Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Auburn Realist: Waaaay to Early Predictions for 2014 Part 4: The Iron Bowl

The Auburn Realist

You can find links to all of my Auburn Realist Blog posts here.
The Auburn Realist: Overview

In case you missed our Waaaayyy Too Early Predictions for the first 1/3 of the season, take some time to go read it. Then make a comment or two!

Then, go read Waaaayyy Too Early Predictions Part 2. 
Then, go read Waaaayyy Too Early Predictions Part 3. 
You get the idea.

So, I have predicted that Auburn would suffer a loss at the hands of Georgia just one short week from the Mother of All Rematches. Again, I must stipulate that everything is subject to change. And, honestly, if Auburn's defense performs like we THINK it will, especially the 4 Horsemen of the Sackocalypse, then Auburn could very well enter the Iron Bowl undefeated and seeking a berth in both the SEC Championship and a highly coveted spot in the new football playoffs. 

On the other sideline will stand an Alabama Crimson Tide team who will also be sporting a loss from earlier in the season, most likely to LSU. Depending on how it all shakes out, this game could very well determine who represents the West in the SEC Championship. I don't see LSU making it through undefeated either, so it will possibly come down to the head-to-head wins. 

So Alabama comes into this season without a returning QB for the first time since McElroy graduated and left the team in the hands of McCarron, who went on to win 2 National Titles. We have all been so quick to judge the current roster of QBs at Alabama as insufficient. But what did we all think after McElroy departed? Honestly, I can't remember it really being much of a cause of concern. Yet, this year it seems to be the biggest question in all of College football. The QB position under Saban has never been about "winning games." Don't get me wrong, I hate the term "game manager." I never really thought McCarron ever fit that category. I think it was easy to judge him and think of him in those terms because of the talent that surrounded him at Bama...and the type QBs being found around the SEC including Cam Newton and Nick Marshall, just some 100 odd  miles away. I mean, he did everything he was asked, including a 99 yard TD in last year's Iron Bowl, which I was SURE won him the Heisman.

And, as many people have said, the future Tide QB isn't even on campus yet, and won't be until this summer when Coker shows up. A lot of people have pointed out that Coker, and the Bama offense, will have a pitiful few weeks to prepare for the SEC. Lots of people have written the offense off completely. Yet, how soon we forget that Auburn did just this last year. And, Alabama has a soft schedule in the front end. So, while the Tide QB will have only a few weeks to win the job, he really has until October to learn the offense. Besides, the Tide has a great set of backs and will undoubtedly feature a stout defense. 

That takes us to....

The Iron Bowl 2014 on November 29th in Tuscaloosa

Auburn enters the game 11-1. Alabama comes in 11-1. The winner will possibly head to Atlanta the following Saturday. While we all hope they are both undefeated entering this game, and we might all think that a loss for each team will cause this game to loose some luster...forget about it. This will be a Nationally Televised game simply because of the magic that was the Kick-6. But, as fans of this State know, there have been a lot more Iron Bowls than just this one. This game may prove to be the most pivotal Iron Bowl ever. Why? Though the last few years have featured two Top 10 matchups, specifically the 2010 and 2013 games, Auburn in both cases, was a Dark Horse entering the year. This will be the first year that both teams will have been Top 5 preseason teams. Add into that the hunger that Bama has to avenge themselves of the Kick-6 AND Auburn's desire to get back to the National Championship and you have two motivated teams. And, it's at BDS, which I believe is the Pinnacle of College Football facilities. 

Already, people around the country have penciled in Bama as a favorite in this game simply because of the home field advantage. But, the average football fan forgets that Bama has only beaten Auburn TWICE inside of Bryant-Denny. In each of those wins, they outscored Auburn 85-0. Those wins came in 2012 and 2008. Both of those seasons marked the end of a coaching era at Auburn. In each season, Auburn was 5-7 and 3-9, respectfully. What does that say? It tells me that Bama can only beat Auburn at home if Auburn is a dreadful team.  The 2014 team, barring any ridiculousness, will be far from dreadful. 

Let's look at strengths and weaknesses

 Bama defense against the Auburn offense.

