football-fbs flag

Josh Vitale | The Montgomery Advertiser | November 22, 2018

Auburn prepping for Alabama offense unlike any it has seen in recent Iron Bowls

AUBURN — Normally, Auburn players have a 24-hour rule. That's 24 hours to celebrate a win or lament a loss, 24 hours to take note of what went right and correct what went wrong. Then, they're supposed to move onto the next game.

Deshaun Davis didn't break that rule this week; he just changed it. The dust had barely settled after Auburn's blowout 53-0 victory on Saturday before the senior linebacker turned on the film of Alabama.

"It was like 24 minutes," he said. "I kind of jumped into it, man, and I'm excited to play this game Saturday."

RELATED: Colleges most represented on 2018 NFL rosters 

There is a lot to prepare for when it comes to this particular Iron Bowl. The No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide play a brand of offense unlike any the Tigers have seen in recent meetings with their cross-state rival.

Nick Saban lifted Alabama to the top of college football's hierarchy with a bruising run game and a consistently dominant defense. The Crimson Tide have both this season — it ranks 18th nationally averaging 5.4 yards per carry on offense and third surrendering just 13.1 points per game on defense.

What the Crimson Tide also has this season, though, is a ruthlessly efficient passing attack. Alabama ranked 62nd nationally in passing yards per game in 2015, 87th in 2016 and 91st in last season. This year, it ranks seventh averaging 328 yards per game despite averaging only 27.9 attempts per game, which ranks 95th.

"In the past, there were times where you knew if you stopped the run, you would be successful," senior Auburn defensive tackle Dontavius Russell said. "But I think they're a little more balanced, and it just presents that much more of a challenge."

The difference, of course, is quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who has completed 69.2 percent of his passes for 2,865 yards and 31 touchdowns (to just two interceptions) despite spending most fourth quarters watching from the bench.

"He's got a unique skill set and he's very impressive to watch on film," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "You can tell they feel like they can call anything and he'll make it right, and most of the time he does it."

That's what Auburn will be up against Saturday at in Tuscaloosa.

"I think a lot of people fear the logo of Alabama," Davis said. "They go out and they execute at an extremely high level. They dominate their opponent. But sometimes you can see from the first play of the game, some teams are defeated. That's just something that we can't afford to do going in Saturday. I can tell you right now, they don't need any help."

MORE: College football weekly TV schedule and game times | Scoreboard

FOUR-DOWN TERRITORY

1. Tua: Not much else really needs to be said. "He needs no introduction," as Davis put it earlier this week. Statistically, he'll be the best quarterback Auburn has faced this season by a wide margin. Tagovailoa's name isn't at the top of the FBS leaderboards in terms of volume (his 2,865 yards rank 17th), but it is in pretty much everything else — he's eighth in completion percentage (69.2), seventh in touchdowns (31), and first in both yards per attempt (12.1) and quarterback rating (212.2). Auburn's pass defense has allowed the last four SEC quarterbacks it has faced (Tennessee's Jarrett Guarantano, Ole Miss' Jordan Ta'amu, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond and Georgia's Jake Fromm), throw for at least 210 yards and a touchdown while averaging at least 6.9 yards per completion, and Tagovailoa is averaging 277.4 yards and nearly three passing touchdowns per game against conference competition.

2. Committee approach: Like Auburn, Alabama goes into the final week of the regular season without a running back who has rushed for more than 700 yards. But that's not because the Crimson Tide have struggled on the ground — its because it has so many different mouths it can feed. Damien Harris has rushed 108 times for 678 yards and seven scores, Najee Harris 91 times for 639 yards and four scores, and Josh Jacobs 81 times for 384 yards and nine scores. Both Harrises are averaging more than 6.2 yards per carry. Even Tagovailoa is averaging more than 4.5 yards on the ground, and he has four rushing touchdowns on 41 attempts. As a team, Alabama ranks 29th nationally and third in the SEC averaging 213.5 yards per game and has rushed for at least 200 yards seven times in 11 games. Auburn surrenders 142.3 yards per game on average but has given up more than 200 three times over its last five SEC games.

3. Bend but don't break: Auburn's defense has allowed a few of its opponents this season to have good statistical performances through the ground and on the air, as noted above. But despite surrendering a good bit of yards (350.6 per game compared to 319.4 last year), the Tigers have been very stingy when it comes to giving up points. They have a top-10 scoring defense after shutting out Liberty last week — the program's first shutout of an FBS program since 2008 — and are allowing only 16.6 points per game. They're especially stout in the red zone, where they have surrendered just nine touchdowns on 31 drives (that 29 percent touchdown rate ranks second nationally). Auburn has lost four games but has yet to allow any opponent score more than Georgia's 27 points on offense (seven of Tennessee's 30 scored on a defensive touchdown). Continuing that against Alabama would be quite the feat — the Crimson Tide rank third nationally averaging 48.7 points per game on offense and have scored fewer than 39 points just twice (a 29-0 win over LSU and 24-0 win over Mississippi State, two teams the Tigers lost to). Alabama's average margin of victory this season has been 35.6 points.

