Can the Tigers break away again?
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview, the last of the preseason. On November 30th, Auburn hosts Alabama in Jordan Hare Stadium for the Iron Bowl. This year, the Tigers get a bye week between the Georgia and Alabama games, hopefully to rest, recuperate and cook up a great game plan.
If an SEC schedule can be considered advantageous, Alabama’s is. The Tide has a bye week before their toughest games, at Texas A&M, and against LSU. In addition, Bama has an FCS team the week before the Iron Bowl. Alabama opens in Atlanta against Virginia Tech on August 31st. An off week follows, then the Tide visits Texas A&M. Then there is a three game home stand against Colorado State, Ole Miss and Georgia State. Alabama travels to Kentucky, then home again against Arkansas and Tennessee. A bye week follows, then Bama hosts LSU and travels to Mississippi State. An Iron Bowl tuneup against Chattanooga follows, then the Tide travels to Auburn.
Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier should field a diverse offense this fall, loaded with explosive veteran skill players. Where there are questions are on the offensive line, where Alabama must replace three players who are now on NFL rosters. There has been some shuffling during the year, and at times even head coach Nick Saban has said that there’s not enough push from this unit. It may not matter, as Alabama has one of the top quarterbacks in the league in A. J. McCarron, arguably the best running back in the league in T. J. Yeldon, and an explosive receiver corps led by Amari Cooper. It’s going to be interesting to see what Auburn coordinator Ellis Johnson comes up with to slow this bunch down.
On defense, coordinator Kirby returns a veteran front seven, including all four starting linebackers. The secondary may be slightly down with the departure of veteran safety Robert Lester, but returning experience should lessen the blow of that loss. In particular, I look for nose guard Brandon Ivory to make a big impact, and veteran linebacker C. J. Moseley should be all over the field making plays. Alabama has consistently been among the nation’s top defenses the past five years, and I see no reason this group won’t be, as well.
Alabama had good special teams for the most part last season, and figures to as well this season. Veteran strong legs Cody Mandel and Cade Foster return, and the Tide has plenty of speedy, veteran return men. Tide punt coverage was excellent last season. Where Alabama was mortal on special teams was kick return yardage, giving up 21.6 yards per return.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Alabama offensive line: Auburn will likely go with a tackle rotation of Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson and Jeffery Whitaker. Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae will be the primary ends. The Tigers have depth beyond those six guys, but none except Ford have distinguished themselves, either. Alabama’s offensive line has probably been its most maligned unit in the press this spring and summer, but it still should prove to be pretty solid by November. This is a line anchored by junior left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio and senior right guard Anthony Steen. Other starters at this point are sophomore Ryan Kelly at center, junior Arie Kouandjio at left guard, and junior Austin Sheppard at right tackle. With a week to prepare, and Auburn’s apparent depth, it’s Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Alabama backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are sophomores Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Neither has a huge amount of game experience, and it’s a concern going into the season. Senior Jake Holland has made a move in fall camp, and may secure a starting job, and he’ll play a lot, regardless. Bama sophomores T. J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake should get the bulk of the carries for the Tide, and they are explosive. They’ll get good lead blocking from junior Jalston Fowler. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn corners vs. Alabama receivers: Auburn is surprisingly deep at corner, and should get good play from starters Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy. Both are also physical corners, not afraid to come up in run support and lay a hit. Alabama counters with a deep and talented bunch of receivers. Sophomore Amari Cooper was a huge deep threat last season as a true freshman, and is difficult to match up with. Senior Kevin Norwood will start on the other side, and depth will come from senior Kenny Bell and junior DeAndrew White. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn safeties vs. Alabama secondary receivers and quarterback: I’m lumping “star” Justin Garrett in with the safeties, because I’ve done that in earlier previews, and Alabama has come at Auburn with a lot of multiple receiver sets in the past few years. Junior free safety Jermaine Whitehead has really come on this spring, so the real question is who will play strong safety. Right now, converted corner Joshua Holsey is atop the Auburn depth chart there, with depth coming from senior Ryan Smith and junior converted quarterback Khiel Frazier. Alabama threw to the tight end a lot less last season, but had a good screen package utilizing the running backs, as Lacy and Yeldon combined for 33 receptions. Junior Brian Vogler will be the starting tight end, and he had just 2 catches last season. Senior quarterback A. J. McCarron is perhaps the top returning signal caller in the SEC. He runs a fairly diverse offense and has a lot of freedom to check off. McCarron was ridiculously efficient last season, throwing 30 touchdowns vs. only 3 interceptions at a gaudy 9.3 yards per pass. Advantage: Alabama.
