The Tide Rolls into Auburn (Previewing the 2017 Iron Bowl)
Jalen Hurts was the surprise star of the SEC last season
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn football preview! This week, we look at the Iron Bowl, which will be played in Auburn on November 25th. Most pundits feel that this will be a essentially a playoff for a berth in the SEC title game the following week. It’s certainly shaping up to be a big game as both teams are expecting great seasons.
This year, the Auburn Tigers will have opened the season with Georgia Southern, then traveled to Clemson. Auburn will enjoy an early homecoming game against Mercer before traveling to Missouri prior to a home clash with Mississippi State. The Rebels follow at Jordan-Hare Stadium the following week before a road trip to LSU. Auburn then travels to Fayetteville to fight Arkansas and then have well-earned bye week. A trip to Texas A&M follows, and Auburn returns home to face Georgia. After the Bulldogs, Auburn tunes up on Louisiana Monroe before the Iron Bowl. Alabama kicks off its season on prime time ABC television in Atlanta against perennial ACC powerhouse, Florida State. A couple of home tuneups follow against Fresno State and Colorado State. Alabama then travels to Nashville to take on old foe Vanderbilt, then returns home against Ole Miss. October brings a road trip to Texas A&M, consecutive home dates against Arkansas and Tennessee, and closes with a bye on October 28th. LSU comes calling in early November and is followed by Mississippi State in Starkville. Alabama tunes up on Mercer the week before the Iron Bowl.
Alabama lost a ton of talent to the NFL during the offseason, but anyone expecting a huge drop in production this year is likely to be disappointed. Alabama annually has the best recruiting class in the nation according to most sources and is again loaded at most positions.
My real question is with the offense. By any standard, Alabama has been electric on offense the past three seasons thanks to the wizardry of former coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin excelled at putting the ball in the hands of Alabama’s best playmakers. This year, Brian Daboll takes over the offense. While I felt the offense might take a step back, Bama showed some explosiveness in the passing game in the spring. Also, this is the first year in a while that Alabama won’t have a new starting quarterback going into game one. Adding a dangerous receiving corps led by Calvin Ridley and a deep running back corps to an experienced, talented quarterback, one has to figure that Alabama will be just fine, even if it has to replace a few starting linemen.
The defense lost a ton of talent to the NFL and looked shaky at the start of Alabama’s A-Day game. Of course, it was limited to base defense while the offense teed off. Once the defense was allowed to blitz and make adjustments, the offensive fireworks cooled considerably. While depth on the defensive line might be a concern, Alabama is loaded on the back end, particularly at linebacker. I expect that defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will once again have one of the best defenses in the nation when all is said and done. Last season, Alabama averaged 38.8 points per game on offense, while giving up just 13.0.
In 2016 Alabama was shaky at times on special teams coverage, but it returns arguably the best punter in the nation in J. K. Scott. Scott reportedly will also handle long field goals of 40+ yards, this season. Alabama seems settled on Scott and senior Andy Pappanastos to replace graduated kicker Adam Griffith. Alabama has experience in the return game with sophomore Trevon Diggs, and there is a host of explosive, less experienced talent behind him.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Alabama offensive line: Auburn brings a big, athletic defensive line back this season. Likely starters at tackle are junior Dontavius Russell and sophomore Derrick Brown. Sophomore strong-side end Marlon Davidson was a beast on A-Day. The buck side will likely be manned by a combination of junior Jeffery Holland and senior transfer Paul James III. Auburn has a good bit of depth behind the starters as well. From left to right, Alabama is likely to start sophomore Jonah Williams, junior Ross Pierschbacher, senior Bradley Boseman, junior Lester Cotton, and sophomore Matt Womack. The biggest issue at this time is containing the pass rush at the tackle positions as Bama will be young on the flanks no matter who it turns to. