This is exactly where Auburn wanted to be at the end of the season — playing Alabama for the SEC West. How the Tigers got here wasn’t always pretty, but all of their goals are still right in front of them.
Beat Alabama, and Auburn goes to the SEC Championship Game. Win the SEC title, and they have a near-guaranteed spot in the College Football Playoff.
The Tigers would also be snapping a three-game losing streak in the Iron Bowl, a streak fraught with quarterback inconsistencies and spineless defenses.
Unlike 2014 through 2016, the 2017 Auburn team is different. Auburn has its most talented roster from top to bottom in over decade, with a gunslinger at quarterback who leads the SEC in completion percentage and throws of 40-plus yards.
Alabama rolls into Jordan-Hare sporting an undefeated record, but Auburn seems more battle tested between a close loss to second-ranked Clemson on the road and a thrashing of top-ranked Georgia at home. But most importantly, they’ve got the talent to go toe-to-toe with the Crimson Tide.
The Tigers will give Alabama their toughest fight of the season.
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AUBURN OFFENSIVE LINE
Herb Hand has done more shuffling than a Vegas blackjack dealer, but he finally found his offensive line combination in the 40-17 blowout over Georgia that saw the Auburn offense roll up 488 total yards.
There have been plenty of developments in the unit over the season, from moving Casey Dunn to center, moving Austin Golson to literally every position on the line at some point, to the consistency of Braden Smith at right guard.
Alabama’s front seven is the most talented that the Tigers will face all season, but it’s also uncharacteristically banged up. Christian Miller and Shaun Dion Hamilton, two of Alabama’s starting linebackers, have already missed time, and it showed in a close 31-24 win over Mississippi State two weeks ago.
The Bulldogs rushed for 172 yards and three touchdowns (a first in the Saban era). Auburn is undoubtedly hoping to replicate and surpass that success.
If the Auburn offensive line can generate the same push it did against Georgia and that Mississippi State did against Alabama, Kerryon Johnson should continue his hot streak.
Everything starts and stops with the Auburn offensive line on Saturday. The Tigers defensive line should hold up its end of the bargain, so it’ll be up to the offensive line to protect Jarrett Stidham and open up running lanes for Kerryon Johnson.
The sophomore quarterback has taken care of the ball (one interception), but he hasn’t had to throw it much (201 attempts in 11 games). Alabama’s offense is very run-heavy, averaging 270.3 rushing yards per game, but they’ll have their work cut out for them against Auburn’s defensive line (118.2 rushing yards per game).
Hurts’ numbers look good, but he hasn’t been pressured as much as an average quarterback. But when he is forced to throw under pressure, it doesn’t look good — 35.1 completion percentage for just 150 yards and 4.1 yards per attempt.
The Tigers have the most talented and deep defensive line the Crimson Tide have faced all season, and they will plug the running lanes to force Hurts to throw the ball. Hurts will have to improve in that area if Alabama is going to move the ball.
It’s worth mentioning how dangerous the 6-2, 218-pound quarterback is as a runner. Hurts has tallied 686 yards and eight rushing touchdowns on the year. He can make a real difference with his legs if Auburn’s defense fails to contain the pocket and plug running lanes.
GAME PREVIEW AND ANALYSIS
For the first time since the days of Cam Newton, Auburn can match up physically with Alabama. Each team’s defensive and offensive lines are of comparable talent and effectiveness, while both sides have also put up eye-popping numbers on both sides of the ball.
This is the most high-stakes matchup between the two teams since the famous Kick Six, a game that will live forever in college football history.
Historically, when there is an SEC West title on the line, Auburn plays its best against Alabama. This year, the Tigers have the tools to win the game outright.
This game is the reason Auburn brought Jarrett Stidham to town. He has been the biggest difference-maker on the Tigers offense this year, transforming last year’s run-heavy group into a formidable, balanced attack that leads the SEC in plays of 40-plus yards.
Stidham’s ability to stretch the field against the Crimson Tide could prove to be the biggest difference. If he’s able to take the lid off the defense and hit Darius Slayton over the top at least once early on, the defensive front will have to back off the line. Kerryon Johnson, the SEC’s leading rusher (1,172 yards), would take over from there.
Remember when Johnson ran for 167 yards against a Georgia defense that gave up only 105.6 rushing yards per game?
On the other side of the ball, Auburn’s defensive line will be put to its greatest test of the year. Fortunately, they already faced the dynamic duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and held the pair to a combined 48 rushing yards.
Finding any running room will be a true challenge for Alabama’s running backs, putting the burden of moving the ball on Jalen Hurts. The sophomore is only averaging 18 pass attempts per game and hasn’t had to throw his way to many wins.
Auburn’s defensive front will likely change its strategy against a dynamic runner like Hurts and try to keep him in the pocket. If he escapes frequently, the Tigers could be in for a long day.
All in all, the 2017 Iron Bowl should be a tight game. Unlike last season, Auburn’s passing offense has evolved into one of the best in the league. Paired with one of the nation’s best defenses, the Tigers are legitimate challengers to Alabama.
Under the lights of Jordan-Hare Stadium, anything is possible.