahn has been on the Plains. However, a typically strong run game and sporadically good quarterback play largely overshadowed Auburn’s pass catching deficiencies in past years.
Auburn now has some serious talent on tap at wideout and fans saw the growth of this unit on A-Day. If the growth from the Sugar Bowl to the spring game is any indication of what Kodi Burns can do, the issue at this position could be solved in spades and it will define the 2017 offense.
Yet, it isn’t all about offense. This is the SEC, after all. Auburn has famously gone through defensive coordinator after coordinator. Some folks thought if Will Muschamp couldn’t turn the defense around, no one could. However, after years of struggling, the 2016 Tiger D wasn’t just a surprise, it was a renaissance.
Little was expected from journeyman Kevin Steele, but his defense was absolutely incredible in 2016, ranking seventh in scoring defense. That was in spite of being outside the Top 50 in turnovers and sacks and being paired with an offense that disappeared in November.
In the Iron Bowl if Auburn can keep the Tide under 28 points, the most allowed in any Auburn win under Malzahn on the Plains, it has a chance. That may be a tall task considering that Alabama has scored over 30 points in four games since 2009 while averaging over 35 points per game.
Steele’s defense, therefore, needs to be a touchdown better than the average Auburn defense of the last eight years. He accomplished that last year in holding Alabama to 30 points in spite of Auburn’s D being on the field almost the entire second half.
With losing key players to graduation and Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams to the NFL, not much is expected of Auburn’s defense. Yet, that type of attrition is something Nick Saban and the Tide deal with on a year-to-year basis. The question is: Is Steele’s defense more like Nick Saban’s or Ted Roof’s? Speculation would say the former, considering that Steele is a Saban disciple.
The Tide and Tigers have a different way of looking at things. Alabama defines success not only by getting to the playoffs but winning them. The mindset of the two programs couldn’t be more different. The Tide has just one game circled: the first one against FSU, which has national implications. The Tigers have just one game circled: the last one against Alabama.
Yes, yesterday marked 109 days until football returns. It will be interesting to see how the 2017 season plays out for the most bitter rivals in college football.