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Alabama backs: The Auburn Tigers have a good cross-trained quartet of upper echelon SEC-caliber linebackers. Junior Deshaun Davis, senior Tré Williams, junior Darrell Williams and junior Montravious Atkinson can play all three positions, and we might see any combination of these players on the field at a given time. I’ve kind of been surprised by all the love given Guice and Chubb (of LSU and Georgia, respectively) by the press. I think one could easily put Alabama’s juniors Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris in that category. Auburn linebackers must worry about tackling quarterback Jalen Hurts (954 rushing yards last season), Harris (1,037 yards) and Scarbrough (812 yards). That’s a lot of production, and Alabama is as deep as they come behind those guys. Sophomores Mike Forristall and Irv Smith Jr. should give Alabama a good combination at H-back. The Auburn backers actually contained these guys decently last season, despite having to play a lot of snaps with little help from the Auburn offense. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. Alabama receivers: Auburn has a fairly good combination of starting corners in junior Carlton Davis and sophomore Javaris Davis. The Tigers are hoping that Jamel Dean will be healthy this fall as he is one of the fastest players on the team. Dean may be able to seize a starting corner spot, which would allow Javaris Davis to move over to nickel to give Auburn elite speed all throughout the back end of the defense. Alabama will start Calvin Ridley and senior Robert Foster. Last season, Auburn was able to limit this group on deep throws, but got nickeled and dimed to death underneath. Ridley had 5 catches for 44 yards in last year’s Iron Bowl. Depth looks suspect on paper beyond the starters, but a number of underclassmen excelled in the spring for Alabama.: Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn safeties vs. Alabama secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn’s starting unit features seniors Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts at safety and sophomore Jeremiah Dinson at nickel back. There’s not much depth here beyond senior Nick Ruffin, who’ll probably see as much playing time as the starters. The Tigers are considering moving Javaris Davis to nickel to help. The Tigers are solid here as long as no one gets hurt. Alabama’s Jalen Hurts possesses both great accuracy and mobility at the quarterback spot. The sole knock on Hurts is that maybe he is not as good at going through his progressions as some other quarterbacks in the league, and if his first guy isn’t open, he’s likely to force things or take off. In last year’s Iron Bowl, Auburn was able to bait Hurts into a couple of turnovers, but Alabama adjusted to mostly safe throws because Auburn’s offense wasn’t a threat to get back into the game. Alabama will often line 6′ 5” senior Cam Sims in the slot, and that’s a matchup nightmare for any nickel or safety. Junior tight end Hale Hentges has labored behind O. J. Howard for a couple of years and should be ready to provide stability as a starter. Look out for true freshman Major Tennison, who has impressed in camp. Tennison is another big freak athlete who is a matchup problem against linebackers and safeties. Advantage: Alabama.
Punting: Sophomore Ian Shannon has all but won the nod as Auburn’s starting punter after a couple of years of waiting in the wings. Shannon looked good on A-Day a year ago in warmups. The Tigers gave up only 19 punt return yards last season on 6 punts for a stifling 3.2 yards per return. The Tigers are still auditioning for the punt returner job. It’s thought that senior Stephen Roberts has the inside track after returning 6 punts last season for 100 yards. Alabama’s J. K. Scott sported a ridiculous 47.19 yards per punt average last season, and regularly flips the field for a staunch Tide defense. Outkicking the coverage has been a bit of an issue as Alabama gave up 20 returns for an average of 10.65 yards per return. Sophomore Alabama return man Trevon Diggs got his feet wet last season on returns, returning 13 punts for 130 yards. Advantage: Alabama.
