Alabama outlook: What the Crimson Tide needs to do in the Iron Bowl

Mac Jones

Alabama quarterback Mac Jones (10) passes again st Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium on the MSU campus in Starkville, Ms., on Saturday November 16, 2019.

Pre-Iron Bowl analysis of Alabama:

The game

What: Alabama Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1 SEC) at Auburn Tigers (8-3, 4-3)

When: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Central time

Rankings: Alabama is No. 5 in the coaches poll, No. 5 in the Associated Press rankings and No. 5 in the all-important College Football Playoff rankings. Auburn is No. 15 in the playoff rankings and No. 16 in the AP and coaches polls.

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn

Line: Alabama by 3½

TV/radio: TV: CBS; Alabama radio: WHMA-FM 95.5 (Anniston), SiriusXM 191 (Streaming 961); Auburn radio: WTDR-FM, 92.7 (Oxford), WMSP-AM 740 (Montgomery), SiriusXM 190 (Streaming 961)

Three things Alabama must do

1. Get the ball out of Mac Jones’ hands and keep the young quarterback clean.

After taking over as Alabama’s starting quarterback a week ago for an injured Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones will make his first career road start today in Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium.

It’s a difficult scenario for anyone to step into, let alone a quarterback already dealing with a hefty load of expectations after taking over one of the nation’s most explosive offenses with a potential College Football Playoff spot still on the line.

Because of all of the pressure already on Jones, Alabama would be wise to make things as easy and simple on him as possible, including keeping him clean against Auburn’s dynamic defensive line duo of Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.

The pass-rushing pair have already made it clear they plan to make Jones’ day difficult, and that doesn’t sound like much fun for the redshirt sophomore.

Along with solid pass protection from an improving offensive line, the Crimson Tide coaches should do their best to get Jones comfortable in the pocket. They can accomplish that in two ways. The first is by establishing a steady running attack behind junior tailbacks Najee Harris and Brian Robinson Jr.

The second is by incorporating short and quick passes to Alabama’s playmaking receivers to get Jones into a rhythm early, be it with some RPO slant passes, bubble screens or even the potent pop-pass runs its had success with already this season.

All should work to keep Auburn’s defensive front from pinning its ears back and coming after Jones with abandon.

2. Continue to convert third downs.

Alabama leads the SEC with a 54.3-percent conversion rate on third down as well as 70 total third-down conversions this season.

That needs to continue today in Jordan-Hare Stadium against an Auburn defense that allows the lowest third-down conversion rate in the conference. The Tigers have been especially stingy on third downs, limiting opponents to a 28.9-percent success rate and allowing just 48 total third-down conversions.

With Jones at quarterback, the Crimson Tide is actually converting at a better-than-60 percent clip (13-of-21 or 62 percent), including 5-of-8 last week against Western Carolina.

And while Auburn in unquestionably a much tougher defense than the FCS-product it faced a week ago, Alabama’s ability to continually keep the chains moving on third-down situations will be key. And that will require the entire offense to be clicking early and often.

The Tide has had at least five third-down conversions every game this season — in fact, it’s 5-for-8 on third downs last week was its fewest of the year — while the Tigers’ defense has only allowed five third-down conversions in a game three times, including a season-high nine against both Kent State and LSU.

If Alabama can keep its trend of moving the sticks with regularity, it could mean big things.

3. Avoid big plays defensively while making plenty offensively.

While the Crimson Tide offense has been among the country’s most-explosive, ranking tied for third nationally with 81 plays of 20-or-more yards this season, it’s also been able to keep opponents from having the same success, ranking first nationally allowing just two plays of 40-or-more yards all season.

Continuing both trends will be vital to having success today in hostile territory. There’s nothing that quiets a home crowd more than the opposition breaking off a couple of big 40-yard plays, or keeps a raucous home crowd from becoming a factor like limiting the exciting plays by its own offense.

Alabama’s offense has produced 19 plays of 40-or-more yards and leads the SEC with six 70-or-more yard plays this season. Auburn has just two plays of 70-or-more yards this season by comparison.

By the same token, the Tigers have allowed just 12 total plays of 30-or-more yards, two fewer than the Tide has, but nine of those have gone for more than 40 yards compared to just two by Alabama’s defense.

Much like avoiding penalties, the team that makes the most big plays while also avoiding big plays defensively will more than likely stand the best chance at winning.

Prediction

Even without its Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback, Alabama remains one of the SEC’s most talented teams, especially offensively with arguably the nation’s top receiving corps. It’s why the Crimson Tide remain in solid contention for one of the four College Football Playoff spots despite such a devastating loss. But Alabama will need to prove that it’s still worthy of such high acclaim and it all comes down to Saturday’s Iron Bowl. Playing in such hostile territory as Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Tide can do itself a favor by getting its patented offense going early and jumping out to an early advantage, which in turn should help silence what is annually one of the SEC’s most intimidating road environments.

If Jones and Alabama’s run game can get in a rhythm early, it will help what has been a battered defense get comfortable and make life difficult for Auburn freshman quarterback Bo Nix. As two of the league’s top pass rushers, Tide outside linebackers Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis will be fired up for their final Iron Bowl and come out aggressive, making the young Nix think twice about stepping back into the pocket for any extended time.

Both teams are going to be able to find the end zone, and this could be another one for the ages, but look for a highly-motivated Alabama to take care of business when it matters Saturday.

Alabama 32, Auburn 27

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