3:30 PM EST, CBS – Line: Alabama -4.5, Over/Under: 47
With the final week of the College Football Regular Season upon us, all eyes will be fixated on Jordan-Hare Stadium, as a spot in the SEC Championship Game, and by extension the College Football Playoff, will be decided as the Sixth-Ranked Auburn Tigers host the Top-Ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in a crucial installment of one of the sport’s most bitter rivalries, the Iron Bowl. For the second consecutive season, Alabama (11-0, 7-0 in SEC) will roll into this annual matchup undefeated, with their eyes set upon a fourth straight appearance in the CFP Playoff, and a potential second National Championship in three years. Nick Saban has done a remarkable job in Tuscaloosa this season, given the sheer volume of departures he’s had to endure, particularly on Defense, where he had to replace six Starters, including three First Round Picks. Factor in a rash of injuries at Linebacker that has deprived them of much-needed Depth throughout the term, and it was a legitimate question as to just how effective the Crimson Tide would be on this side of the ball. However, after eleven games any doubts about this group have been put to rest, as the Defense has relegated opponents to a nation-best 10.2 Points per Game (1st Overall) on 245.4 Total Yards, including 156.7 versus the Pass and another 88.6 against the Run. Keep in mind that they’ve relinquished fewer Points and Yards than they did in either of the previous two campaigns, which of course saw them advance all the way to the National Championship Game. So basically what we’re trying to say is that the more things change, the more they stay the same at Alabama. Turnovers have been a huge component of their success, logging Nineteen thus far, including Fifteen Interceptions, with eight different players registering a Pick, with three of them bagging at least a trifecta. Do-It-All Defensive Back Minkah Fitzpatrick (44 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 SK, 1 FF, 1 INT, 2 PD) has been the veteran leader that this unit has needed, with Offenses shying away from his region of the field a year after snaring Six Interceptions and returning a pair for Touchdowns in 2016. Saban kept him on the Bench in the Tide’s 56-0 annihilation of Mercer last weekend, in what served as the program’s annual tune-up game before their showdown with Auburn, to rest a sore hamstring. With that said, the Offense has remained largely intact from a year ago, which is key given the relative inexperience they possessed during their run to the Final. Sophomore Quarterback Jalen Hurts (61.2%, 166.2 Y/G, 9.1 Y/A, 14 TD, 1 INT) has done a masterful job of managing the attack, while picking his spots when attacking downfield, averaging a very healthy 9.1 Yards per Attempt. Furthermore, he remains a handful to bring down in the open field, rushing for 686 Yards and Eight Touchdowns on 199 Carries. When he faced the Tigers a year ago, a 30-13 victory at Bryant-Denny Stadium, he proved to be the deciding factor not with his legs, but with his arm, completing 27-of-36 Passes (75.0%) for 286 Yards, Two Touchdowns and Two Interceptions, while rushing for a crucial score early in the Third Quarter to put the game out of reach. Since that day, the most passes he’s attempted in a game has been Thirty-One and that was in the National Championship Game, for Hurts has averaged just 18.3 Attempts per Game this season, as Saban has kept the Offense grounded. At 44.8 Rushing Attempts per Game, Alabama has been extremely run-heavy in 2017, racking up 270.3 Yards on 6.0 Yards per Carry, with each representing a sizable increase from last year (245.0 Y/G, 5.8 Y/C). Apart from Hurts, Damien Harris (104 CAR, 855 YDS, 11 TD) has been by far and away the most effective of their stable of Tailbacks, averaging a whopping 8.2 Yards per Carry, with Bo Scarbrough chiming in with another 503 Yards and Seven Scores on 102 Carries. And that will be the Gameplan, folks, as the Tide look to dominate Time of Possession and control the tempo of the game, as they bludgeon their opponent in the trenches, hoping for greater returns later on. That was precisely what happened when they faced Auburn a year ago, as they rushed for 203 Yards on Forty-Four Carries despite the visiting side’s willingness to load the box with extra Defenders. Scarbrough totaled Ninety Yards on Seventeen Carries, while Harris added another Forty-Seven Yards on Nine Attempts. Since arriving in Tuscaloosa back in 2007, Saban is 7-3 against Auburn, and 3-2 in five meetings at Jordan-Hare Stadium. However, in each of the last two meetings in which the Tigers have been ranked inside of the Top-10, they’ve met defeat with their rivals going on to compete in the National Championship Game on each occasion; first it was Cam Newton and the 2010 team that came to Bryant-Denny Stadium and shocked the world in a 28-27 epic, followed years later in 2013 in a 34-28 thriller that helped put and end to the BCS Era.