Though Alabama continues to churn out NFL defenders, it manages to find itself right back at the top each year. There has been a common theme to the last few defenses, however. Great front seven play and questionable secondary, which has been Saban's bread and butter since he took the field as a coach. The recruits come in, but other than his first few classes of recruits, the defensive backs don't live up to the hype. Additionally, he has lost his linebacking core and will feature new players (again). How will these young players fare against Auburn? We saw last year that, despite having an NFL talent-laden linebacking core and front 4, Auburn's offensive line pushed them around, especially in the second half, to the tune of 296 yards on the ground. As state, Alabama has to replace those guys, but Auburn only looses Greg Robinson to the NFL, but has developed a scary amount of depth on the offensive line. On the outside, Alabama will struggle to match the new-found talent of "Duke" Williams and Coates. Alabama was able to keep Coates largely in check most of the game, though Marshall's inventiveness sprung him for a late touchdown in one of the most fabulous plays I have ever seen. There won't be any rolling of safeties to either side with Williams and Coates on the field together. What could be the gamebreaker is the development of Bray in the slot, which will keep the chains moving. Additionally, since Malzahn has been at Auburn, he has stung Bama with the buck sweep each and every year. This year won't be any difference, whether it will be Grant or Louis, each of which laid down sub 4.3 40s this week. Mobile QBs have also been a thorn in Saban's side, and Marshall may prove to be the ultimate dual-threat QB. Who are the only QBs to win inside of Bryant-Denny stadium? Think on that one for a minute. 

I have to give a HUGE advantage to the Tigers. Is it possible that the Auburn offense could stumble? Sure. But, it's hard to imagine. Could the Tide defense be that awesome? Sure. But, The Tide defense has ALWAYS struggled against Malzahn's offense, even without the talent.

Bama offense against the Auburn defense.

The facts are this: the Bama offense has been able to roll over the Auburn defense in the first half of the Iron Bowl, recently. Specifically the last two in BDS, Bama struck at will in 2008, 2010, and 2012. Only in 2010 did the Auburn defense manage to put a halt on the offense in the second half. Even in last year's contest, Bama was able to score at will until the last few drives in the 4th quarter. Will this year be any different? I think so. The Auburn front 4 may be the best and deepest in the country by November. The LBs have a lot of star power, but have yet to bloom into the players we all thought they would be. Auburn brings back a lot of experience in the back end, but other than Therezie, no real stars. Moncreif could be the start, shoring up the safety spot. But, can the corners deliver? The back 7 has consistently been Auburn's weakness in the last 5 years. I feel confident that the safety and star positions are going to be solid, but it will be up to the linebacking core and corners to be the difference. On the other side of the ball, Alabama will feature an offensive line that is very questionable. The last two years have seen a lot of very good talent come and go and now it faces a full turnover of starters. Will they handle the front 4 from Auburn? I don't think so. But, even a stalemate can be a win for them, considering what their skill positions look like. If Bama can get Yeldon, Drake, and Co to the second level, either with throws from the backfield or in the run game, they will be able to make hay. Georgia and Bama both did it last year, LSU with Gurley and Bama by committee. The difference is the sideline to sideline speed that Auburn will now have with Holland gone. Yet, I still think they will make a lot of yards. On the outside, Bama can churn out the yards in the air if they can get their playmakers the ball. Cooper experienced a sophomore slump and I don't see that being the case this year. Additionally, Bama has fine tight ends and other premier receivers. The only question is, who will be throwing it...and will that player be able to get around the Auburn front 4. Given the two unknowns surrounding the QB and offensive line, I have to give Auburn the nod here. 

Special Teams
This is a joke, right? Alabama STILL cannot kick field goals. This year won't be any different for the Crimson Tide. Yet, Auburn faces a similar issue in that they must replace both kickers as well. But, Auburn has recruited very well at this position. In the return game, you have to give Auburn the nod with Corey Grant anywhere on the field. He has proven to be able to take kicks to the house each and every year that he has been on campus. Who will return punts (and short field goals) remains to be seen. 

The Line 
You will all call me a 'Barner. I have given Auburn the edge in each of the categories. Yet, I really believe that this Iron Bowl, while the setup will be awesome and the game may be competitive, will ultimately not have the miracle finish we witnessed last year. The Auburn offense, especially after struggling against UGA the week before, will hit every cylinder. Expect a lot of trickeration, as this team won't be setup just the same as last year's Run First team was. This offense will be the true Malzahn offense we all expect. Additionally, the defense will give up points and a lot of yards, but will manage to do JUST ENOUGH. 

Auburn wins 27-14