Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The 2014 Iron Bowl Preview

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Hard to believe it's almost been a year since the fateful November 30th showdown, which may go down as the most amazing ending is the modern sports era. Yet, Revenge Week is only 2.5 weeks away. As an Auburn fan, the past few weeks have been extremely sobering, changing my outlook on Auburn football. Though I call this part of my blog The Auburn Realist, I let the hype leading into the 2014 season get the better of me. Like many, if not most, Auburn fans, the unrealized expectations have destroyed our outlook on 2014, even with the most important game still ahead.

Way back when, I had a series of posts called The Waayyy Too Early Predictions. In this series of posts, I said that Auburn would have 1 loss going into the Iron Bowl 2014, suffered at the hands of the UGA Bulldogs. While they did assuage the guilt of handing the Tigers a miracle finish in 2013 by destroying Auburn in Athens, I didn't see (nor many people) the losses against Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Certainly many people expected State to be a good team, as Prescott came along late in the year. By the time of the showdown in Starkville, people were well aware that the State team was much better than anticipated. But many people thought TAMU would take a series step back in 2014. And while they did loose a 3 game set, the introduction of Kyle Allen has kick started this team. Yet, no one saw Auburn laying the proverbial egg at home against TAMU. 

So, Auburn will limp into the Iron one of the bigger failures in the 2014 college football season, up there with UCLA, which I predicted in my Top 10 Teams as the most overrated team in America. While I could wax poetic about the how and why of Auburn's skid, we all came here to talk about the Iron Bowl. 

Here is what I had to say way back before the season kicked off in my Waay Too Early Predictions: Iron Bowl. The edges in the matchups between the Auburn and Alabama units have both swung back towards Alabama. As much as I love a good chuckle, and I had several when I wrote The Tide Name Starting QB, I have to admit that I am blown away by Sims' play. It's amazing to me that he continues to be under-appreciated, even by Tide fans. If OJ Howard would have made an actual attempt to catch the ball in The Grove, Bama would be undefeated right now. While the RB tandem (or triple attack?) has been "Meh" for most of the year, Amari Cooper has taken up the slack in impressive fashion. How Bama can manage to get 2 kids in 10 years with such talent on the outside...well....because Saban, I reckon. On defense, the Tide has been good enough. When they put their 100% effort into preparation, they have destroyed competition. But, I have to point out that in the three most impressive wins (Tennessee, Florida, TAMU), these teams went on to start a different QB and found immediate and lasting success. Regardless, they have been solid and have lived up to the billing, though not quite the electric units that won Alabama's last few titles. So, yes, the defense is great. Infallible? No. 

Auburn, however, started out the season just as they needed to do. The offense looked like it was going to live up to it's Cloud 9 billing behind the Unstoppable Marshall. Duke Williams was exactly who we thought he would be. After the LSU game, it appeared that both the Auburn units had evolved into exactly what was needed to make a playoff run. That ended on the first snap of the Mississippi State game. Though Auburn rebounded off the bye week to beat Ole Miss, neither team were truly who they were in the first half of the season. When TAMU came to town, both units looked completely out of synch. Although the offense found success in the second half, penalties and fumbled cost the game. Completely overlooked by most people was the fact that the defense was incapable of stopping opposing offenses, but it wasn't completely obvious since the offense kept the game close. By the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, it was obvious that the Auburn team was a complete shell of the high expectation laden team from September. It was simply the worst game I have watched Auburn play, because I know what this team is capable of and where it SHOULD be. The loss caused me to look back over the early season. What it showed was a defense that was in retrograde from week 1. Over the past 12 weeks, the defense has not only been unable to win 1-on-1 battles, but has lost all fundamentals and discipline. 

And how about those special teams? Bama still struggles kicking field goals. Auburn has had trouble holding on to the ball during returns. 

