Practice is over. Bryant-Denny Stadium will witness a sellout crowd Saturday, as it hosts the 79th edition of the Iron Bowl. College Football GameDay will be in attendance and ESPN will air the matchup for the first time since 2007. All debates will end this weekend, but which team will execute its game plan correctly? Listed below are the keys to victory for Alabama.
- Offensive Line
- LT Cameron Robinson– Freshman left tackle Cameron Robinson (ankle) will play against Auburn. He’s participated fully in practice, despite spraining his ankle against Western Carolina.
- Run Blocking- Alabama’s averaged 204.9 yards (5.0 yards per carry) per game rushing. Auburn won’t have defensive end DaVonte Lambert Saturday. The Crimson Tide’s offensive line has to set the edge for T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and others.
- Pass Protection- Senior quarterback Blake Sims has to have a clean pocket against Auburn. Opposing defenses have sacked Sims seven times this season. If Alabama’s offensive line neutralizes Auburn’s front four, Sims could have a huge game through the air.
- Penalties- Alabama can’t afford mental mistakes against the Tigers. Offensive lineman Leon Brown is known for attracting attention from referees. The Crimson Tide has to be in manageable situations offensively. Avoiding false starts, holdings and a host of other fouls will help Alabama maintain focus.
- Defensive Play
- Negating the Edge- Auburn can run the ball between the tackles, but it wants to bounce plays to the outside. Running backs Cameron Artis-Payne (1,405 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns), Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis and Roc Thomas all have speed. These players are hard to tackle once they hit open space. Alabama’s Jonathan Allen and Xzavier Dickson must contain the edge and force Auburn to run up the middle.
- Tackling in Space- Alabama’s defense will have a lot of one-on-one matchups with Auburn’s best playmakers. The Crimson Tide has to keep everything in front of them. Making secure tackles is a must against Auburn. The Tigers thrive on generating yards after catch and yards after contact.
- Harassing Auburn’s QB Nick Marshall- Alabama’s 25-20 victory over Mississippi State happened because of its consistent pursuit of quarterback Dak Prescott. The Crimson Tide collected one sack, but it constantly pounded Prescott on each play. Alabama forced three interceptions off Prescott. It has to do the same against Nick Marshall. Marshall is more elusive than Prescott, but Alabama has to affect him. He will look to extend plays and attack Alabama’s defense on the perimeter. The Crimson Tide has to contain Marshall in the pocket and force him to read coverage schemes. Tackling in space becomes critical again. Alabama has to wrap up on Marshall and bring him down on first contact. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart wants to hit home with a four-man rush, but look for Alabama to use stunts with its linebackers to give Auburn’s offensive line different looks.
- Secondary play- It did well against Texas A&M, LSU and Mississippi State, but Auburn will present another challenge for Alabama’s secondary. Sammie Coates and D’haquille “Duke” Williams both will play Saturday. Williams leads Auburn’s receiving corps with 38 catches for 609 yards and five touchdowns. Alabama’s Landon Collins will get the troops set, but the task falls on Cyrus Jones and Eddie Jackson to contain Williams and Coates. Jones has emerged as Alabama’s most consistent coverage cornerback. He leads the team in pass deflections (9) and has two interceptions. Jackson has 29 tackles, four pass breakups and an interception. Tackling is important, but on ball skills will be crucial for Alabama’s secondary. It has to be physical, yet sound. The Crimson Tide must play the ball in the air and challenge every throw.
- Quarterback Blake Sims
- Play Loose- It’s a quarterback’s job to lead a team. A team goes as far as its quarterback will take it. Blake Sims has to come out focus, but loose. He can’t afford to over think on possessions. Quarterbacks have a tendency to make more mistakes playing tight in big games.
- Spread the Wealth- Sims has been masterful passing the ball at home this season. He’s completed 67.3 percent of his passes (99147) for 1,542 yards (257 yards per game), 14 touchdowns and two interceptions inside Bryant-Denny Stadium. He tends to target more receivers at home.
