It’s hard to believe that the 2013 Iron Bowl would decide who would go to the SEC Championship game when looking back before the season began. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is in his first season with the Tigers, but served as the offensive coordinator from 2009-2011 and has managed to guide Auburn to a 10-1 record.
This will also be the first time since 1971 that both teams are ranked in the top five heading into the Iron Bowl and will be the first time the game decides who goes to play for the SEC title since the SEC split in divisions in 1992. There are a few keys for Alabama to be successful to come out of Jordan-Hare Stadium with a win and a chance to play for a conference and national title.
Execute screens, quick throws and draw plays
Saban’s offense caters to the quarterback of getting the ball out of senior AJ McCarron’s hands as quick as possible and taking what the defense gives you. Saturday will probably be no different. Auburn comes in with a very strong defensive line led be senior Dee Ford who has eight sacks on the year in just nine games played. Expect Auburn to dial the pressure and gear up to stop the run to give McCarron fits.
The best way to counter the pressure is making plays out in the perimeter and also attacking the middle. Screens, quick slants and draws will force Auburn to dial back the pressure and possibly give McCarron more time to go through his reads and prevent negative yards in the backfield.
Discipline on the offensive line
There is no doubt that Jordan-Hare will be rocking. Ask any Auburn fan and they will probably tell you last week was the best atmosphere they have ever experienced for obvious reasons. Noise can be a factor if you let it affect you and for Georgia it did. The Bulldogs had four false-start penalties and a couple of timeouts burned because of the chaos.
Alabama will be preparing for the hostile environment with piped-in noise and silent counts during practice, but it’s tough to simulate distractions that you see during the game. The offensive line must watch the ball for the snap and not anticipate. In a game like this, 5 yards could make the difference. Alabama’s line has gelled pretty well as the season has matured. It will be important for them to play as one unit.
Magic number is 150
Why is this number so significant? Some may have not seen the stat, but since 2008 in their seven losses, Alabama did not reach 150 yards rushing. So if Alabama reaches 150 yards in rushing, chances are pretty good for an Alabama victory. In Auburn’s lone loss to LSU this year, the Tigers from Baton Rouge gashed Auburn’s defense for 229 yards rushing allowing LSU running back Jeremy Hill to rush for 7.4 yards per carry.
Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon was the given as this year’s premier running back. Yeldon has rushed for 1,022 yards and 12 touchdowns. Yeldon has also rushed for 100 or more yards in five games including the last two SEC games. Sophomore running back Kenyan Drake has been a comparable backup rushing for at least 7.0 yards per carry in seven of the 10 games Drake has recorded stats.
Maintain eye control
Malzahn’s offense is known for reverses, odd lineups and setups to leave mismatches on the opposition’s defense. From Malzahn’s high school days, through his tenure at Arkansas as offensive coordinator to his days at Auburn, Alabama will see something that Malzahn has not run on offense. Auburn pulled out all the stops in the 2009 Iron Bowl when Auburn had nothing to lose. Auburn raced out to a 14-0 with trick plays and was close in ruining the Tide’s season.
It will be important for the Alabama defense to play their assignments and stay at home. Lineman must maintain their position on the line and not over pursue to avoid leaving wide-open gaps on the backside. Communication will be key and it will start with linebacker C.J. Mosley positioning the guys up front and safety Landon Collins communicating with the secondary.
Limit yardage on first & second downs
Two things bring about good things for Alabama if doing this. First, it slows Malzahn and the offense to want to hurry to the line if you create negative yards on first and second down. The Tigers love to run a hurry-up offense right off positive plays on early downs. Typically, Auburn will run a read option on those downs and try to catch the defense napping. Auburn ranks second in the country in rushing offense so expect a heavy dose of Tre Mason up the gut.
Second, it limits the Auburn offense in the choices of playcalling if faced with long down and distances. The obvious thing is to make Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall throw the ball. Marshall is completing just 58 percent of his passes and has nine touchdown passes and five interceptions. If Alabama knows Auburn has to throw the ball, it makes it much simpler.
Recognize certain packages
Malzahn likes to run certain running backs in certain situations. The power guys for Auburn are Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne. For a changeup, Auburn will go with running back Corey Grant for their speed plays to the outside. Grant is almost rushing 10 yards per carry so it will especially important to limit Grant on the designed outside plays.
Like stated before, communication will be key for the defense. Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will pay attention to Auburn’s substitute packages and will communicate that to his defense to get them in the right position to make the play.
It’s no secret that Yeldon and Drake have had some crucial fumbles this year. Alabama turned the ball over four times against Mississippi State. Fortunately the Bulldogs could not convert on those opportunities. Auburn’s offense however has the firepower to capitalize on mistakes given a short field, ask Georgia. Alabama must take care of the football and avoid those crucial mistakes that could cost them the game.
Flip the field
If Alabama is forced to punt, it will be crucial for punter Cody Mandell to have a good game. The good news for Alabama, Mandell has been exceptional this year. The Louisiana-native needs two more punts to officially be recorded in the record books, but right not Mandell would be first in the country in net punting and third in punting average. Georgia punter Collin Barber punted four times against Auburn and only managed 38 yards per punt. The average starting drive for Auburn after a Georgia punt was the Auburn 34.
Take the lead early
Nothing is more demoralizing than pouncing on a team quick. Alabama has been in this kind of atmosphere numerous times. If Alabama is able to jump on Auburn quick, the crowd will settle. If Alabama takes an early lead, it will be crucial to keep adding on to that lead. If Alabama lets Auburn hang around, the crowd could play a factor. Alabama has scored quickly on Auburn in four of the last five Iron Bowls, only one have they given up a big lead.