MORE: Only four undefeated teams remain in FBS | Rivals look to play CFP spoiler this week

4. Experience to draw on: Clearly, slowing that offense and competing with No. 1 Alabama will be a tall task for Auburn. No team has done it this year. But the Tigers do have experience they can lean on. The Crimson Tide entered last year's Iron Bowl undefeated, ranked No. 1 in the College Football Playoff Rankings and favored to win the game, and Auburn pulled off a 26-14 upset to win the SEC West. A lot of the players that helped the Tigers win that game — Davis, Russell, quarterback Jarrett Stidham, wide receiver Ryan Davis — are still key cogs for this year's Auburn team. That aftermath of that victory at Jordan-Hare will serve as motivation for Auburn, too — Alabama lost that game by double digits and did not play in the SEC Championship Game, but still earned a spot in the playoff and went on to win the national championship. The Tigers have not been as good overall this season and have no hope of achieving those heights this season, but they could put a dent in their rival's hopes with another upset win.

KEY MATCHUP

Auburn's defensive backs vs. Alabama's wide receivers

Tagovailoa has been virtually unstoppable passing the ball this season, and a lot of the credit for his success needs to go to a wide receiving corps brimming with explosive playmakers. Each of Alabama's top five receivers — Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs III, Irv Smith Jr. and DeVonta Smith — are averaging at least 18 yards per catch and have scored at least four touchdowns. No team in the country has more passing plays of 50 or more yards than the Crimson Tide's 14. That puts a lot of pressure on the Auburn secondary, which has been burned at times this season. The Tigers allow only 6.5 yards per attempt (34th nationally) and have 12 interceptions (22nd), but they have surrendered 19 passes of 30 or more yards this season and have let two quarterbacks (Guarantano and Ta'amu) top 300 yards passing. Auburn's secondary will need to keep the top on the coverage to avoid having those receivers break open the game.

BY THE NUMBERS

10: Seasons that have passed since Auburn last won two consecutive Iron Bowls. The Tigers won six straight from 2002-07 but have won just three since — 2010, 2013 and 2017.

11.3: Miles that separate Auburn wide receiver Seth Williams' high school, named after Paul W. Bryant, from Bryant-Denny Stadium. Williams will be playing in his backyard on Saturday, though he insists it's "just another game."

11.4: Williams' yard per target in the passing game this season, which leads Auburn's receiving corps. The true freshman has caught 24 of 42 targets for 479 yards and five touchdowns and is coming off the first 100-yard game of his career against Liberty.

15: Tackles for loss Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams has this season, which ranks second in the SEC. "He's got a gift," Malzahn said.

90: Rushing yards on 24 carries that Auburn running back JaTarvious has in three games since the bye week. Malzahn said he's "healthy and ready to go" this week after dealing with an ankle injury during the last month.

MORE: 9 winningest programs in college football history | All-time best win percentages

PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Nick Coe — BUCK, So., 6-5, 282

After missing last week's win over Liberty with a right wrist injury suffered at Georgia, Auburn's top pass-rusher has been cleared to play against Alabama (albeit with what Malzahn described as "some kind of apparatus" on his right arm). That's big news for the Tigers, who will need all the help they can muster to get into the backfield at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Alabama has allowed only 48 tackles for loss and 10 sacks this season, totals which rank as the 13th- and 10th-fewest in the country, respectively. Coe has been Auburn's biggest threat from that Buck spot, as he leads the team with 13 1/2 tackles for loss and seven sacks despite playing in just 10 of the team's 11 games.

PREDICTION

It is a rivalry game, so anything could happen Saturday. The history of the Iron Bowl has shown that. But this Alabama team has looked unbeatable all season. Its most competitive win was a 24-0 decision over Mississippi State two weeks ago, and that came against a team Auburn lost to 23-9. The Tigers have never quit through their struggles this season, and their defense is good enough that they shouldn't get run off the field, but the offense simply hasn't shown that it is good enough to keep pace with the Tagovailoa-led Crimson Tide attack. Auburn hasn't won in Tuscaloosa since Cam Newton was quarterback in 2010, and that doesn't change Saturday. Alabama 34, Auburn 10.

This article is written by Josh Vitale from The Montgomery Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.