Preview: Alabama vs Auburn

Alabama has won 18 straight true road games, and is 4-3 in Iron Bowl games played at Auburn

By Dave Friedman
For only the second time since Auburn and Alabama began playing in 1893, the Tigers and Crimson Tide meet on Saturday with both teams ranked in the Top 5. The 78th Iron Bowl is actually a National Quarterfinal. The winner advances to the SEC Title game, and the victor in Atlanta likely will look to continue the conferences streak of seven straight BCS Championships.

Auburn enters play 10-1 with their only setback a 35-21 loss at LSU on September 21. The Tigers beat Georgia 43-38 two weeks ago when Ricardo Louis caught a 73 yard touchdown on a tipped pass on 4th down and 18 with 25 seconds remaining. First year coach Gus Malzahn has led the Tigers to the best turnaround in the country this year, and most improvement in a single season in SEC history. Auburn was 3-8 last season and 0-8 in league play. The Tigers were off last week.

Alabama has been ranked number one all season and done little to diminish their reputation as the best team in the country. Besides a 49-42 win at Texas A&M on September 14, the Tide have played no competitive games. They have allowed a total of five touchdowns in their last nine games and opponents have managed just over 5.5 points a game during that span. Alabama has outscored their opponents 353-50 since the win over the Aggies. The Crimson Tide have shutout three opponents this season, and in 11 of their last 15 games the Alabama defense has not been scored upon in the first half.

Malzahn knows his team has a challenge, but thinks they have a great opportunity.

“We’re playing the best team in the country, there’s no doubt,” he said. “The good thing is we’re playing good football, we’ve improved each week, we’re playing at home. If it’s a close game, I like our chances.”

It is a matchup of strength vs. strength with Auburn leading the SEC, and second in the country rushing for 320 yards a game. Meanwhile, after leading the NCAA in rushing defense the last two years, Alabama is tops in the conference and fourth in the nation holding opponents to 91 yards a game on the ground this year. Since 1967 the team that has rushed for more yards has won the Iron Bowl in 39 of 46 meetings. Alabama coach Nick Saban has respect for the Tigers ground game.

“They’re one of the leading offensive teams in the country,” said Saban. “Gus has always done a fantastic job with the offense, with their ability to run the ball effectively, throw it when they need to. Score the points that they’ve been able to score on a pretty consistent basis against just about everybody in this league. They’ve got a good offensive line. They’ve got good inside runners. Nick Marshall does a very good job of implementing their offense, and he’s very athletic and makes a lot of plays as a rusher as well. Tre Mason is the leading rusher in the league.”

Theoretically Auburn has an advantage playing at home, however, Alabama has won 18 straight true road games, and is 4-3 in Iron Bowl games played at Auburn. The visiting team has won nine of the last 14 games in the rivalry. Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron knows what the environment will be like, and how to prepare for big games.

“I’ve played in two national championships in a row,” said McCarron. “It’s just another game.”

Malzahn agrees with McCarron that the stakes are obvious though he acknowledges it’s a special game.

“We’re not going to hype up things,” he said. “It’s big enough already.”

Ranked number four, Auburn is the highest ranked team Alabama has ever played during the regular season while ranked number one. Both teams will play another game or two after Saturday. Only one will be involved in a game of significance.