War Eagle, everybody! We’re just one week from the beginning of college football season, and it’s time now for an Iron Bowl preview. Yes, I know I’ve skipped Samford. If a team that went 2-6 in the Southern Conference seriously challenges Auburn, the season will have gone horribly wrong. This year, both Alabama and Auburn tune up on Southern Conference teams the weekend before the Iron Bowl, Auburn plays Samford, and Alabama hosts Georgia Southern. It’s really an optimal situation for both squads. There shouldn’t be any complaints about Auburn having an unfair off-week, or Amen Corner woes. The two teams have tune-up opportunities to stay sharp, and to rest the weary and injured.
By the time November 26th rolls around, two of the better teams in the country should be ready for a big confrontation at Jordan Hare Stadium. Both teams have some issues to work through between now and then, but with loaded rosters, most questions should have been answered by this time. This Iron Bowl has been moved back to Saturday. The Saturday after Thanksgiving has long been the traditional day for the Iron Bowl, and it’s great to see the cosmos back in balance this year.
Leading up to the Iron Bowl, the Tiger schedule looks like this: the Tigers will have played Utah State, Mississippi State, at Clemson, Florida Atlantic, at South Carolina, at Arkansas, Florida, at LSU, Ole Miss, then an off week. The Tigers finish at Georgia, then Homecoming against Samford, then they host Alabama to finish the regular season. Alabama’s season starts with Kent State, at Penn State, North Texas, Arkansas, at Florida, Vanderbilt, at Ole Miss, Tennessee, then an off week. The Tide finishes with LSU, at Mississippi State, Georgia Southern, then the Tide travels to Auburn. It’s a very favorable schedule for Alabama, as most of their toughest opponents are at home, and there are some breaks built into the schedule. Bama’s toughest road trips are Penn State, Florida, Auburn, and possibly Mississippi State.
Few national prognosticators worry about the Alabama offense. With dangerous back Trent Richardson and 4 offensive line starters returning, the pundits figure that Alabama will run over the opposition. That may be against most opponents, but in the SEC, the Tide will have to face several defenses that are good against the run. Can the Tide win those? Probably. The real issue is depth. Graduation and attrition has left the Tide with only two proven running backs, junior Trent Richardson and sophomore Eddie Lacy. The Tide needs to stay healthy there. The Tide passing game is a concern. As of August 25th, no starter at quarterback has been named. Bama’s A-Day game yielded two similar passers in sophomore A. J. McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. Both were held to around 50 percent completions, with frequent dump-offs to tight ends and backs. There was one TD pass between them, with two interceptions and one costly fumble. There are questions about the Tide wide receivers also. While the starters are capable, there is no one the caliber of Julio Jones on the roster. There is concern about the hands and consistency of the second group.
Last year, the Tide defense was very good overall, holding opponents to just 286.4 yards per game. However, there were lapses at times, and three losses for the Tide resulted. With seven starters back, and the recruiting/coaching machine in Tuscaloosa, I’d look for fewer big plays given up by Alabama this season. The defensive line will be at least solid, and possibly very good. The Tide may have the best linebacker corps in the SEC, and they are deep there as well. Watching the Alabama A-Day game, junior Dont’a Hightower was a monster. He showed ridiculous speed, and even linemen couldn’t block him. The occasionally burned secondary returns every starter. Led by senior Mark Barron, this unit should be tougher this season. The starters were particularly impressive in this year’s A-Day, even though they kept the coverages simple. The longest pass of Bama’s A-Day covered only 28 yards.
