Auburn outlook: What the Tigers needs to do in the Iron Bowl

Auburn Florida

Bo Nix (10) throws a touchdown against Florida.

 

Pre-Iron Bowl analysis of Auburn:

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

When: Today, 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 Auburn must do

1. Rattle Mac Jones

Auburn defensive end Marlon Davidson is a little disappointed that Tua Tagovailoa will not be running Alabama’s offense today. Not only because he hated to see the star quarterback suffer a season-ending hip injury, but also because “you always want to play against the best.”

Tagovailoa is certainly one of the best, as he completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 2,840 yards and 33 touchdowns in nine games. His replacement, Jones, is a much-lesser-known commodity. He has been efficient in his two starts this season, completing 28 of 34 passes for 510 yards and six touchdowns, but those were both home games against SEC West bottom-feeder Arkansas and FCS foe Western Carolina.

Playing Auburn’s top-level defense, at the hostile Jordan-Hare Stadium, in the Iron Bowl will be by far the most difficult task the sophomore has faced on the biggest stage he has played on.

It will be on Auburn’s defense to slow Alabama’s offense down. That will obviously be difficult to do, as the Crimson Tide have maybe the most talented set of skill players in the country as well as an elite offensive line that has paved the way for the run game to average 5.1 yards per carry and ranks seventh nationally having allowed only 11 sacks all season.

But that offense hasn’t seen a defense as good as Auburn’s. The Tigers rank 10th nationally allowing 16.2 points per game, eighth holding teams to 4.8 yards per play and 48th with 26 sacks. No opponent has scored more than 24 points against Kevin Steele’s group this season.

The best defense Alabama has faced is Texas A&M’s, which gives up 20.2 points per game, 5 yards per play and has only 21 sacks. The Crimson Tide won 47-28, but that was with Tagovailoa playing quarterback, not Jones.

2. Tackle well in the open field

This will be the most crucial task for Auburn’s defense today. Because if Jones’ two starts this season are any indication, then Alabama will more than likely do whatever it can to get the ball out of his hands and into the hands of its playmakers at the skill positions as quickly as possible.

Of those 34 passes Jones threw against the Razorbacks and Catamounts, 22 traveled fewer than 10 yards in the air, and 14 of those were thrown behind the line of scrimmage. But short passes don’t mean small gains — those 14 throws netted 216 yards (15.4 per attempt).

That’s because Alabama’s elite group of wide receivers led by Jerry Jeudy, DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle leads the SEC averaging 6.4 yards after the catch, per SEC StatCat. Smith and Ruggs are the only receivers in the conference averaging more than 8.3 yards after the catch, and they average more than 11 each. Crimson Tide quarterbacks have completed only 21 passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, but they lead the country with 66 passing plays of 20 or more yards.

To compare: Auburn quarterback Bo Nix has completed 20 passes of 20-plus yards, but the Tigers have only 34 passing plays of 20 or more yards.

Running back Najee Harris has been on a tear of late, too, averaging 17.3 carries for 100.8 rushing yards and 2.3 catches for 29 receiving yards while totaling 12 touchdowns over Alabama’s last six games.

Auburn, for the most part, has been an excellent tackling team this season. Against the run, it ranks 16th nationally holding teams to 3.3 yards per carry and fifth in the SEC holding them to 2.8 yards after contact. Against the pass, third nationally holding teams to 5.6 yards per attempt and second in the SEC holding them to 2.7 yards after the catch.

But the Tigers have been hit for big plays before, like they were against Florida when receiver Freddie Swain turned a short slant into a 64-yard score and running back Lamical Perine broke free for an 88-yard touchdown run. It’s not a large number overall (just 12 of 30 or more yards), but they have been damaging. Those are the types of plays the home team can’t afford to give up today.

3. Don’t stall outside the red zone

If Auburn’s defense can do the two things above as well as it has throughout the season, it will give its offense a chance to win the game — just like it has throughout the season. The biggest question going into today’s game, like it was going into the Georgia game two weeks ago, is whether the offense can take advantage.

When the Tigers have reached the red zone, they have been good this season. They’re scoring points on 89.4 percent of their trips inside the 20 and scoring touchdowns 70.2 percent of the time. Both totals rank top-35 nationally. The problem, especially recently, has been getting that far down the field.

Auburn has had 41 drives over its last three SEC games (loss at LSU, win vs. Ole Miss, loss vs. Georgia). Ten reached the red zone, resulting in all 54 points the Tigers’ scored in those three games. Twelve went three-and-out. But it’s the ones in between that are the concern — 13 of those 19 crossed midfield but did not reach the red zone, and none resulted in points. Place-kicker Anders Carlson missed four field goals during that stretch. Five others ended in turnovers (two on downs, two on fumbles and one on an interception).

It won’t be easy today, especially given the struggles the Tigers have had against the top defenses they’ve played (such as Florida and Georgia). The Crimson Tide defense is one of the best in the country, ranking 10th holding opponents to 16.2 points per game and 15th holding them to 4.7 yards per play.

But Auburn will actually be the second-best scoring offense Alabama has faced this season. The best, LSU, shredded that defense for 559 yards and 46 points. And the Crimson Tide rank outside the top 30 nationally in run defense allowing 3.7 yards per carry. Maybe that will be enough room for the Tigers to get over the hump, even if that hump is only the 21 points per game it is averaging in games against teams with winning records.

Prediction

This is a difficult Iron Bowl to predict. Alabama has one of the best offenses in the country, but it is without its Heisman-candidate quarterback, and Jones and his counterparts haven’t seen a defense anywhere near as good as Auburn’s.

The Tigers have struggled to do much of anything on offense against the best teams on their schedule, but the Crimson Tide have played ever so slightly below their usual elite level on defense (thanks in part to key injuries). Maybe Nix and the rest of the offense will be able to build on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives against Georgia and finally find some consistency scoring the ball against a good team.

That would really help Gus Malzahn’s cause, as losses to Florida, LSU and Georgia in games where the defense allowed no more than 24 points have further frustrated the fan base. That need for a victory to feel good about, as well as the fact that the game is being played at Jordan-Hare Stadium, prove the difference. Besides, stranger things have happened in this rivalry game.

Auburn 27, Alabama 21

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