Meanwhile, here lies Auburn (9-2, 6-1 in SEC), the proverbial chaos-bringer set to put the CFP Selection Committee to the fire, lurking just outside the First Four with a pair of losses on their ledger. It should be extremely interesting to see just how the Committee go about their decision-making process if the Tigers do indeed pull the upset today, given the fact that they have two losses. Obviously, knocking off the Tide would carry a lot of weight, a proverbial Joker in their Deck of Cards, but would they actually rise above the likes of undefeated teams such as Second-Ranked Miami and potential Big Ten Champion Wisconsin? Or how about one-loss teams like Fourth-Ranked Oklahoma or Third-Ranked Clemson, the latter who defeated them in a defensive slugfest earlier in the season? And should ‘Bama drop out of the conversation altogether on the merits of one lone loss to a bitter rival? Needless to say, Tuesday’s releasing of the Rankings should be scintillating television. With all that said, Gus Malzahn has done an excellent job of steering the program back into a positive direction after three disappointing seasons in which they compiled a 23-16 record, that left his job status very much in question. Of course, the SEC, particularly the Western Division, is consistently treacherous, though his charges have reached this point with one of the most impressive bodies of work in the country. A 14-6 loss at reigning National Champion Clemson is by no means a penalty, while obliterating the likes of Fourteenth-Ranked Mississippi State (49-10) and previously undefeated and Top-Ranked Georgia (40-17) are as good a pair of conference victories as you can get. Parlay those with a potential win over Alabama with another meeting with the Bulldogs in the SEC Title Game next week and we challenge you to find a team out there with a better CV. Even that 27-23 midseason loss at LSU doesn’t seem so bad given their sudden improvement in play. The lion’s share of Auburn’s success this season can be laid at the feet of the Offense, or to be more specific, the Rushing Attack, which has been one of the most prolific in the country. Malzahn’s preferred Zone-Read Scheme has proven to be devastating in the past (See 2010 and 2013) with the proper Quarterback operating out of it, which is where Jarrett Stidham (67.8%, 222.3 Y/G, 9.2 Y/A, 16 TD, 4 INT) comes into the equation. The Baylor Transfer has exhibited impressive versatility since becoming the Starter after sitting out a year, proving to be a big-play machine for the Tigers. The difference between he and his predecessors in recent years is the fact that he can function inside of the pocket, where he has been on fire of late, completing an efficient 71.6% of his Attempts for an average of 233.8 Yards on 9.2 Yards per Attempt, with Eight Touchdowns and an Interception, while rushing for another pair of Scores in their last four outings following the loss in Baton Rouge. Furthermore, he sure hasn’t shied away from launching the ball downfield, with a number of his targets gaining huge chunks of yardage; six different players have averaged at least 18.0 Yards per Reception, with a quartet logging at least 25.0+ Yards per Catch. Darius Slayton (19 REC, 533 YDS, 5 TD) and Will Hastings (19 REC, 388 YDS, 3 TD) haven’t caught a ton of balls, but have been gamebreakers when given the opportunity, averaging 28.1 and 20.4 Yards per Reception respectively, while Junior Wideout Ryan Davis (9.4 Y/R) has been their opposite, leading the Tigers with Fifty-Eight Catches for 564 Yards and Five Touchdowns. Joining Stidham in the Backfield is Karryon Johnson (220 CAR, 1,172 YDS, 16 TD), who has exploded in his Junior campaign as the featured Tailback in Malzahn’s Offense. He’s run for 100+ Yards in all save for two of the Nine Games he’s participated in, posting a career-high 233 All-Purpose Yards in the victory over Georgia two weeks ago. Much like Alabama, this team seeks to keep the attack grounded, carrying the ball a staggering 47.1 times per Game for an average of 244.0 Yards, with as many as seven different Tigers racking up 100+ Yards. Johnson is going to have to bring his A-Game today, for in two career meetings with the Tide, he’s been left wanting, rushing for just Forty-Six Yards on a dozen Carries. Defensively, Auburn has been very tough on opponents, relinquishing just 16.6 Points (8th Overall) on 302.3 Total Yards, including 184.1 versus the Pass and another 118.2 against the Run. They’ve been particularly aggressive in getting into the Backfield, logging 68.5 Tackles for Loss and 30.5 Sacks, led by Edge Rusher Jeff Holland (39 TKL, 11.5 TFL, 8.5 SK, 4 FF), who in his Junior campaign ranks tenth in the country in Sacks (8.5). This is likely where the game will be won, folks, for if Auburn get enough penetration early in Downs so that Alabama is longer situations, then they’ll be far more likely of stopping their progress.