So this game is in Bryant-Denny, as you all well know. Across the country, people cringe at the thought of playing in BDS, but the average football fan (heck, average Alabama fan as well)  discounts the fact that Auburn is 5-2 while playing in BDS. That isn't a bad record to have, all things considered. This is why I wrote House of Cards some months back. 

Now, I won't lie to you: Auburn looked like a different team in the preseason. Before the first snap was taken, Auburn looked to be a sizeable favorite over Alabama. Only the fact that Auburn was playing in BDS against Nick Saban kept this game from looking like the first major underdog fight while under the modern Saban. After the first few weeks of the season, it appeared that I was going to be dead-on. But Bama has improved each week and Auburn his slid. 

It's an interesting dynamic because both teams have multiple modes of motivation. Both have pride/revenge at stake. But Bama has something more to play for, which makes things very interesting. Last year was all about making it to Atlanta for both teams, though Auburn was still smarting off of an epi beat down in BDS. While Bama still has that in front of them, they surely look to rebound from Kick 6. Auburn, on the other hand, finds it in a spoiler situation....a desperate place to be for a team that had final 4 aspirations. As formerly stated, this game is so similar to the 2009 Iron Bowl, except for the location. Alabama was all but headed to Atlanta, regardless of what became of the Iron Bowl. Auburn was riding a 5-7 game slide after starting the year hot. Riding the motivation, Auburn jumped out to a huge first half lead. After halftime, the lead slowly deteriorated and Bama won in the waning minutes. 

The differences between those two Auburn teams comes down to the over all talent. Auburn's offense had begun to struggle because of the lack of depth of playmakers and the lack of a dynamic player in the backfield. While Ben Tate was and still is an NFL-caliber back, he was not a threat to house a run on any play. And, if it was 3rd and short, you knew where the ball was going. This Auburn team has as talented a group of playmakers as they have ever fielded, but has been plagued as of late with penalties and costly turnovers. 

On defense, the 2014 squad is deeper in overall talent, but something is simply missing. Obviously the lack of a pass rush is the overall catalyst for the lack of production. It's just the "why" of it that baffles all of us. Sure, Dee Ford leaving for the NFL combined with Lawson's and Whitaker's injuries had expected drawbacks, but where is the freshman standout Adams? Where is Gabe Wright, who came on so hot at the end of 2013? While the 4 Horsemen of the Sackocalpyse never showed up, why has the tackling been so poor? Where is the dynamic player, Therezie? So many of these seniors who have had such fabulous careers to this point have been silent on the field. One has to question the coaching, but despite the constant flux of coordinators since Tuberville left the Plains, Auburn's defense has been poor.  

Let's match them up.

Auburn's Defense vs Alabama's Offense
Same verse, different year. Though Alabama isn't quite the between the tackles running team it has been in the past, Henry and Yeldon are still terrific backs that offer different complements of skills. Perhaps the most underrated back of the bunch is Fowler, who seems to sneak in a critical TD in every meaningful game. Just when defenses key in on the back and their respective running style, Sims hits Fowler for a big gainer. But, overall, this team isn't the same units of old that could (and would) line up and run it for 11-of-14 play drives. On the outside, the Bama receiving core has been very quiet behind Cooper, though they feature Christian Jones and DeAndrew White, who would be top flight players on any spread team. Though they certainly do great things with the ball in their hands, they don't see it often enough. Cooper, on the other hand, has to have over 6 catches a game. The stat is, Bama wins when he has 6 or more touches. If you limit him, you limit the Tide's ability to stretch the field. Any time you can force an offense to play multiple 3rd downs per drive, you will eventually win some....even through blind luck. But, this Bama offense makes its hay with Sims' ability to run, which is something they haven't had in the past. He isn't the best runner, but let's not forget he has had some 40+ runs this year. I don't put him in the category of Marshall, who can pick up a 1st down against all odds, but when it's there, he can make it. Overall, this unit is more balanced, which gives it an edge. But, shutting down Cooper could be a gamebreaker. 

