Editor’s Note: Acid Reign has spent the past three months previewing each of Auburn’s contests this season. Today, in his 12th installment he looks at the Iron Bowl. I guarantee you won’t find a more thorough preview than here. Phil Steele has nothing on Acid Reign. Enjoy…
By Acid Reign
November 29th is the BIG day, in 2008. It’s Iron Bowl time, and it’s never too early to start the hype! Auburn travels to Tuscaloosa this year, to play arch-rival Alabama, in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Auburn has never lost in Tuscaloosa, an undefeated record dating back to 1895, when John Heisman’s Tigers invaded T-town, and came away with a 48-0 victory. It took Alabama 107 years to even score on Auburn in Tuscaloosa, a drought broken in 2002 by Santonio Beard, on a 1 yard run in the 3rd quarter.
Both teams will have a bye week prior to the Iron Bowl, to rest up after tough SEC slates. Prior to the off week, Alabama will have played a tough stretch of games, including Ole Miss, at Tennessee, Arkansas State, at LSU, and Mississippi State. For television possibilities, the Iron Bowl will compete for attention with Florida at Florida State, Georgia at Georgia Tech, Kentucky at Tennessee, South Carolina at Clemson, and Vanderbilt at Wake Forest. Barring resurgences of FSU, Ga. Tech, or South Carolina, the pageantry and hatred of the Iron Bowl should make it the best pick of the week, nationally.
Alabama has a new offensive coordinator, this season. Replacing the oft-criticized Major Applewhite is Jim McElwain, formerly of Fresno State. McElwain revamped the Bulldog offense to great success last season, racking up 418 yards per game. The Alabama offense will operate behind a veteran line with several star blockers, including senior center Antoine Caldwell, and junior star left tackle Andre Smith, a pre-season Playboy All-American. Smith is listed at 348 pounds. Bama returns veteran running backs, tight ends, and senior quarterback John Parker Wilson. The wide receiver corps was hit hard by graduation, but senior Nikita Stover and junior Mike McCoy return with experience, and great things are expected out of incoming signee Julio Jones, the number one recruit in the nation, according to some sources.
On defense, coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinators Kirby Smart and Kevin Steele are still struggling to put together a starting line up. Despite questionable talent last season, this crew put up respectable numbers, finishing sixth in the SEC in total defense, and fourth in scoring defense. The 2008 edition of the Crimson Tide defense will be minus a number of stars from a year ago, including monster end Wallace Gilberry, shut-down corner Simeon Castille, safety Marcus Carter, and three starting linebackers. Of returners expected to contribute at linebacker, Jimmy Johns was tossed from the team after an arrest, and Prince Hall is currently suspended. While Alabama should be able to piece together a reasonably capable starting lineup, depth is a big issue. Expect to see a number of true freshmen pressed into service. Alabama will need good injury luck to stay solvent on defense.
Alabama’s special teams are headlined by the explosive, dangerous return man, senior Javier Arenas. Junior punter P. J. Fitzgerald returns, and Tide folks hope that he can improve on his 38.4 yard average. Junior kicker Leigh Tiffin returns as well, after setting a single season Alabama points record for a kicker. Alabama was very good covering kicks last season, and figures to be solid again, this year.
Matchups (It’s a Bama depth chart, ai’ght?)
Auburn defensive line vs. Alabama offensive line: Alabama’s offensive line is easily the strength of the team, with four starters returning. The starting right tackle from a year ago, junior Mike Johnson, is expected to move to left guard. In his place will likely be junior Drew Davis. Alabama has had great difficulty handling speedy pass rushers off the right side in recent years, and it is hoped that Davis will finally shore that problem up. Junior all-star tackle Andre Smith will nail down the left side. Solid senior center Antoine Caldwell returns, as does senior right guard Marlon Davis. Auburn counters this unit with a talented front, led by junior tackle SenDerrick Marks. Auburn has the depth to rotate players, and may have a fatigue edge by the 4th quarter. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. Alabama runners: With a solid line, Bama runners had a good season last year. However, durability was an issue. Sophomore Terry Grant returns after piling up 891 yards in an injury-shortened All-SEC Freshman Team season. Juniors Glen Coffee and Roy Upchurch return, bringing about 800 rushing yards of production from last season to the Bama backfield. Auburn will counter with a fast, deep and lethal linebacker corps led by junior Tray Blackmon. Alabama had little success running on Auburn last year, averaging only 3.1 yards per carry. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. Alabama receivers: Alabama was hit hard by graduation in this area, losing D. J. Hall, Keith Brown, and Matt Caddell. Alabama’s likely starters this season are veteran senior Nikita Stover, junior Mike McCoy, and true freshman Julio Jones. There is no experience beyond Stover and McCoy. Auburn will defend with Jerraud Powers,Walter McFadden, and true freshman backups. The height of Jones will likely be a difficult matchup for the smaller Auburn corners. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn safeties vs. Alabama secondary receivers and quarterback:Auburn’s Zach Etheridge and Michael McNeil will try to contain a potent attack. John Parker Wilson will be back for his 3rd season as a starter, but there is no game experience behind him. Wilson was inconsistent last season, going through streaks where he had difficulty getting the ball to open receivers. His completion percentages in Bama’s A-Day, and their first scrimmage of the fall (17 of 30, 56.6 percent) indicate that this may still be a problem. Alabama senior tight ends, Nick Walker and Travis McCall, are veterans; solid as blockers, and capable as receivers. Advantage: Alabama, on experience.