- Trust his Feet- He does have 279 rushing yards and five touchdowns, but Sims doesn’t channel his athletic abilities too often. Sims wants to become a polished passer; however, he has to take chances with his feet if Auburn leaves openings in the middle of the field. Sims converted third downs with his feet against LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee. All conversions in those games resulted in scores.
- Communication- Communication is important both in life and football. Sims has to make the right calls on the field. Turnovers occur when there is a mishap in communication.
- Running Backs
- J. Yeldon- Yeldon (ankle/foot) has participated fully in practice this week. He’s led all running backs through drills. Expect him to receive a bulk of the carries against Auburn. Yeldon has 758 rushing yards and six scores. He’s totaled 36 carries for 179 yards and two touchdowns against Auburn in his career.
- Derrick Henry- The sophomore has earned a right to play in this game. He’s registered 682 yards rushing and leads all back with seven touchdowns. Henry excels at falling forward after contact. He’s demonstrated power, speed and vision this season.
- Tyren Jones- Jones provided a spark for Alabama’s offense against Western Carolina. He’s an elusive back that also runs with power. He averaged 6.8 yards per carry against the Catamounts and totaled 75 rushing yards. Jones will receive playing time against Auburn.
- BALL SECURITY- This word is in all caps for a reason and it will stay in this form until Alabama understands the concept. The Crimson Tide’s backs must protect the football. Auburn will go for the strip a lot Saturday. The Tiger’s defense is playing with nothing to lose. Alabama’s backs have to pick up yards, but quickly go down and secure the ball.
- Receiving Corps
- Amari Cooper- A bruised left knee kept him out against Western Carolina, but Cooper will have a national stage Saturday to do something special. He is tied for first all-time in career receptions (D.J. Hall) with 194. Cooper has 90 catches for 1,349 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. Alabama has to get Cooper the ball early and often against Auburn.
- DeAndrew White- A hamstring injury sidelined White last week, but he will play against Auburn. White has been huge for Alabama down the stretch. He has 30 receptions for 319 yards and two touchdowns. White is one of Alabama’s savvier route runners. He has to provide Sims with a second option against the Tigers secondary.
- Chris Black- Expect to see Black if ArDarius Stewart can’t go Saturday. He is too talented to keep off the field. Black led Alabama’s receiving corps with six catches for 101 yards against Western Carolina. He is a smooth runner with good hands.
- J. Howard- Howard has to man up this week. Brian Vogler is questionable with stretched ligaments in his right knee. Howard has to seal the edge in the run game, as well as provide Sims with a target through the air. Howard has been inconsistent, but he can make it up with a solid performance against Auburn.
- Special Teams
- Field position- Alabama’s JK Scott has been stellar this season. He’s pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line 23 times. Scott has to force Auburn to drive the length of the field. He’s averaged 48.6 yards per punt.
- Placekicking- It’s been inconsistent, but Alabama’s kicking game has to be flawless Saturday. Adam Griffith has made 12 of 18 kicks (66.7 percent). Walk-on Gunnar Raborn made two of three field goal attempts against Western Carolina.
- Coverage- Corey Grant and Quan Bray both are lethal for Auburn in the return game. Bray has two punt returns for touchdowns this season. Alabama has to cover kicks well and force the Tigers to start in rough field position.
Alabama has dominated its opposition in the second quarter, outscoring it 163-43. The Crimson Tide loves to start fast, but it must also finish strong. Auburn enjoys the fourth quarter, outscoring its opponents 100-41.
Third down conversions can be an overrated stat, but it will be crucial Saturday. Both teams have excelled on third down this season. Alabama’s converted 53 percent, while Auburn has moved the chains 55 percent of the time. Offense scores points, but defense wins games. Alabama’s third down defense has been solid, allowing conversions 35 percent of the time. Auburn has held its opposition to a 36 percent conversion rating on third down.
Saturday will bring another exciting matchup in this hostile rivalry. Third down offense/defense and execution on plays will be important, but turnover battle has a role also. The team that has minimal mistakes will come away with a victory. Auburn looks to spoil Alabama’s season. Alabama has its dreams in front of them. If the Crimson Tide can well execute on the items listed above, Alabama will capture an Iron Bowl victory