Throughout the back half of the year, Johnathan Jones has emerged as the Tiger's top coverage man. He has done extremely well against some of the prototypical WRs in the SEC like Treadwell(Ole Miss) and Wilson(Mississippi State). He did so without having veteran Jermaine Whitehead to help, who returned last week but had fairly negligible impact. Then again, the Auburn secondary did little aside from miss open field tackles against Chubb and Gurley. Whitehead is a good player, and with 2 games, he should be back into form. This is a big deal when trying to cover a guy like Cooper. The only way to stop him is to roll coverage to his side to prevent down field throws, and to have sure tackles on the bubble screens. Auburn can handle the former, but I am not sure about the latter. With what I have seen so far, I tend to doubt it. Regardless of if it is Jones or Mincy who line up, they must be nearly perfect...even in run support. Auburn's corners have been terrible at getting off of perimeter blocks. 

As we have stated, Auburn has been unable to find a pass rush. They have mixed and matched down linemen in every conceivable way, brought edge blitzes, even gone to a 3 man front against UGA (which I still don't get) to free up more LBs. The outcome has been the same regardless of the personnel. Auburn is in the bottom of QB pressure in all the nation. That is a major issue against mobile QBs, but even more so against QBs who are patient and unwilling to make bad decisions, as Sims has shown to be. Sims hasn't been perfect, but he has been good enough to sit in the pocket and wait for openings. As I mentioned above, he is scary when he runs. Let's recall that he is a former RB, after all. It's his ability to bail on a 3rd and long throw and scramble for a first down that should worry Ellis Johnson. But, as I pointed out...Auburn doesn't have to shut down the Tide completely. It just needs to do it a few times and hope the offense shows up. Speaking of....

Auburn's Offense vs Alabama's Defense
I guess it's easy for us Auburn fans to have the last two games stuck in our heads and forget who is on the sidelines. Well, let me take that back...lets add the Mississippi State game to the mix. The last time we saw a Malzahn offense struggle this much was in 2011, which was a unit completely depleted of talent. That unit struggled moving the chains, not having game blowing fumbles. It's no secret that in the 3 Auburn losses, Auburn has committed some mind-blowing mistakes. However, it was the UGA game that was particularly scary. It was the first time that a Malzahn-led offense simply crumbled. It looked like 2012 all over again, leading many fans to question whether this Tiger Team was already headed for the exits. 

After a first drive TD, the Auburn offense was simply awful, from the drops to the redzone interception that sealed the game. In the other two losses (and even going back past years), you always had a little hope that the offense could flip a switch and score enough points to win. After the UGA game, fans such as myself lost faith that outscoring anyone was an option. Against Bama, you need all of those dynamic play makers operating at a high level. You must make Smart and Saban account for everything. In the back half of the season, Auburn has not been operating near that level. Duke is out. Sammie isn't full speed and has been unable to catch pedestrian throws. Corey Grant has been a complete non-factor in 2014, which has been a startling development. Louis still can't catch a ball, so when he is in the game, rest assured that it's probably a reverse or jet sweep. Meanwhile, guys like Ray and Marcus Davis, who have been clutch continue to sit the bench. Take Roc Thomas as another example. He has been amazing when he is in the game....which is about 3 plays. CAP has been terrific, but Auburn's inability to throw the ball has limited him, big time. 

Additionally, Auburn's line has really struggled in the last few weeks in pass protection. Though there were multiple holds called against UGA, there were so many holds that weren't called. If they struggled against TAMU and UGA, there is little chance of stopping the star-studded Tide defense. The Bama front 7 are truly amazing. I wouldn't be surprised if all of them, and their backups, play some NFL ball. 

I have to confess something that will seem like blasphemy. Malzahn has built a reputation as being an offensive genius. A man who revolutionizes the game. This year has looked nothing like that. I sometimes wonder if he is becoming a victim of his own success. It seems like he found success from innovative play calls and has continued to ride those same plays, even when opposing defenses have figured them out. After all, the SEC has the best defensive minds in the game. If you quit being innovative, they will figure you out. After all, if I can guess the play 80% of the time, I am sure the defensive coordinator can as well. Malzahn has done an exceptional job in the past with finding his offense's identity and playing to it. This unit looks like it has been pressed into an assumed identity. 