Alabama had decent special teams in 2010, and should be at least that good in 2011. The Tide coaches would like to see more consistency from the kickers and punters, but the kicking combination of junior Jeremy Shelley and sophomoreCade Foster connected on 19 of 25 field goals in 2010. Of more concern were a few shanked punts. Reportedly, there’s still a battle brewing between sophomore Cody Mandell and redshirt freshman Jay Williams. Tide coverage should solid once again. Senior Marquis Maze will reprise his role as the punt returner, and may contribute more on kick returns. Julio Jones and Trent Richardson handled the bulk of those duties last season, but I’d think the coaches would like to save Richardson’s touches for the offensive backfield. One of the key factors in last year’s Iron Bowl was Julio Jones getting banged up in the second half returning kicks.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Alabama offensive line: Auburn had apparent problems in the A-Day game at defensive tackle but by the time of this game, true sophomores Jeffery Whitacker and Kenneth Carter will have had most of a season to gain experience. The Auburn defense is most dangerous at defensive end, led by Nosa Eguae, Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier. The Tide’s O-line appears to be stout. Junior Barrett Jones was moved this past spring to left tackle, and appears to be a good fit there. Massive sophomore D. J. Fluker will hold down the right tackle spot. Guards will be veteran junior Chance Warmack and sophomore Anthony Steen. Senior center William Vlachos should be among the SEC’s best. Auburn will counter the Tide’s strength by using a large number of talented young defensive linemen and will attempt to wear the Tide down. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Alabama backs: Auburn returning linebackers Darren Bates, Eltoro Freeman and Jonathan Evans have experience shutting down big-time SEC backs. They, along with new starting middle linebacker Jake Hollandshould be able to limit Richardson and Lacy, as long as the line does their part. The real question will be in coverage. Tide quarterbacks completed 7 balls to junior Trent Richardson in the A-Day game. Alabama had great success in last year’s Iron Bowl with the screen game, and with Richardson’s speed and tackle breaking ability, that will be a huge concern this year. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Alabama receivers: Auburn projected starters T’Sharvan Belland Chris Davis got extensive experience off the bench last season, and Jonathan Mincy is pushing the starters hard in preseason practice. Tide seniors Darius Hanks and Marquis Maze bring speed and athleticism at wide receiver. The Tide will look to senior Brandon Gibson and sophomore Kevin Norwood for depth. The question will be whether any of these guys can become a go-to receiver. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Alabama secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn will field a new/old tandem this fall at safety: converted corner Neiko Thorpe and sophomore Demetruce McNeal. Thorpe has played a lot of football in the past three years, and by all accounts is making a very successful transition to safety, where he’s more suited. McNeal is fast and is a ferocious hitter, but only has spot duty last season on his resume. Keep an eye on freshman Enrique Florence. The coaches can’t keep him away from making big plays on the ball. Bama often uses two tight end sets, and they’ve got a couple of good ones again this year in senior Brad Smelley and junior Michael Williams. These two will be a speed matchup problem against most teams, but Auburn’s guys should be able to stay with them. This battle is a matter of who makes the most mistakes, because there are likely to be a few on both sides due to youth. Will Auburn be able to force young Bama quarterbacks A. J. McCarron and Phillip Sims into mistakes? Will Auburn blow some coverages due to inexperience? The Iron Bowl may well be decided by this. Advantage: Even.
Punting: Auburn will field sophomore Steven Clark, who had a several shaky starts last fall. If the A-Day game is any indication, Clark will boast a much stronger leg this fall. Bama sophomore Cody Mandell averaged 39.2 yards per punt last year as a freshman. At times, he could boom it. There also were a few shanks. Mandell is being challenged by redshirt freshman Jay Williams, who averaged 47 yards per punt on A-Day. All 4 of Williams’ punts were pinned inside the 20 yard line. Auburn’s still unsettled as to who will return punts, and had fumble problems back there the past two seasons. Bama senior Marquis Maze averaged 12.7 yards per return a year ago. Auburn gave up 4.5 yards per return in 2010, and Alabama gave up 6.4. Advantage: Alabama.
Kickoffs: Auburn sophomore Cody Parkey was used about a third of the time last season, and he averaged 63.2 yards per kickoff. By several accounts, Parkey is having a monster fall camp. Sophomore Cade Foster handled kickoffs for Bama last season, averaging 65.2 yards. Foster averaged only 59 yards in the A-Day Game. Auburn’s Onterio McCalebb figures to be the primary kick returner. McCalebb averaged 28.4 yards per return in 2010. Trent Richardson averaged 26.4 yards per return last season, and Marquis Maze averaged 23.6. Both appear to be full time starters on offense, and one must wonder if they’ll continue to get heavy work on the kick return team. Auburn coverage gave up 19.7 yards per return, Alabama gave up 21.4. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Sophomore Cody Parkey takes over as the Auburn kicker. His only college experience is a couple of extra points kicked late in the homecoming game. Parkey is said to have had a good spring, and has been very accurate in fall camp as well. Alabama will once again use a tandem of kickers, junior Jeremy Shelley for extra points and short kickoffs, and Cade Foster for longer field goals. Shelley hit 12 of 16 field goal attempts, and Foster hit 7 of 9. Advantage: Alabama, on experience.