Kickoffs: Daniel Carlson was very good kicking off last season, notching 57 touchbacks on 72 kickoffs. When Auburn did allow returns, opponents averaged only 18.0 yards per return. Junior Kerryon Johnson is Auburn’s most experienced return man, and he averaged 22.2 yards per return last season. Bama’s J. K. Scott will likely take over kickoffs. Last season, Scott had 4 touchbacks on 9 kickoffs in a mop-up role. Alabama gave up 21.2 yards per return. On returns, Trevon Diggs averaged 23.7 yards per return. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Alabama defensive line: It’s still not settled who’ll start for Auburn on the line, although the starters looked pretty good on A-Day. There is still shuffling going on, and Auburn may well have some rotation during games this fall. At left tackle, it seems that sophomore Prince Tega Wanogho has just been too good to keep out of the starting lineup. Wanogho has phenomenal athletic upside, but it’s a bit worrisome to have an inexperienced tackle protecting the quarterback’s blind side. The good news is that no one is really a rookie by the time the Iron Bowl rolls around. It appears that sophomore Mike Horton has hung onto the left guard spot, and senior Austin Golson has withstood the challenge at center. The latest talk is that senior preseason All-American Braden Smith is moving back to his usual right guard spot, and the right tackle position will be manned by senior Darius James, the starting left tackle last season. Auburn also has senior transfers Wilson Bell (FSU) and Casey Dunn (Jacksonville State), who should be able to step in and perform at a very high level if needed. For Alabama, junior Da’Ron Payne might be one of the best interior linemen in the nation, and there is depth behind him. At ends, senior Da’Shawn Hand will take over for the departed Jonathan Allen, and sophomore Raekwon Davis appears to have a slight upper hand on the other side. Again, Alabama is loaded with talent at endl. Alabama shut down the Auburn run game last season, but that wasn’t terribly difficult with little passing competence in evidence. Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. Alabama linebackers: Auburn features junior H-back Chandler Cox blowing open holes. Running behind the big H-back will be massive junior Kamryn Pettway, and the shifty junior Kerryon Johnson in reserve. Inside, Alabama will start senior Shaun Dion Hamilton and senior Rashaan Evans. Outside backers will be a 2 of the trio of junior Christian Miller, sophomore Anfernee Jennings, and sophomore Terrell Lewis. This is a hard-hitting, talented unit, and Alabama has a ton of depth behind them. Last season, Pettway and Johnson combined for just 56 rushing yards against Alabama, but both were hobbled with injuries. Advantage: Alabama.
Auburn receivers vs. Alabama corners: At the end of spring, it looked like Auburn’s two starting outside guys were sophomore Nate Craig-Myers and sophomore Darius Slayton. Both guys can fly and have good height and great hands. Redshirt freshman Marquis McClain had a great A-Day and is someone to watch out for on the outside. Senior Anthony Averett is a lock-down corner on one side. Right now, sophomore Travon Diggs appears to have the upper hand, but all-purpose superstar junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick could take over if that experiment doesn’t work. There is concern here after Alabama gave up a number of big passing plays in the spring game. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Alabama safeties: Auburn has potential threats, starting with wickedly fast junior slot receiver Will Hastings. Sophomore Eli Stove can also fly. Tight ends Jalen Harris and Sal Cannella are expected to be a big part of the passing game as well. Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is the starter. In 6 games as a freshman at Baylor, Stidham was electric. That trend continued during A-Day this spring as Stidham was deadly accurate and showed great mobility. Alabama will counter with Minkah Fitzpatrick and junior Ronnie Harrison. If Fitzpatrick has to play elsewhere, senior Hootie Jones would likely get the call. Nickel back is senior Tony Brown. Alabama is one of the few teams that can match up with Auburn. Advantage: Alabama.
Adding everything up, Alabama has a very slim advantage. However, the game is being played in Auburn where Alabama is just 5–8. While Alabama may be just a little bit better overall, they have more areas of potential concern than Auburn does. A combination of offensive tackle problems and a sophomore slump at quarterback could mean real trouble for Alabama. Can offensive coordinator Brian Daboll pick up where Lane Kiffin left off? Kiffin was unparalleled as a play-caller. It remains to be seen how Daboll will do.
The worry at this time of year for Auburn is injuries and it was beat up for the last two Iron Bowls. The team played hard both times but just didn’t have enough left in the tank. Alabama was much better suited to weather the season-long wear and tear. I think Auburn has closed the depth gap significantly this season. Whether it is enough, is still an open question.
Prediction: The Auburn defense once again contains the Alabama offense well. The difference this year is that Auburn has more big play potential and the ability to move the ball, something that has been missing in the last couple of Iron Bowls. Auburn wins it, 30–21.