But, if there is anyone who can circle one game on a schedule, review and analyze an opponent and put together a strategy, Gus is the man. It will be  ragged edge, very similar to the 2009 Iron Bowl when his play calling in the first half blew the doors off the Tide. He is certainly capable of doing that. The 2014 Tide defense is great, but it is not as good as the 2009 unit, which struggled against a Gus at his best. 

What does he have to do to win in BDS? This Tide defense is built to attack downhill between the tackles. It is made to stuff runs up the middle. The secondary is built to defend against deep throws, using athleticism to break on it, or to ball-hawk errant throws due to pressure. As we saw last year, they do not play well against perimeter passing, ironically the exact offense they field against their foes with Cooper. If Auburn can get Bray, Louis, and Coates involved with quick hits to the outside, it will discombobulate the defense just enough to open up the rest of Auburn's game. Marshall hasn't been nearly the threat he was last year, mainly because the defense has been able to stop the run game, which defenses could not do in 2013. Marshall excels as a "second fiddle" runner and not as a primary weapon. 

In summation, the Auburn offense has to be perfect to win against the Tide in BDS, a tall order. All the Tide defense needs to be is "good." 

Special Teams hasn't had much of any kick return game. They have muffed punts and dropped kickoffs. They've had shanked punts.  They have had blocked field goals for TDs. They let Gurley return one on them last week, which was called back. Wouldn't it be sweet revenge to beat Auburn in the kicking game? At least Auburn has a field goal kicker. Bama has proven that it can make you pay for kicking game mishaps, a la LSU. Honestly, Alabama has the edge here simply because of the sheer amount of kicking errors Auburn has had in 2014. 

Players of the Game
Mincy/Jones-Whoever is playing on Cooper must have the game of their life. That means in pass coverage, tackling, and getting off blocks. The later is something that the Auburn secondary have been unable to do. 

Frost/McKinzy-Talk about pressure. All they have to do is stuff the run, or watch Yeldon/Fowler/Henry out of the backfield, keep OJ Howard from going up the seams, or stop Sims from running. No problems there, right? The issue is that they have struggled with ALL of these things. They were unable to pick up Evan Engram, the Ole Miss TE nor the TEs from Arkansas in the opener. They couldn't stop Prescott up the middle even when they knew it was coming. Against big backs like Henry, they have shown a knack for avoiding every down contact. Now we are asking them to do all of these things plus take on Yeldon who is as dangerous out of the backfield as anyone. But, hey, anything is possible. 

The Auburn Offensive Line-Alabama is a force in the front 7. Auburn has struggled down the stretch against even bottom rung SEC defensive lines like TAMU, who surprised everyone against the Tigers. If Auburn is to win, they must play above their pay grade against future NFL talent. That's a tough duty for anyone.  If they can improve in the next week, they will give Auburn's playmakers their chances to win this game. Something they CAN do. 

Auburn still owns Alabama at BDS. That may not stand for much to most people, but it does to me.  Before the season began, I thought this was a LOCK for Auburn. I'm glad I didn't bet on it. The drop in production for both sides of the ball for Auburn has been mystifying while the Tide seem to be peaking at the right moment, shades of 2013 except the teams are reversed. I think the perception is that people think Auburn will be doing good to keep the spread under 21, due to the poor performances in previous weeks. As we have seen with Alabama, they struggle mightily against teams that they believe are inferior. If the Tide prepares and carries the mindset that this is truly a revenge game AND an elimination game, I don't see how Auburn can win. But, let's not discount the possibility of the Tide looking forward a week to a tough game in Atlanta.  It's the Iron Bowl and anything can happen. 
Bama 35-17