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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Iron Bowl breakdown

We did another collaborative preview capsule for this week's game. I took the Auburn half. Michael Casagrande of the Decatur Daily took the Alabama half. Here's what we came up with:

No. 2 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC) at Auburn (7-4, 3-4 SEC)

  • Where: Auburn, Ala.
  • When: 2:30 p.m. ET, CBS
  • Last meeting: Alabama 36, Auburn 0, Nov. 29, 2008, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Auburn: Auburn's passing game continues to play Jekyll and Hyde even this late in the season. Quarterback Chris Todd looked unstoppable in the first quarter against Georgia two weeks ago, throwing for two touchdowns. But Georgia clamped down the rest of the game, intercepting Todd twice in the second half. The Tigers normally strong offensive line allowed three sacks. Still, the Tigers have been productive through the air this season. Todd has 19 touchdowns to only five interceptions and receiver Darvin Adams (44 catches, 717 yards) is tied for the SEC lead in receiving touchdowns with nine.

Alabama: After a midseason lull that nearly brought the offense to a standstill, Greg McElroy and company are beginning to round back into form for the final push. Also hitting his stride is Julio Jones. Slowed by a knee injury early in the season, Jones has touchdown receptions in each of the past three games, including the game-winning 74-yarder against LSU. McElroy has struggled with accuracy at times, but he isn’t leaned upon in the clutch. As long as he can continue avoiding big mistakes, find Jones when coverage breaks down and gets the ball the running backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, the Tide should be fine.

Edge: Auburn
Auburn: Ben Tate's statement that he was the best running back in the state raised some eyebrows in Tuscaloosa, but the senior has put together quite a season. Tate has 1,209 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, nearly doubling his output from last season. Auburn can go with Mario Fannin (8.3 yards per carry) as a backup or the speedy Onterio McCalebb, who hopes to be back at full strength from a nagging ankle injury. Whoever the runner, the Tigers have had success behind an offensive line featuring left tackle Lee Ziemba and center Ryan Pugh. Auburn's rushing attack is ranked 11th nationally, averaging 219.6 yards per game.

Alabama: The Tide running game would be scary with Ingram alone. But add the slippery but powerful freshman Trent Richardson and Alabama’s backfield has options. Even if one isn’t on top of his game, the other has an ability to be equally effective. For Ingram, the Heisman Trophy candidate is only getting stronger as the season progresses. Closing in on the single-season rushing record, the sophomore needs just 72 yards to pass Bobby Humphrey for the mark. The addition of the Wildcat offense only added to Ingram’s effectiveness, as defenses have struggled to stop him even when they know what’s coming.

Edge: Alabama
Auburn: Depth remains a major issue for Auburn's front seven, particularly with linebacker Eltoro Freeman's status in doubt with the sophomore dealing with an ankle injury. The Tigers rank 10th in the SEC and 88th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 169.7 yards per game, and their pass rush has been mediocre, getting to the quarterback on average two times a game. Defensive end Antonio Coleman, who leads the league with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss, hopes to do better than last year in Tuscaloosa, when he assisted on only three tackles and had one pass break-up.

Alabama: Experience dominates this unit. Five of the seven are seniors and Rolando McClain is an experienced junior. Only freshman Nico Johnson is an Iron Bowl rookie. With that experience and considerable talent, the front seven regularly manhandles the opposition. It is instrumental in the Tide defense’s No. 2 ranking against the run and 28 total sacks. Nose guard Terrence Cody, a finalist for several postseason awards, draws double teams nearly every week, freeing up the All-American McClain to rack up a team-high 84 tackles.

Edge: Alabama
Auburn: The Tigers avoided facing star Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green, who left the game two weeks ago with a shoulder injury, but they still got beat up. Cornerback Neiko Thorpe has made a habit of getting beat deep recently, watching as Georgia completed passes of 50 and 47 yards against him. Cornerback Walt McFadden is the veteran of the group, tied for fourth in the SEC in interceptions with four. But the two safeties — Daren Bates and Demond Washington — are rookies, making them a ripe matchup for Jones.

Alabama: Once seen as a potential pitfall, the Tide defensive backfield has developed into one of its biggest weapons. Mark Barron leads the SEC in interceptions (6) and passes defended (1.45 per game). Alabama’s 18 interceptions are tied with Florida for the league lead. The backs also have been known to blitz the quarterback. All four of cornerback Javier Arenas’ sacks have come at critical moments and his open-field tackling has shown steady improvement.

Edge: Alabama
Auburn: Washington gave the Tigers' maligned return game a boost against Georgia, taking a fourth-quarter kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown and breaking the school's single-game return record in the process. He figures to return both kicks and punts again. Clinton Durst is coming off his best game this season, when he averaged 48.0 yards per punt at Georgia. And place-kicker Wes Byrum, although he hit doinked in a field goal off the upright in Athens, is still 14-for-15 on the year.

Alabama: It’s been a banner year for nearly all of Alabama’s special teams. Issues, though, remain in kickoff coverage that regularly costs the Tide in the field position battle and twice meant six points for the opposition. When receiving kicks and punts, Alabama is equally dangerous. Arenas’ seven punt returns for touchdowns is an SEC record and he’s reliable when catching punts in traffic. Kicker Leigh Tiffin, one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, makes 89.3 percent of his kicks (25-of-28) and has accounted for 109 Alabama points this season.

Edge: Alabama
Auburn: Gene Chizik has been a part of three Iron Bowls and never lost. But that was as a defensive coordinator back from 2002-04. Being the head coach is different. Already this year, Chizik has coached a team to a victory against Tennessee in Knoxville and taken down a ranked opponent at home when Auburn dispatched then-No. 24 Ole Miss on Halloween. But the Crimson Tide presents a much larger challenge.

Alabama: Nick Saban has a two-year head start on Chizik in the battle for state supremacy. He out-recruited Chizik's predecessor on the recruiting trail and the benefits were evident on the scoreboard last year. Head coaching experience is invaluable in this rivalry and Saban simply has more of it right now.

Edge: Alabama
Mark Ingram vs. Auburn's linebackers. The Heisman Trophy candidate has been effective at gaining yards after contact, meaning Auburn's linebacking trio will need to be sound with its tackling, something that's been a problem for most of the year. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens rank 1-2 on the Tigers' list of tacklers, but with Freeman's status in doubt, true freshman Jonathan Evans might be thrust into a starting role, becoming an instant target for a Tide rushing attack averaging 225.6 yards per game.

Ben Tate vs. Alabama's front seven. Few teams have had success running the ball at the heart of Alabama's No. 2 nationally-ranked run defense, where Cody clogs the line for McClain to dart in and make tackles. But Auburn's offense is predicated on running the ball, so the Tigers won't abandon it altogether. Look for Tate to try to get to the perimeter (he's deceptively fast) and force the Crimson Tide's outside linebackers Eryk Anders and Cory Reamer to make plays.
Casagrande: Alabama 23, Auburn 13

Bitter: Alabama 31, Auburn 13

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