Punting: Auburn returns senior punter Steven Clark, who hit the ball well again this spring. Clark tends toward towering balls that can’t be returned. Clark had 70 punts for a 39.8 yard average, but only 5 were returned, for a total of 4 yards. Alabama senior Cody Mandell punted 50 times for a 44.3 yard average, and 18 of his punts were returned for a 6.5 yard average. Junior Christion Jones is Bama’s primary punt returner, and he averaged 10.1 yards per return last season. Auburn counters with veteran Quan Bray, who averaged 8.5 yards per return. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn didn’t score enough to generate many kickoffs in 2012, but when they did, Cody Parkey nailed 33 of 48 of them for touchbacks. Alabama senior Cade Foster generated 46 touchbacks on 99 kickoffs. When Parkey wasn’t putting the kickoff out of the field of play, Auburn gave up only 16.6 yards per return. Alabama gave up 21.6. Sophomore Cyrus Jones and Junior Christion Jones lead a kick return team that averaged 24.0 yards per return last season. Auburn averaged 22.4, but loses top return man Onterrio McCalebb. Advantage: Even.
Place kicking: Auburn’s Cody Parkey was 11 of 14 on field goal attempts, and perfect on his extra points last season. It’s difficult to compare Bama senior Cade Foster, who has only hit on 13 of 27 career field goals. However, Foster has previously been used exclusively on “long” field goal attempts. With some shorter attempts mixed in this season, his average should improve. Still, I think there’s some uncertainty there. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Alabama defensive line: Auburn’s starting A-Day unit of sophomore Greg Robinson, redshirt freshman Alex Kozan, junior Reese Dismukes, junior Chad Slade, and sophomore Patrick Miller looked dominant. In addition, the 2nd line did well against the starting D-line. By all accounts, Avery Young, who started three games at right tackle last season, is having a monster fall camp. He may fit into the lineup somewhere this fall. Bama has junior nose tackle Brandon Ivory, senior end Ed Stinson and junior end Jeoffrey Pagan, and numerous capable backups including big sophomore nose tackle Darren Lake. While Ivory and Pagan are new full-time starters, they’ve logged a lot of quality playing time in the past. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Alabama linebackers: Auburn finished spring with a trio of dangerous running backs, and more are on the way this fall in the incoming class. Junior Tre Mason is a 1000 yard incumbent, JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne wowed the A-Day crowd with his power and agility, and junior Corey Grant is a threat on the outside. In addition, the Tigers will have bruising senior H-back Jay Prosch paving the way. Alabama returns all four linebackers from a very productive unit last season. They are senior C. J. Moseley, and juniors Adrian Hubbard, Trey DePriest and Xzavier Dickson, and there’s a lot of young talent behind those guys. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn receivers vs. Alabama corners: Auburn’s starters on the outside post-spring are juniors Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed, neither of who have done much previously on the field. Backups Sammie Coates and Ricardo Lewis should add an explosive dimension when they sub in. Alabama returns senior Deion Belue, who defended 9 passes last season. Candidates to start on the opposite side are senior John Fulton and sophomore Geno Smith, who combined for 7 passes defended in reserve roles. Alabama has proven players here, Auburn does not. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Alabama safeties: Auburn has some matchup nightmares as secondary receivers, starting with C. J. Uzomah and Quan Bray. Few safeties can keep up with either in a foot race. If a team puts extra corners in to shut that down, Auburn will run over them. Put in beefier safeties, and those guys will be wide open. JUCO transfer Nick Marshall is the man at quarterback for Auburn. He’s got a cannon for an arm and is considered the best athlete on the team. He’s also never played an SEC snap at quarterback, and will have to grow into the position. Alabama is one of the few teams in the nation that has safeties athletic enough and fast enough to match up with the Tiger threats here. Veteran junior Vinnie Sunseri returns, and he’ll be joined by junior Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Sunseri had 5 passes defended, and Clinton-Dix had a whopping 9 off the bench, including 5 interceptions. Advantage: Alabama.
On paper, this game is a mismatch, much like the 2009 Iron Bowl. To hang in this game, Auburn must be creative in the running game, and keep Alabama off balance. On defense, the Tigers must control the line of scrimmage, stop the run, and contain Alabama’s outside threats. Both are tall orders against very stout opposition.
Auburn will have the home field advantage, and should be sky-high for this game after taking back to back embarrassing beatings the last two Iron Bowls. If nothing else, this game will be a good indicator of what progress, if any Auburn has made over the season.
Prediction: With an extra week of preparation, Auburn gets off to a fast start and tries to hold on. The difference between this team and 2009 is quality depth. This year, there will be no final Alabama drive against a tired defense. Auburn comes up with timely turnovers in the 2nd half, and edges Alabama 23-19.
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