Punting: Auburn punted well last season, and has several strong legs returning, led by sophomore pre-season All-SEC Ryan Shoemaker, who averaged 42.4 yards per punt in 2007. Shoemaker downed 16 of 49 balls inside the 20 yard line. Alabama returns junior punter P. J. Fitzgerald, who averaged 38.4 yards per punt, with 20 of 64 punts downed inside the 20 yard line. The Bama coverage was stifling, holding opponents to 6.6 yards per return. Auburn held opponents to 6.5. Javier Arenas is an electrifying returner for the Tide, with three career touchdown returns, and a gaudy 15.4 yard average last season. Auburn returner Robert Dunn averaged 9.4. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Auburn hopes to improve on short kicks and dismal coverage a year ago, kicking it an average of 57.9 yards, and giving up 21.2 per return. That’s an average opponent starting position at the 33 yard line. Alabama junior Leigh Tiffin returns for the Tide, averaging 60 yards per kickoff. The Tide gave up only 17.9 yards per return. Auburn has senior returner Tristan Davis back, who led the nation in 2006, averaging 27.0 yards per return. Alabama senior Javier Arenas averaged 24.3 last season. Advantage: Alabama.
Placekicking: Auburn sophomore Wes Byrum returns, after a stellar freshman season in which he hit 17 of 23 field goal attempts. Alabama’s Leigh Tiffin hit 25 out of 34, to set an Alabama kicking record of 111 points. Percentage-wise, the two kickers are virtually identical. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. Alabama defensive line: The bulk of Auburn’s line returns, with depth, talent, and experience behind the starters. Alabama returns two starters, juniors Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington. Those two starters from last season combined for a grand total of 5 sacks, and only 7.5 tackles for a loss. Veteran senior Bobby Greenwood will take the place of the departed Wallace Gilberry, having played in 38 games with 8 career starts. There is little depth behind these three. All three starting linemen are in the 270-290 pound range, and not terribly quick. They will have great difficulty holding the line against Auburn. Big Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Alabama linebackers: Auburn has speed, strength, and depth at tailback, with Brad Lester, Ben Tate, and Tristan Davis all returning. In addition, a pair talented true freshmen have been turning some heads in fall camp. Alabama must replace three of four starters at linebacker, and the pool of replacements has thinned due to arrests and suspensions. At this time, it appears likely that junior Prince Hall will be back from his suspension by Iron Bowl time, and he’s probably the most talented of the Bama bunch. Penciled in very lightly, as starters for now, are freshman Don’ta Hightower, sophomore Rolando McClain, freshman Jerrell Harris, and junior Brandon Fanney. McClain is experienced, and is huge for a modern-day SEC linebacker, at 249 pounds. Fanney’s even larger, at 257, and will be used as a hybrid LB/rush end. It’s a very green unit for the Tide, and it will be interesting to see how the Tide’s size matches up with Auburn speed. Big Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Alabama corners: Auburn returns most of its receiving corps from a year ago, and has seen dramatic improvement from previously under-utilized players this year. In addition, at least two true freshmen have shown sufficient talent and speed to be in the playing rotation early. Alabama returns one starting corner, sophomore Kareem Jackson, who got his feet wet last season, with 66 tackles and 3 interceptions. Jackson was named to some freshman All-American teams. He’s a tall corner who can fly! The likely starter opposite Jackson is senior Javier Arenas. Arenas is smaller, at only 5’9″. He has the speed to play corner, but his playing time there has been limited to nickel and dime packages in the past. Like Auburn, Alabama will likely use a lot of freshmen for depth. Kareem Jackson can probably take one receiver away from Auburn, but that’s not terribly comforting against a spread attack, for Bama fans. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Alabama safeties:Auburn will start a pair of new quarterbacks, this season, in Kodi Burns and Chris Todd. By game 12, they should be fairly seasoned. With a Bama front seven that likely won’t be able to get pressure without blitzing, they should have open receivers to throw to, and time to do it. Alabama will have to find a way to contain speedy slot receivers/tight ends like Tommy Trott, Robert Dunn, and Terrell Zachary. Bama returns senior strong safety Rashad Johnson, who was All-SEC a year ago, and had 6 interceptions. Freshman Mark Barron is the likely starter at free safety. While Alabama has a quality cover corner and a good safety, there will be a lot of inexperience spread across the field trying to defend Auburn’s relentless attack. Advantage: Auburn.
This may be a more high-scoring Iron Bowl than any in recent memory. Alabama has big play potential on offense against a green Auburn secondary. Auburn’s spread should run a young, thin Alabama defense ragged. I’m trying to imagine Alabama’s large linemen and linebackers trying to lumber back to the line quickly in the 4th quarter against Auburn’s no-huddle, and I can’t! The key for Auburn will be to limit mistakes on the road in a hostile stadium. Auburn should be able to slow down Alabama’s running game, and must keep Bama receivers in front and make the tackle. Wilson will get some completions, but we must keep them from being break-away touchdowns. If Wilson is forced to sustain drives with his arm, he will miss enough throws to derail some drives. On offense, Auburn must take care of the ball. Auburn’s attack is exactly what the Tide is least-equipped to defend against, and should have a big day.
Prediction: Alabama does get a few big plays to electrify Bryant Denny Stadium, but the Auburn spread is too much. Auburn rolls the Tide: 45-21, to win the SEC Western Division, and finish 11-1. Next up? Tebow… War Eagle!