Auburn offensive line vs. Alabama defensive line: Auburn came out of spring with sophomore Blake Burgess starting at center, but he’s in a neck and neck race with true freshman Reese Dismukes. Senior Jared Cooper and junior John Sullen are penciled in at the guard slots. Only Sullen has significant front-line playing time inside. Tackles will be seniors Brandon Mosley and A. J. Greene, if Greene gets over a nagging injury he’s had in fall camp. Three or four talented freshmen are pushing the starters hard, and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes says that only Mosley’s job is safe. While Auburn lost 4 seniors to graduation this past season, Alabama suffered some losses as well. In the middle, senior Josh Chapman should be solid. Tide coaches are hoping junior college transfer Jesse Williams can play a lot off the bench, both at nose and at end. If Williams doesn’t work out, Chapman could be playing a lot of minutes. Bama does have Senior Nick Gentry, but he’s not the mammoth nose Coach Saban prefers. Redshirt freshman Brandon Ivory should see some action. Bama ends should be juniors Damion Square and Quinton Dial. Depth could be a problem behind those two. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Alabama linebackers: The Auburn Tigers return the one-two punch of freshman All-American Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb at running back, and in practice incoming freshman Tre Mason has by all accounts been tearing it up on the ground. In the 2010 Iron Bowl, McCalebb did some damage on the edges. Dyer was a non-factor. Last season, Alabama plugged up Auburn’s inside running game by bringing either senior Courtney Upshaw or junior Dont’a Hightower up on the line. Both are in the 265 pound range, and hold up well against linemen. Senior Jerrell Harris and junior Nico Johnson round out an outstanding starting linebacker corps. Sophomore C. J. Mosley and host of young talented guys give Alabama some speedy depth. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn receivers vs. Alabama corners: Auburn will rely heavily on returning veteran Emory Blake, and intriguing prospects DeAngelo Benton and Quindarius Carr. The speedy redshirt freshman Trovon Reed has been having a great fall camp, and may supplant one of the veterans at an outside position. With the exception of two long TD bombs, the Alabama corners handled the Auburn outside receivers pretty well in last year’s Iron Bowl. Bama has four pretty good cornerbacks, including junior Dre Kirkpatrick, sophomore Dee Milliner, and seniors DeQuan Menzie and Phelon Jones. These guys all have pretty good height, as well as speed. Alabama will have little difficulty running nickel or dime defenses. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Alabama safeties: Auburn’s most notable returning secondary receiver is tight end/h-back Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who was a clutch go-to guy last year. About half of his catches resulted in touchdowns. The Tigers also have options from the speedy Trovon Reed to the 290 pound H-Back LaDarius Phillips. Junior Barrett Trotter will start the season for Auburn at quarterback. Of Auburn’s three main guys, he had the quickest release, the most crisp ball fakes, and command of the offense. I know Bama senior Mark Barron is itching to have one more try in the Iron Bowl. Barron’s one of the best safeties in the country, and seems to be finally healthy. Junior Robert Lester and senior Will Lowery have been around the block a few times, also. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn may be younger in the back seven this season, but those who’ve seen them practice this fall think that tackling and speed will be a lot better this season. Tiger safeties should be a lot quicker to the ball, allowing corners to press more. By the time of the Iron Bowl, I don’t think you’ll see Auburn giving up routine 10 yard quick screens like last season. While the line lacks a Nick Fairly-style terror in the middle, there are about ten guys who can play good SEC ball with little drop-off down the depth chart. That should allow Auburn to be ferocious up front the entire game.
Provided that the Alabama line can hold up, this defense could be as good as the one that won the national championship in 2009. Certainly the back seven is at least that good. It’s incumbent that Auburn do better up front on the offensive line than they did the first half of the 2010 Iron Bowl. If the Bama D-line gets push, it’s a forest of hard-charging great tacklers running sideline to sideline. Auburn must force Bama to once again load the middle, and give up plays on the edges. Fortunately, Auburn does have multiple speedy playmakers that can be put on the field at the same time. The Tigers must force Bama to account for them all.
I expect a fairly low-scoring game in this one. Both teams like to run the ball, and both defenses like to stop the run. Some think that Auburn’s home field advantage is overwhelming, but did you know that Alabama has won 3 of the last 7 in Jordan Hare Stadium? Auburn is 7-3 overall in Auburn against the Tide. The Tigers will try to use the crowd energy to get off to a fast start, much like the 2009 game. This time, it is imperative for both the team and the crowd to keep the hammer down. Both of these teams WILL get up off the carpet, and fight back. That’s been proven the past two seasons.
Prediction: Trooper Taylor’s guys are the difference. Both teams struggle to move the ball, but big plays by speedy Auburn receivers save the day. Auburn holds on, 17-13.